Documents obtained by VICE News show anti-trafficking activist Tim Ballard claimed that a revered and powerful figure in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints played a secret, central role in Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR, the organization Ballard founded. Insiders who spoke to federal and local investigators as part of a since-closed criminal inquiry described Ballard claiming that OUR and his personal business ventures were backed by the senior member of the church’s second-highest leadership body, and part of a larger mission to use the anti-trafficking cause to bring Americans to the Mormon faith—or, in his words, “lead them to the covenant.”
“Tim is fully convinced that he is supposed to be the ‘Mormon Messiah and lead people back to the church,’” read notes from an interview between criminal investigators and a former OUR higher-up.
But now a spokesperson for the church tells VICE News that while the apostle in question, President M. Russell Ballard, was once close to Tim Ballard—to whom he is not related, despite their sharing a last name—the OUR founder “betrayed their friendship, through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and activity regarded as morally unacceptable.”
Elder Ballard’s relationship with Tim Ballard is, the church spokesperson told VICE News, “in the past.” They did not specify what activity was regarded as morally unacceptable. Tim Ballard did not respond to a detailed request for comment; OUR provided a statement which is reproduced in full below.
The unusually public denunciation of Tim Ballard is particularly newsworthy at this moment. He left OUR earlier this year following an internal investigation into employee complaints about his conduct at virtually the same moment that Sound of Freedom, a fictionalized version of his purported child-rescuing exploits, became a surprise box office hit. He has since begun promoting a new anti-trafficking organization, the SPEAR Fund.
But he is also said by many Utah insiders to be weighing a run for Senate—speculation that was given more weight by a recent statement from Sean Reyes, the Utah attorney general, who’s also a longtime friend and supporter. (Reyes wrote that he would not be running for Senate, allowing “an opportunity for a dear friend of mine who is a great conservative, patriot, and warrior to run and serve as the next Senator from Utah.” Reyes said that person would announce their run in the coming days.)
The documents, obtained by VICE News through a public-records request, are from a now-closed criminal investigation into OUR conducted jointly by a Utah county attorney and the FBI. Several people, according to the documents, described exceptionally close ties between the two Ballards. Elder Ballard, who is in his 90s, is the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, an extremely senior position within the church, and is viewed by faithful Mormons as a profound spiritual and moral authority. People familiar with OUR’s operations have previously told VICE News that Tim Ballard has sometimes claimed that Elder Ballard personally urged him to quit his previous job at Homeland Security Investigations to found OUR.
The ties between Tim Ballard and Elder Ballard described in the documents are numerous and occasionally bizarre, involving claimed business arrangements, blessings, and even a psychic who claimed to be able to communicate with the prophet Nephi, who according to the Book of Mormon has been dead for thousands of years. Allegations from a former OUR higher-up as well as text messages contained in the documents obtained by VICE News suggest that Tim Ballard and an associate represented Elder Ballard as a partner in a for-profit business called Slave Stealers, which was pitched as a way to control OUR and other non-profits. It was apparently viewed as part of a scheme that would allow Tim Ballard to monetize the notoriety he gained through his often exaggerated exploits.
Tim Ballard also claimed, according to the documents, that Elder Ballard maintained close contact with him during at least one disastrous overseas mission, which was based on information obtained by the psychic medium and aimed at rescuing a missing child. Ballard said the Mormon elder blessed him and his wife Katherine beforehand and received real-time updates from on the ground.
In response to a detailed request for comment on these matters, a spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a statement, which reads, in full:
President Ballard and Tim Ballard (no relation) established a friendship a number of years ago. That friendship was built on a shared interest in looking after God’s children wherever they are and without regard to their circumstance. However, that relationship is in the past. For many months, President Ballard has had no contact with the founder of Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). The nature of that relationship was always in support of vulnerable children being abused, trafficked, and otherwise neglected. Once it became clear Tim Ballard had betrayed their friendship, through the unauthorized use of President Ballard’s name for Tim Ballard’s personal advantage and activity regarded as morally unacceptable, President Ballard withdrew his association. President Ballard never authorized his name, or the name of the Church, to be used for Tim’s personal or financial interests.
In addition, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints never endorsed, supported or represented OUR, Tim Ballard or any projects associated with them.
President Ballard loves children, all over the world. It has been his mission and life’s work to look after them, care for them, and point them to their Savior.
In an email to Sean Reyes, the Utah attorney general, Troy Rawlings, a prosecutor in Davis County, Utah whose office carried out the now-closed investigation into OUR, wrote that he had “somewhere around 10,000 pages” of psychic readings. Those were conducted by Janet Russon, a psychic medium who “talks to dead Mormon leaders, particularly a Mormon Prophet from 600BC named Nephi, to get intel,” Rawlings wrote. (Russon declined to comment on her work with OUR when reached by VICE News; Rawlings did not respond to a request for comment.)
Rawlings made it clear that he thought donors to OUR would be dismayed by the idea that its paramilitary missions were guided by a psychic and a deceased Mormon prophet. “Donors are not made aware that Nephi, via Mr. [sic] Russon, is the key piece of O.U.R. Operational Intelligence,” he added.
Criminal investigators were interested in the nexus between Russon, Tim Ballard, and the church. One document VICE News obtained is a memo describing an interview between an FBI special agent and a Davis County investigator and a former OUR development director, whom we are not naming at her request. This person “said she had not heard that Janet was ever vetted or vouched for by the LDS church,” the memo reads. “But stated Tim blurred lines and would frequently say, ‘I told Elder Ballard all about it.'”
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Further, according to the former development director’s statements to investigators, Tim Ballard claimed that Elder Ballard was involved in Liberty 89—a business in Utah whose registered agent is Tim Ballard, according to public filings. At a meeting with Tim Ballard and a group of his associates, who claimed to have “visions and special intelligence of the second coming,” the former development director said, she was made aware that this venture had to do with God calling Tim Ballard to “restore America to the covenant.”
“Tim was very verbal about Elder Russell Ballard’s involvement,” she said. “Tim would say that M. Russell Ballard is a part of Liberty 89.”
That wasn’t the only time that Tim Ballard leaned on his friendship with Elder Ballard to suggest the Mormon leader had given his support to a project. Before the disastrous mission to locate Gardy Mardy (a missing boy whose story Tim Ballard and OUR have over the years made central to the narrative of their fight against trafficking) using intelligence gleaned from Russon, the psychic medium, Tim Ballard reported to a group of associates that Elder Ballard had blessed the operation.
“Through the whole process and all these miracles, I have reported back to Elder Ballard at least every month, sometimes more,” he said, according to an investigator’s transcript of a video recording of the meeting. “And on the way to the airport last night, I stopped by his house and Katherine and I spent about an hour with him. And he gave me a very powerful blessing.” (Katherine is Tim Ballard’s wife.)
While the mission was going on, a witness told investigators, Tim Ballard placed at least one phone call to Elder Ballard “to plan the press release of rescuing Gardy.”
Other former OUR insiders had also gotten an earful from Tim Ballard about his ties to the Mormon power structure. According to one document, in October 2020 an FBI special agent named Luke (no last name provided) and Bryan Purdy, an investigator for the Davis County Attorney’s Office, interviewed Dave Lopez, a former Navy SEAL who previously led the “ops team” at OUR.
“Tim said multiple times, ‘It’s his job to use the sizzle of the rescue to lead people back to the Mormon covenant,’” Lopez said, according to Purdy’s report. “Dave stated that according to Tim, that’s what this is all about, that’s why he’s doing all the movies and all the storytelling. He believes the Mormon Church is actually doing that with him, that Elder (M. Russell) Ballard of the Mormon Church is working with him on that secret agenda. He believes that it’s his job to be this famous kind of celebrity that gets everyone’s attention, but then in turn leads everyone to Mormonism.”
Lopez told investigators that Tim Ballard had developed a messianic view of himself. “Dave said he thinks Tim is fully convinced that he is supposed to be the ‘Mormon Messiah and lead people back to the church,'” the report reads.
Lopez’s final break with OUR, he told investigators, came when an associate of Tim Ballard’s tried to persuade him to invest in Slave Stealers, which would, according to a diagram drawn by Tim Ballard on which VICE News has previously reported, control his various non-profits, which would then promote his personal brand. “Take sizzle of the rescue, lead them to the covenant,” read a note on the diagram—an apparent reference to a plan to use OUR’s highly-publicized child-rescue missions as a way to lead Americans to the Mormon faith.
Text messages Lopez provided to investigators show an associate of Tim Ballard’s elaborating on the convoluted scheme. (VICE News is not naming the associate because he could not be reached for comment.) The texts stated that partners, including Elder Ballard, would control a for-profit entity that would have “main control of OUR”—and proposing to bring together, if necessary, Elder Ballard and a business partner of Lopez’s with whom he was planning an island development.
Slave Stealers did not, in the end, amount to much; nor, seemingly, did the plan to have it take control of OUR.
The relationship between the two Ballards, however, did not end there, according to the documents. In August 2021, Purdy, the Davis County investigator, and the FBI special agent referred to in documents only as Luke, interviewed the woman who worked as OUR’s director of development.
In that interview, the woman in question said in the 2015-2020 time frame, she repeatedly met Mormon leaders in Tim Ballard’s company. She said she met Elder Ballard, with whom Tim Ballard claimed to privately meet monthly, in the company of Tim Ballard and Elder Ronald Rasband, who within the church had authority over Haiti, an area in which OUR has operated extensively. She said had another meeting with both Ballards, and one with Rasband, Tim Ballard, and other OUR highers-up, as well as several meetings with Elder Ballard in the VIP area of OUR events.
(A church spokesperson indicated that Elder Rasband has no recollection of ever meeting with Tim Ballard or his staff.)
At a later point, the woman said that she was, in her official work capacity, brought to a meeting with Tim Ballard’s associates, where he told her that because she had “shared some spiritual things,” he could tell her about “secret things that I’m involved in.” This was the meeting at which Tim Ballard claimed Elder Ballard was involved in Liberty 89.
Per the report, the woman added that, according to Tim Ballard, “restoring America to the covenant was ‘a big mission of his (Tim)’ and he was ‘called’ of ‘God’ to do this. She added that he was, in Purdy’s retelling, “very verbal about Elder Russell Ballard’s involvement and behind it” but added “that she didn’t know if she believed that.”
For now, Ballard’s professional and political futures aren’t certain– but he has made ambitious efforts to move himself closer to a new power structure. On Wednesday, he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where he made a highly politicized statement about the Biden administration’s role in aiding human trafficking, one which proved immediately popular with right-wing news sites.
“Tragically, as a result of this administration’s current policies, [the Department of Homeland Security] and [the Department of Health and Human Services] have unwittingly become a child trafficking delivery service,” Ballard said, in part.
It’s difficult to imagine that Ballard could successfully run for elected office after being effectively denounced by the power structure of the most powerful religion in his home state. But he has proven himself, if nothing else, to be remarkably persistent, willing to reinvent himself—to spin new stories, to seek new allies—as many times as necessary.
In response to requests for comment about this story as well as another one, an OUR spokesperson sent one statement, which read as follows:
These allegations have been raised previously, written about by Vice and thoroughly investigated by the Davis County District Attorney. That investigation concluded without the filing of any charges.
Following Tim Ballard’s departure from O.U.R. three months ago, we have been working tirelessly to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our domestic and international operations.
At O.U.R., we are proud to support law enforcement in liberating any person in the grips of human trafficking or exploitation and we strive to ensure ongoing aftercare for all those affected. Our resources have contributed to the arrest of over 7,400 suspected predators and have impacted the lives of over 7,800 individuals. Currently, we are carrying out an average of five missions per week worldwide. We are committed to this important work until everyone in need is safe.