Why Operation Underground Railroad Was Once Under Investigation

The surprise hit movie of 2023, "Sound of Freedom," tells the story of an ex-Homeland Security agent who, despite retiring from law enforcement, puts his life on the line in his continued mission to save children from sex trafficking rings across the globe. As several outlets have noted, the movie has, despite receiving mixed reviews, resonated with a certain portion of the population, especially those of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, which claims – among other things — that a secret cabal of elites and billionaires are trafficking children to extract the adrenochrome from their blood, which they then consume to ensure their own physical longevity.

The protagonist of "Sound of Freedom" is based on the real-life figure Tim Ballard (pictured), who, while he is not apparently directly associated with the QAnon crowd, certainly fits the mold as a potential hero of the movement. In 2013, Ballard founded Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), an organization that claims, through the deployment of "jump teams," they infiltrate child sex trafficking rings around the world and rescue kids from the clutches of traffickers. Ballard and his colleagues at O.U.R. have boasted of incredible successes in the field, and have attracted millions in funding from supportive Americans to continue their work. However, even prior to its recent lionization by conspiracy theorists, O.U.R. has long been controversial, with frequent criticisms by concerned parties regarding transparency, funding, and the ethics of their work. More striking still, O.U.R. became the subject of a criminal investigation by the Davis County Attorney's Office in Utah, the company's home state, initially on unexplained grounds.

The investigation into Operation Underground Railroad

The Davis County Attorney's Office's investigation into Operation Underground Railroad first emerged in October 2020, when a segment aired on Fox 13 News that contrasted the morally just work that O.U.R. claimed it was engaged in — rescuing vulnerable people from child traffickers — and the shock revelation that people within the organization may have engaged in criminal activity.

That report was also notable for the fact that, as it was an ongoing investigation, no details with regard to the potential wrongdoing could be broadcast. The only clue came from Davis County attorney Troy Rawlings, who, separate from his confirmation that an investigation was underway, posted a warning on Instagram that Fox 13 interpreted as being about O.U.R. It read: "Please beware of any individual, entity or organization who solicits your money and may be claiming credit for work to protect children that is actually done by our task force and/or other law-enforcement organizations in Utah and around the world. Get the details before parting with your cash ... They have had absolutely zero involvement in any of these arrests and successful prosecutions you see on display on the 'Wall of Shame' in the Davis County Attorney's Office."

And O.U.R. certainly seemed to be doing well in terms of soliciting donations, with revenues leaping from $6.9 million in 2016 to more than $47 million in 2020, according to ProPublica. However, in May 2023 the Attorney's Office announced that they had officially closed their investigation having found no evidence of criminality. 

Further controversies

It was later revealed via a declination statement obtained by Deseret News that the Davis County Attorney's Office's list of charges against Operation Underground Railroad included "communications fraud, witness tampering and retaliation against a witness, victim or informant[.]" However, the same source notes that all charges were dropped after investigators were given access to the organization's heretofore opaque funding records.

A lack of transparency concerning where exactly the millions of dollars raised in service of O.U.R. actually goes is just one of several criticisms of the self-described non-profit. The New York Times has uncovered that O.U.R.'s purported links to law enforcement agencies are often superficial at best, while in a series of investigative reports, Vice World News found that the organization had "exaggerated" its involvement in various operations, seemingly to win more adulation from potential backers.

In 2023, the same outlet revealed that Tim Ballard had been forced to step back from O.U.R., the organization that he founded, after a letter circulated within O.U.R. that accused him of misusing funds and of misconduct toward women.