‘Sound of Freedom’ Subject Faces Criminal Investigation, Lawsuit

Since conservative audiences flocked to Sound of Freedom this summer, turning a biopic about Tim Ballard’s supposed exploits as an anti-trafficking operator into an unlikely hit, Ballard has had his heroic mythology rapidly stripped away in a series of lawsuits, formal rebukes, and dissolved relationships. But in recent days, his legal problems have gotten even worse — and now Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), the advocacy group he founded in 2013, is in the crosshairs as well.

Ballard was apparently forced out of Utah-based OUR before the premiere of the Sound of Freedom, based on information that emerged after the film’s release and his press tour — in September, reports confirmed that he left due to an internal investigation related to sexual misconduct claims. The following month, five women filed a lawsuit alleging he had sexually assaulted and emotionally abused them while they took part in OUR operations, which typically involved traveling abroad and posing as sexual predators in “sting” operations meant to catch pedophiles. A second lawsuit from an unnamed married couple claimed that such behavior between Ballard and the wife on undercover operations had caused the pair to separate. Ballard has denied these claims in statements made through another anti-trafficking organization, SPEAR Fund, that until recently listed him as a senior advisor, but no longer features him as a team member on their website.

SPEAR did not return Rolling Stone‘s request for comment, nor did Ballard.

OUR has made efforts to move on after cutting ties with Ballard, but a new lawsuit from an ex-operative targets both the group and its embattled founder. Also named in the filing is OUR’s former director of security, Matt Cooper, Ballard’s first employee there, who is likewise no longer with the organization. The suit, brought by social worker Bree Righter, a Marine veteran who reached the rank of corporal, pertains to the men’s alleged sexual misconduct on an undercover mission and a severe eye injury she sustained during a training exercise in 2021 at an OUR gym, according to Vice News, which reviewed the complaint. “Ballard was present and refused to call an ambulance because he wanted no record of the event occurring at OUR’s training,” the suit claims — with Righter going on to require extensive surgery and an eye socket implant to replace a shattered orbital bone. She has suffered long-term vision problems as a result, the filing claims.

In the suit, Righter also claims that she traveled to the British Virgin Islands with Ballard and Cooper, where she was assigned to act as the latter’s romantic partner in an undercover strategy Ballard has called the “couples ruse.” Other women suing the ousted OUR leader allege that he would use this as a pretext to coerce them into having sex, purportedly to convince potential traffickers that their false identities were authentic. In this case, Righter alleges, Ballard used the arrangement to pressure her to have sex with Cooper. Furthermore, she claims, Ballard and his own couples-ruse partner treated the mission like a debauched vacation, visiting bars, strip clubs, and massage parlors. Attempts to reach Cooper were unsuccessful.

“It became very evident to Plaintiff that OUR only focused on allowing its celebrity founder, defendant Tim Ballard, to live the lavish lifestyle of a wealthy sex tourist and sexually manipulate and abuse employees, contractors, and volunteers under the guise of saving children,” the suit alleges. The filing also claims that OUR showed little consideration for the safety of its staff and volunteers, focused instead on crafting a marketable public image. (Sound of Freedom would be the ultimate result of those branding efforts.) In a statement shared with Rolling Stone, an OUR spokesperson attempted to downplay Ballard’s role before his departure. “While Tim Ballard was the public face of the organization during his tenure as CEO, he directly participated in less than one percent of OUR’s operations between January 2020 and his departure in June 2023,” the organization said in the statement, adding that “the allegation that OUR is the alter ego of Tim Ballard is false.”

It’s not just civil suits dogging Ballard. The Salt Lake Tribune reported last week that a criminal investigation had been opened after Celeste Borys, a former assistant of Ballard’s and one of the women suing him for sexual and emotional abuse, made an official police report earlier this month in Lindon, Utah. This, too, prompted a statement from the SPEAR Fund, which sought to cast doubt on the verified criminal complaint against Ballard. The story, SPEAR president Ken Krogue alleged, “is designed to stir up a media frenzy, to harm the reputation of Mr. Ballard, and to impede his and others’ efforts to fight the sex trafficking industry.”


While Ballard previously had strong allies in Utah to help him through such dire circumstances, this may no longer be the case. In September, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, of which he is a member, took the extraordinary step of publicly condemning him for “morally unacceptable” behavior, and removed articles promoting Ballard and his work from its website. He has said he does not believe the institution actually delivered a statement against him. (The church has not confirmed a rumor that they’ve also revoked his membership.) Meanwhile, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, a longtime friend of Ballard’s who has taken part in OUR activities, is in line for an audit by state lawmakers who will be looking for any hint of corruption in the relationship.

If Ballard is arrested in connection with Borys’ sexual assault complaint, it would nearly conclude his swift and stunning fall from national acclaim in the span of just six months. But even without charges filed in that case, it seems unlikely that he will recover the kind of reputation that once saw him appointed to a White House anti-trafficking advisory panel by then-President Trump. As Borys put it in a statement to the media on Tuesday, “The very organization that claims to fight traffickers turned me over to a trafficker.”

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