For additional articles covering OUR, please go to ACJ Investigates-Derailed: Operation Underground Railroad
Editor’s Note: The following was originally published on Medium on Feb. 24, 2021, by a gentleman who reached out to us immediately. After an extensive interview, ‘William Taylor’ (an alias ‘William’ was assigned him by Vice to protect his privacy) voluntarily supplied documents from Operation Underground Railroad that both Lynn Packer and I were able to authenticate and vet. With the documents William provided, we were able to corroborate the time, date, location and instructors of the this particular selection course he attended and passed. William also provided internal documents, the “cover” assigned to him by O.U.R., training, procedures and internal materials that very few would know of outside of O.U.R.. We were also able to confirm someone else in attendance, in addition, our Operation Underground Railroad internal sources were able to corroborate the times, dates, locations and instructors of not only this particular training session but others. They were able to verify the curriculum of this selection course . After ‘William’ completed the selection course and was selected, he received his next assignment with his “handler” and operational details that we were able to verify.
Initially I was going to cover a few important details and quotes in William’s article as part of a “larger report” or “piece”, but personally I felt it was important that his words- unaltered; tell his story “in the raw”. In addition, readers can fully understand any additional coverage of Operation Underground Railroad and Tim Ballard, especially when referenced in later reports and future developments.
Just as we were finalizing Mr. Taylor’s story, Operation Underground Railroad and Tim Ballard has once again hired “the LDS Church’s legal sword and shield”, Kirton McConkie in an attempt to intimidate and silence witnesses and now victim, William Taylor. This ultimately falls on Utah media and journalists, such as the Salt Lake City Tribune, the LDS operated Deseret News and dozens of other media organizations in Utah that for nearly eight years, acted as “stenographer journalists” publishing exactly what Tim Ballard and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes told them; without vetting their reckless and unsubstantiated claims regarding human trafficking, alleged rescue operations, fundraising practices and suppressing negative press of the organization when it arises.
The real question is for Utah journalists- do you find this conduct acceptable? Multi-million dollar organizations using the most powerful law firm in the state of Utah to intimidate and silence victims and witnesses?
Here’s what they’re not telling you or their donors
Operation Underground Railroad is a non-governmental organization that claims to work with law enforcement internationally and domestically to rescue victims of child slavery. Recently, O.U.R. has come under fire for questions about how they spend their money, taking credit for operations they had no involvement with, sexual assault, sexual exploitation of the victims their supposed to save, and much more. You’re welcome to look into that yourself online, as I won’t be going into it. This article is about an inside look from an undercover operative trainee on an organization that rides a fine line between truth and myth.
Disclaimer: I do not wish to overstate my level of engagement with O.U.R. I was not a higher up, long term associate, or anything of the sort. Just an operative trainee who was set to be deployed overseas with their ‘famed’ jump team, and a registered volunteer with the organization. This is my story that may not be representative of other trainees.
I first learned of Operation Underground Railroad through a news report. The report ran a video created by O.U.R. showing them on their Operation Mundo Nuevo. A video that shows O.U.R. operatives posing as ‘Johns’ (men who pay for sex), ultimately working with local law enforcement to arrest human traffickers, rescue victims, and look cool while doing it. In the video, Tim Ballard (former CEO and founder of O.U.R.) even knowingly winks at the camera, he seemed like an action hero. And maybe that was the goal, because that’s what sells. And it worked, after watching the video I was sold, and who wouldn’t be?
A group of people standing up and bringing justice to victims who so deserve it, how could any of that be wrong or perverted?
I am a private citizen. I have no law enforcement or military background or training. I was just someone who had experience in anti-human trafficking activism. So when I applied to be a part of an organization that touts a jump team (O.U.R.’ s group of undercover operatives who rescue children) that consists of “highly skilled ex-navy seal, CIA, and other operatives”, I certainly didn’t think my measly experience would compare. But surprisingly enough, I was selected to participate in their Volunteer Jump Team selection course. I was told that ‘hundreds’ of people applied, but only few were selected. I was never more excited in my life. Here I was achieving a dream, about to be trained by what I was told were some of the best operatives in the world, and would be well on my way to saving lives.
The issues and ‘gut feeling’ that something was off started for me before the training even did.
Once I was selected I was forwarded information detailing location and dates. I was somewhat surprised to learn that all lodging and flights would have to be paid by attendees and none of us would be compensated for costs. I was understanding as not all attendees would pass the course, why invest in someone that won’t pan out you know? But it just seemed odd. To their credit, O.U.R. provided trainees with a room discount of about $20–30 dollars a day. For an ‘internationally-known’ NGO that in 2019 topped $21 million dollars, I expected some level of reimbursement if selected as did other trainees. I mean a regular office job will practically reimburse you for a paper clip. But I was ok with it, because they told us that all funds they raised went directly to victims and their aftercare.
And really, how can anyone say no to that?
How can you argue with an answer like that?
I would soon find out, this was their weaponized answer to most financial questions.
O.U.R. markets themselves as the best of the best, so I was counting down the days for what I expected would be a world class training. After all, if they’re training operatives to rescue children from extremely dangerous human traffickers, you’d expect there to be at minimum: physical fitness tests, various evaluations, drills, learning of skills, self-defense training, signs to look for in a trafficking victim, signs to look for in a trafficker, planning, linguistics of the area training, lessons on customs and culture of countries to be deployed in, etc. The training that I attended covered none of this, was laughable, and prepares no one for any type of dangerous undercover work overseas.
My week long training with O.U.R. is detailed below.
We’re told to arrive to our designated location with a cover story and pre-assigned identity that was sent to us in an emailed document beforehand. The first problem was that the document itself had inconsistencies. For example, my cover identity said I had two different types of professions. At first I thought this was a ‘test’ of some sort to test adaptability or something. It turns out they sent us all the same document, all the same cover identities, even all the same names. They just didn’t proofread the document before sending.
Our training takes place in the conference room at a hotel where many trainees also took up lodging. We’re told to be secretive, not let anyone know why we’re there, and maintain confidentiality at all times. They tell us to gather in the lobby area of the hotel and wait to be signaled to enter the conference room. How they thought gathering 20–30 men all sporting crew cuts, who just LOOK like a walking stereotype of a cop, with eyes searching the room for a signal would be discreet is beyond me.
Again, this is supposed to be a discreet event. The signal we received was an instructor propping up a large banner poster with O.U.R. marketing materials and requests for donation. This was placed near the entrance of the hotel so that anyone entering or exiting would see it. As O.U.R. trainees made up a small portion of hotel guests, this was largely for staff and other guests to see and support. To me this felt showy and unnecessary. It felt largely about prioritizing money and donations above the security and privacy of your would be operatives.
If no one knew we were training with O.U.R. before, they would now.
We’re signaled and all of us enter the room, the instructors introduce themselves and we start our first day. It largely consisted of ‘psychiatric evaluation’ and interviews conducted by the instructors. The trainees gather together in the hotel lobby, while we wait to be called in one by one. As some trainees are coming back from their interview and evaluations they remark “That was too easy…” and similar statements. Apparently the evaluation and interview didn’t compare to what they experienced in their professional life or working for other NGOs that also rescued children, of which many other trainees had experience. This is supposed to be one of the best NGOs in the world and they don’t seem as stringent as other ‘lesser’ NGOs other trainees have worked for.
Again, I get the feeling that something’s off.
Eventually my interview came and they asked standard questions. The one that stuck out was again about money. In the interview one of the instructors said, “So when we send you out it could be for 3 months, 6 months, maybe more. Can you financially cover this amount?” I’m surprised again. Come to find out, O.U.R. (unless something’s changed recently) will not pay for all your expenses while working for them on deployment as an operative. I was aware that this was a volunteer program and I would not be on a payroll; but I expected that they would compensate basic expenses. They claim that while you’re ‘actively working a case’ they’ll pay for your hotel, food, etc. But they make you take mandatory time off while deployed. You are not allowed to come home during the time off (it sounded like it was largely only a few days you’d get anyway). In that time off, while still overseas, you are expected to pay for your entire food, lodging, and any other expenses. Then once your time off is complete, they’ll begin paying again. A big issue was that the instructors made it sound like you would have to pay all upfront costs for everything; but would be reimbursed at a later point in time. At first this sounded fair, but was surprising to me. They’ve said numerous times that all funds raised go to support their rescue missions (jump team), and aftercare of victims. It was surprising to me that O.U.R. wouldn’t fully support the jump team members while deployed. I thought that’s what the money was for? When looking at their publicly released financials it really makes no sense where the money (21 million +) is going. Because in my training they made it clear we would be expected to cover a significant amount of costs overseas, even though we’re the ones these funds are supposed to be going towards. In training they repeatedly emphasized this only saying you would be compensated financially “If you’re good enough and prove yourself after a few months”. When pressed about why they wouldn’t compensate basic living expenses while deployed during time off, they repeat the same answer: “We need all our funds to go to our rescue missions and the aftercare we have in place.” Myself and others were so confused because we would be the ones involved in rescue missions? I understand that you don’t get paid for days you’re off; but it’s not like we’d be sitting at home. Especially since we all had to make commitments to leave our regular jobs for an extended period of three months or more, we’d ultimately not be paid indefinitely. At the same time being expected to cover costs while overseas.
During this interview we were told it would be revealed what “public information O.U.R. investigators could find” on us. The ‘investigators’ would search us online and show us just how sloppy we had been in privacy, and thus, how easy it would be for traffickers to target us or our family. Because of a position I held at the time, I had a very visible online presence. No one famous or anything, but if you googled me, the first few pages would be all about me. So I was expecting to be cut the first day, as they said they’d do. These operatives and investigators are world class right? At the very least they could find my publicly available phone number and address right?
The moment came and I only found a singular line of text saying,
“No public information could be found on this candidate”.
Ruh Roh Raggy!
Mormons First, Operatives Second.
Regardless of what O.U.R. says, they’re a largely dominant Mormon organization. Most employees, trainees, even the psychiatrist conducting evaluations was Mormon. A trainee told me that if you mention ‘God’ in your psych evaluation you’re a shoo-in. The evaluation was conducted out of a hotel room and felt very unprofessional. He asked why I wanted to do this, what led me to it, and if I’m comfortable with praying before operations, all of this asked while he ate dinner in front of me. Those were the main questions I was asked. No note taking that I could see. I threw in the phrase ‘trust in God’ as a joke as recommended, and sure enough after that, the evaluation was completed. It lasted 5–7 minutes and that was it! Something definitely didn’t feel right.
These operatives are described by O.U.R. as the best of the best. Yet our psych evaluations only lasted at max 10 minutes. The standard normally lasts 30–90. How can you get a realistic gauge for someone in that time, no matter what your experience?
Throughout the week people were dismissed frequently. You’d leave for lunch and come back and two people would be gone. I was shocked I remained when they’re dismissing people with actual military or law enforcement backgrounds. They had their reasons I’m sure but it seemed they were looking for people who would be diehard O.U.R. believers, easily manipulated at that, and at that time I was. The whole thing started to feel like a cult, and not just to me. Other trainees mentioned how disorganized and elementary O.U.R. and their tactics seemed to be. This coming from actual law enforcement, Special Forces, and other individuals who had worked at similar NGOs before.
To quote some trainees who had actual law enforcement and military experience: “It doesn’t feel professional.”
Have you ever wanted to join O.U.R.?
To be one of the select few ‘elite operatives’?
Imagine. A time to live out your greatest superhero and CBS drama fantasies. Turns out, if you donate enough to O.U.R., they’ll take you! See, O.U.R. is known for taking celebrities and certain donors on jumps with them. O.U.R. claims that these celebrities and donors are taken only at the observational capacity. Only to be shown the work so they can be, “Modern day Harriet Beecher Stowes” and tell the world about what they saw (Timmy’s words, not mine). But it turns out these rich kids don’t just get to observe, they might even get to be an operative. During the training, I befriended another trainee who made it to the last day of training without being cut, as did I (spoiler alert). On the last day I found out they had a secret superpower… A fat wallet. In talking I asked what brought them to O.U.R. to be an operative and they said,
“Oh I gave them so much money, they finally let me come try out for jump team.”
When I talked about this further with them, it felt more and more like a quid pro quo.
Looks like Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne had it right all along, being rich really IS the best superpower!
O.U.R. Training: Scavenger hunts. I’m not joking.
Every day we had ‘operations’ we had to complete. These felt like they were designed by children. None of these activities reflected a training for would be undercover operatives in a foreign nation.
One operation we had to go to a random place and obtain pieces of information from ‘random’ people. According to some instructors after the fact, most people the trainees were assigned were not actually random as told; but volunteers with O.U.R. To me, this lessened the effect of an activity that was already too easy. Any person can go up to someone in a restaurant and get basic pieces of information from them. This is no test of skill.
One activity was basically improv. We were given a random object and had to sell it back to the class like the pen scene in Wolf of Wall Street. According to the instructors, this activity was to weed out those who couldn’t think on their feet well. Again, little to no skill required here.
Another activity was, I kid you not, a scavenger hunt. You were assigned a partner and you had to go on a literal scavenger hunt. You were supposed to find things like a salt shaker, take pictures of objects, etc. This is an activity for children and was supposed to represent ‘teamwork’.
Throughout the week there were PowerPoints, videos, but I would say that took up maybe 1–2 hours a day. And those materials contained so little actual information I can say it’s nothing I didn’t know before. For their own security I did leave out a few activities covered in training. However none of these unnamed activities were overly memorable, or necessarily new information.
Another activity was a group project. We were given an ethical dilemma that anyone who took an intro to philosophy course would be familiar with. I kid you not, it was the trolley problem and other variations. The whole point of the exercise was to show that the world isn’t black and white, it’s a very gray area. Gray is an idea that O.U.R. deeply ingrained in their trainees. And gray is where O.U.R. likes to reside.
Gray, Gray, Go Away
This ties into the last day of training. Which was to me, the most sickening. After completing a weeklong ‘training’ that ultimately consisted of after school daycare activities, we were visited by the head of the jump team, whose identity was closely guarded. At present, this operative continues to work with O.U.R. During this meeting he congratulated us on being the select few to make it to the end, and with that he had a message.
While we were all competing for spots on an overseas jump team, it seemed as though making it to the end cemented our place to be an operative at any time going forward. So with that he stressed that O.U.R. couldn’t allow for any mess-ups. “We’re a NGO. We’re not a government agency. That means if anything goes wrong, we get shut down.”
Now what do you think that refers to? I’ll just let his quote tell you:
“Gentleman. We’re all red-blooded American males. We’re visual creatures. So at any time you may feel ‘tempted’ to do something with one of the women. You need to tell us so we can get you out of there. Many men have come before and told me they feel tempted and I respect them so much for it…”
I’m sorry what? You’re telling me that the victims we’re supposed to rescue, many of which are CHILDREN may sexually ‘tempt’ your world-class operatives? Not only does this feel like victim blaming but it’s disgusting. And it was heavily implied that the men would be released free of any retaliation for a breach of trust to their victims and donors (legal or otherwise).
To me, this is an issue of combining faith with an organization like this. While it was never said, it felt very much like a “God forgives you so it’s okay” situation common in the faith. The fact that he mentioned this subject, along with the fact that “many men” have experienced this, implies that this happens often amongst their operatives. We all know police officers have exploited sex trafficking victims before, who’s to say that O.U.R. was any different? I sincerely hope they were. But when you have a psychological evaluation that lasts ten minutes and training that consists of a scavenger hunt, what else do you expect?
But their gray area doesn’t just include potentially exploiting victims, it also includes potentially paying off foreign police officers. You see O.U.R. operatives are required to get a motorcycle license for certain areas of deployment. According to O.U.R. it’s the only way to get around in some areas. In training, instructors mentioned how O.U.R. operatives have received a number of tickets (some speeding, some others) overseas and that it gets ‘taken care of’. Maybe they meant legally working with the court system. It didn’t feel that way though, it definitely felt like taking advantage of a policing system that accepts bribes. One instructor even hinted, bribes are part of the culture in foreign nations, nothing wrong with playing along.
Hey maybe that’s where all their money goes!
Idle Hands and Other Appendages
A final statement that didn’t sit well with me came from an instructor at the training. Through the week it was hinted that I might be selected to go overseas. Nearing the end of the training he told me what country I would be deployed to. He looked away, smirked, and said:
“Look the guys over there in (super secret country) are pretty wild. Kinda rowdy. You sure you can keep up?”
What could this have meant? I ‘don’t’ know. But during the training it was implied most of our time would be spent in strip clubs, bars, and other similar social scenes. The reason O.U.R. gave for this was that traffickers hung out there. See we weren’t always going in with intel, locations, people to track or places to conduct surveillance on. It seemed as though most of our time would be playing the part of dumb tourists just waiting to be approached by a trafficker. Over time it began to sound less and less like a mission, and more like a bro-cation.
How are operatives to spend their time until a trafficker approaches?
Waiting around, drinking, partying, watching girls dance. Idle time. Hey, I’ll throw some religion back at O.U.R. and remind them that, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”. And with claims of sexual assault, and alleged sexual exploitation of the same victims you’re supposed to be saving, looks like:
Devil 1, Innocent Victims 0
Either way the training ended, we all received ‘certificates of completion’ with our actual names which seemed to defeat the whole purpose of secrecy and we all went home. Finally achieving my dream left me feeling hollow, and that the ‘good guy’ operatives might be anything but. A while later the instructors email me saying that I made the cut and in one month would be deployed overseas. Maybe something about me really stuck out? Or maybe it’s not that hard to pass a training that consists of a scavenger hunt and no actual training.
So congratulations reader! If you’ve ever wanted to be an undercover vigilante in a foreign nation, turns out it’s not that hard. Really any ordinary person, trained or not, could do it according to O.U.R.
You might be wondering how O.U.R. feels about sending private citizens off to perform dangerous, undercover work? After all they pride themselves on being a team of “highly skilled ex-navy seal, CIA, and other operatives”. To their credit, a majority of the trainees there had this background. But many of those types were removed during the training. It was almost like O.U.R. intentionally only kept private citizens on. Because anyone with actual experience would’ve caught on to the disorganization, and lack of training.
During the training one instructor said, “Believe it or not, civilians have been our best operatives”. And clearly it’s true. I can’t speak to the demographics of their current operatives. But it seems as though O.U.R. is not above sending private citizens with no prior training or background into dangerous trafficking areas. The training they did provide was minimal at best. At the same time, not even compensating their operatives’ expenses fully, and being fully aware that the same victims they’re designed to help might be exploited by their very own operatives.
I realize I’ve had a very sarcastic tone throughout this article. Maybe I’m too cynical, too judgmental, and to be fair I don’t know what other O.U.R. trainings are like. You know, for the ones who “prove themselves” and eventually get paid. Maybe they’re more stringent, more intense. I’ll never know, I can only speak to my own experience. I was not a higher up and not involved in their decision making process, maybe they really know what they’re doing. But what I witnessed in a training designed for operatives going undercover overseas, was sickening. And remember after passing the training, I would’ve been deployed internationally in 1 month. That means no time for any additional training, nothing.
- After all I’ve described in their training (let’s pretend you attended) do you think you’d be ready to rescue trafficked children in a foreign nation?
- From another perspective: Would you trust in someone to rescue children after such a minimal training and evaluation?
As odd as it sounds anti-human trafficking can be one of the most exploited activist causes. Victims are rescued, then they’re exploited. Sometimes by the officer who picks them up, sometimes by O.U.R. for spouting incorrect stories about helping victims and law enforcement agencies when in fact they did not. The raid methods in which groups like O.U.R. tend to ‘rescue’ victims often harm more than help I would argue. Something like this can be an added trauma to the victims we’re supposed to help.
The summer of 2020 is the summer we saw what true activism looks like and what it can accomplish, truly a summer of protests and change that still continues. Yet some Americans chose to rally behind false causes. Personally I believe Q-Anon and other right wing extremist groups jumped on the O.U.R. and anti trafficking bandwagon as a means to put themselves in the spotlight. Being the best of the best, and leading anti-trafficking activists, you would think that O.U.R. and Tim Ballard would condemn these false conspiracy theories. But instead they have welcomed this. With Mr. Ballard almost endorsing the Wayfair conspiracy as valid. Keep in mind, Polaris, the organization that runs the National Human Trafficking Hotline has denied this as a valid trafficking ring repeatedly. O.U.R. has embraced the surge of interest, holding rallies to “Save Our Children”! Posting online pictures of protests and Hobby Lobby-esque infographics that honestly feels like virtue signaling. One photo from an O.U.R. rally consisted of two smiling young women holding a picture frame around them like a sorority or prom photo with lacy typography saying “Save Our Children”. Some take the narrative that by supporting O.U.R. they’re persecuted and that they have to fight to be heard and recognized.
I promise you, aside from traffickers, no one is on the other side of this issue.
This is speculation but I believe O.U.R. knows exactly what they’re doing. They manipulate their donors, maybe even their operatives. They create these larger than life mythic tales of how they’re the only ones who can end human trafficking. A dangerous narrative. And with local police forces being so ineffective at times, you want to believe them. You want to believe that yes, finally. Someone is doing something. And in the world there are so many admirable organizations and people doing something about the issue. But O.U.R. is not one of them. Countless pieces of evidence from local law enforcement and others, show that these larger than life claims might not be true. Don’t believe me? Look no further than their current criminal investigation.
I believe that at one point O.U.R. really did what they said. They were a determined group of people who really were saving lives. But they’ve changed, transformed, and I wonder what those idealistic men and women who started this organization would say if they saw themselves now.
I argue that what we see in Operation Underground Railroad is an example of what activism can be at it’s worst. Where the issue of saving children from sex trafficking has somehow been politicized. Where a posse of vigilantes can galivant around a foreign nation unchecked. Where an organization, that I’m sure started off with the right intentions, ends up hurting more than helping. Where an organization forgets its sole purpose and the responsibility that caries.
But I like to believe that no one is irredeemable, that we can all face our past, be accountable for our mistakes, grow, and be better people than we ever imagined because of it. So even now I believe that O.U.R. could own up to their past and still change the world like they always wanted. Maybe revamp their operative training, concentrate more on working with community leaders on training for preventative measures for the whole community. In 2019 they raised 21 million dollars, and I’m sure the 2020 amount will dwarf that with all the attention they’ve gotten this year. That money when used properly could really change the world.
Worst case they could always give it away to actual organizations doing admirable work to end human trafficking.
You can always write off a large donation like that.
I’m sure they’d love that.