Editor’s Note August 9, 2020: This article is now an ACJ Investigates series. For additional articles covering OUR, please go to ACJ Investigates- Derailed: Operation Underground Railroad
Editor’s Note: Lynn Packer is an award-winning investigative reporter, television news consultant, law consultant and author of “Lying for the Lord: The Paul H. Dunn Stories“. Mr. Packer graduated from Utah State University with a broadcast journalism degree. He then served in the United States Army from ’68 through ’70 in Vietnam as a television news anchor and producer for the Armed Forces Vietnam Network (AFVN), Quang Tri detachment. He was awarded the Bronze Star. For 15 years Mr. Packer reported for KSL Television News in Salt Lake City. His teaching career spanned ten years as an adjunct journalism instructor at Brigham Young University and the University of Dortmund in Germany. We’d like to thank Mr. Packer for his service, dedication and contributions to journalism and ongoing quest for the truth.
The following article is part of a larger, comprehensive investigation into Utah AG Sean Reyes and his involvement in the “child sex slave rescue industry” originally published in 2015 at The Packer Chronicle. You can read it in its entirety, along with other fantastic in-depth investigative work at The Packer Chronicle at www.lyingforthelord.com.
A Reality Television Series
When Tim Ballard and his associates were conceptualizing Operation Underground Railroad in early 2013 the plan was to not only rescue child sex slaves but also to capture the operations on video for a reality television series. Mormon filmmakers Darrin Fletcher, Chet Thomas and Jerald Molen first sought funding for the series from Glenn Beck. They already had a partnership with Beck to produce a children’s education program for Beck’s
cable television and online network.
Co-producer Darrin Fletcher said they began pitching Beck the idea of funding a TV series about a well-armed “jump team” making dramatic child sex slave rescues when “Glenn pounded on his desk pointed, at Chet and me, and said, ‘I know what I want. I want a television series and I want you two to produce it for me.’”
Beck asked the filmmaker’s company, FletChet Entertainment, to produce a pilot or teaser. (FletChet Entertainment, Inc. is a nowexpired Utah corporation that had been formed in 2011.)
At the point FletChet was pitching Glenn Beck Tim Ballard was still working for the government and O.U.R. was still in the planning stages with no actual missions that could be filmed. So Ballard and FletChet videoed some exNavy SEALS and Arm Special Ops members undergoing training with automatic weapons. They produced a “teaser” for a series they would title The Abolitionists.
O.U.R.’s original concept is reminiscent of the 2008 feature film, Rambo IV. In the movie John Rambo assembles a jump team to rescue sex
slaves held by their captors in Burma.
The proposed series would star two exArmy special ops soldiers—Jason Hepworth and Aaron Thomas—and one ex-Navy SEAL—Steve Hutch—who, armed to the hilt, would swoop in to save kids from sex slavery rings around the world. The three would be assisted by one unidentified undercover operative who would set up the sting as a decoy bad guy seeking child sex or buying sex slaves.
Fletcher, in a September 21, 2013 YouTube donor solicitation video, explained their goal. “Jerald Molen, Chet Thomas and myself are going to make a television series,” he said in the video he said “was used to raise
money and awareness for our cause.” “We’ve assembled a jump team,” he said in a video clip that also featured a sound clip of one of the three operatives:
We find children who have been kidnapped, used for sexual slaves, and we go get them. We can extract these kids. “I’ve broken up slavery rings. I’ve seen what it does to people. These children deserve better.
Fletcher shared his belief that awareness generated by the reality series would disrupt child sex slave trafficking throughout the world:
Through this series, we will shine a light so bright on the evils of sex slavery, that the monsters, fully exposed to the public eye, won’t be able to continue doing business as usual. Using cutting edge computer technology that identifies the black markets of child porn production, and using the latest in undercover sting operations, stuff you thought only existed in the movies, out jump team will take this bright light into the darkest corners of the earth and will liberate these children while dismantling their captors.
The Abolitionists film team had a lot of street cred via Mormon Academy Award winner Jerry Molen, best known for working with Stephen Spielberg on Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park and The Minority Report.
The Abolitionists’ jump team’s first operation was scheduled for the last week in November 2013. “Let’s go get some bad guys,” Thomas and Fletcher’s Facebook posting said. It was followed with another that said, “The op was cancelled for various reasons. Can’t go into all the details…” But the team continued training and began shooting video for the series in Washington, D.C.
That same November the television producers claimed they had found a distribution channel and would soon go into production. In the meantime they asked for money. “If this cause moves you please help by donating anything you can at http://www.operationundergorundrailroad.org.” (That website has since been dismantled and replaced withourrescue.org.)
That November 2013 Glenn Beck solicited what he called tax-free dollars for O.U.R. and directed his listeners and viewers to the operationundergorundrailroad.org web site. So already, without a single operation under its belt, Operation Underground Railroad’s
money-raising machine was in full swing.
On that program Beck did not reveal Ballard’s name. Ballard had not yet quit ICE and it was envisioned that he would be the undercover operative working with the jump team. Beck told the story a clandestine meeting a “friend” had set up to disclose who he really was and what he did really. The meeting took place at a hotel in the spring of 2013 while Ballard was still a federal agent.
“So I got to this hotel, and went into this conference room,” Beck told his audience. “He’s there with a slide projector and screen and a couple of people. The door closed and he said, ‘I have to tell you I’m not who you think I am.’ This is one of the most surreal, movie kind of moments in my life.”
The friend, Ballard, told Beck he was working for the federal government,
combating child sex traffickers. Ballard talked about one of his first missions where a “monster” was taking a 5-year-old boy and his 10-year-old sister from the United States into Mexico to for “drug cartel parties” in Mexico and used as “sex toys.” Beck said the two were trafficked back and forth as sex slaves.
Beck said his friend was in on the rescue, going in undercover, attending the sex party, and as soon as money changed hands “Navy SEALS dropped out of the ceiling” and saved the children. Beck added that American kids were being kidnapped and shipped all over the world, without citing any proof his statement was based in fact.
Beck told his audience said he did not have enough money to fund the television series startup venture. So he appealed to his listeners and viewers. They responded by donating $300,000 the first day and upwards of a million before Beck’s fund-raising campaign peaked.
A few in Beck’s audience were skeptical and told him so by posting comments on his Facebook page:
Everything about this story is implausible. He’s rescued children on “hundreds” of missions? The government was funding him as an agent, but he quits, and now he wants private donations so he can “Rambo” them with the help of some of his “elite” military friends?
. . . . .
I wished this was true, but I am suspicious. As a federal agent I worked all over the world & you just don’t “drop out of the ceiling” when you’re in someone else’s country. I would be the first to join if I thought this was valid, as I still have contacts around the world. Too good to be true.
. . . . .
Hate to say it, but I get a funny feeling that Glenn is being scammed. Child abuse is terrible, but this story from Glenn’s friend doesn’t seem legit. He may be getting conned… child abuse tugs on a very emotional string.
Beck’s plea for financial help caught the attention of some of the members of the Special Operations Community Network (SOCNET), a chat room for former Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force soldiers involved with special operations. Some former special forces personnel were already involved with other charities who were rescuing sex slaves.
An Army buddy just emailed me a link to their website and suggested I make a donation to a good cause, as well as forward to our unit’s Facebook group so the rest of the fellas can get in on the action too, if they’re so moved. (Soot, 15 November 2013)
. . . . .
Here’s a link to the org’s “team leader” page where they provide the identities of several former “Army Spec Ops” and Navy SEAL service members—”We are going to go into foreign Nations and disrupt operations of organized crime groups which may have contacts with security services. And here are our photographs showing face on internet. Because there is no facial recognition software in use anywhere.”If it is not joke, I wish very much the photographs are false. (Johanj 15 November 2013)
. . . . .
If you guys fucking fall for this shit again, I swear to God the ridicule that I unleash will reverberate in the signature lines of half the membership here for an eternity. I mean- they have fucking video game profiles. What else do you need to see? Cute little tag lines like “We call him Sssssssam because he is so intense he just hisses like a stick of dynamite”. We’ve been down this road before folks… (MakoZeroSix 21 November 2013)
. . . . .
The profiles shown on the link cited in Soot’s original post look like something out of a video game promotion. My thoughts exactly. Plus the cia guy profile made my head explode. And the Navy SEAL’s rank is sgt? WTF? (Verfitatem Cognoscere, 14 November 2013)
. . . . .
I’ve seen them in the news quite often. They have a new movie detailing their successes recently, it’s playing at the Sundance Film Festival. Utah’s Attorney General, Sean Reyes, recently went with one of them on their op posing as a translator. I dunno guys, seems pretty legit to me. Last posts here are well over a year old, but I thought I would rez this thread and ask if there is some more info anybody in the know could provide regarding this org now that they’ve been around a while. (Stampe 29 January 2015)
The posting about the Navy SEAL’s rank refers to O.U.R.’s profile of Steve Hutch. It says he was a master sergeant with the but the SEAL’s don’t use the sergeant rank like the Army.
It turns out that the names and ranks of the three strike force members are fake. Darrin Fletcher said that should have been obvious to potential donors visiting his site. “All of those are phony names, obviously,” he said.
He disclosed that the anonymous undercover operative pictured on the web was, in fact, Tim Ballard.
Jess Nelson, O.U.R.’s fiscal sponsor who was involved in discussions early on, thought the names were real. “I can’t imagine them making up names. I don’t have any reason to think they are not real people,” he said.
By time Operation Underground Railroad began striking at overseas targets in early 2014 it had nixed the idea of carrying weapons. “I didn’t know if foreign governments would let us carry firearms,” Fletcher said.
A new concept emerged. O.U.R. would use local law enforcement to show a force of arms and make arrests. Team members would decoys instead of paramilitary although they called it a jump team. Instead of sticking with only combat veterans to go undercover they also used guests who had no military experience, including women, to pose as child sex traffickers.
By April 2014 Glenn Beck told his viewers and listeners that funding for the movie and for the operations were separate. Besides, he told his audience, a single donor was financing the movie. Plus, the series would not appear on his TheBlaze network. The producers were going for a bigger audience.
The single donor turned out to be one of O.U.R.’s directors, Ryan Welch, through his family’s Sled Investment Group, LLC. Sled was formed in Utah in July 2013. Welch declined comment.
The outlet for an ongoing TV series they had told donors about fell through. Plan B was to make a full-length motion picture but continue to shoot segments for a television series.
FletChet Entertainment, Inc.’s Connection to O.U.R.
Abolitionists’ co-producer Chet Thomas says he and his co-producer/director Darrin Fletcher are now talking to distributors about releasing The Abolitionists movie to theaters nationwide. And they’re also editing television episodes in the hope a network or cable will pick up an ongoing series.
Both FletChet Entertainment and Operation Underground Railroad
spokespeople say the two entities are separate—one a non-profit charity and the other a for-profit film production company. By law charities with tax exempt status cannot make a profit and are not supposed to have strong ties to any for-profit venture.
It seems, however, the two are joined at the hip.
In the beginning, perhaps in the early months of 2013, it was the forprofit film company said that claimed it had assembled a jump team. FletChet
Entertainment announced it planned to video jump team raids and create a
television series to publicize and deter child sex slavery. Fletcher concedes that in reality it was Tim Ballard behind he scenes assembling the team. So early on the non-profit and forprofit were tightly connected if not one and the same.
In September 2013 FletChet had already begun shooting its proposed Abolitionists television series and making pleas for donations to the newly formed Operation Underground Railroad Inc. Tim Ballard was still two months away from resigning as a government agent. In December Ballard resigned as a federal agent and ramped up O.U.R.’s fundraising efforts by, among other actions, selling T-shirts and O.U.R. military-style dog tag necklaces. Because O.U.R. declines releasing detailed financial information it’s not known publicly if any of the early money raised by O.U.R. went into movie making.
Another connection involves the video that is shot of the raids. O.U.R. uses it as video evidence to provide local government prosecutors. FletChet Entertainment uses the same video for its motion picture and proposed TV series. Thomas says he has no contract with O.U.R. to supply that service and does not bill for it. Still he says, “The film and the foundation are completely separate.”
Thomas was asked if his investor knows he is not only investing in the movie but in the non-profit project as well because of the footage being used for evidence. “Obviously they’re not investing in Operation Underground Railroad,” Thomas said, “because they’re paying their own expenses. But because the footage crosses over I guess they realize they are supporting local governments.”
The investor, himself, Ryan Welch is another connection. He was an O.U.R. director at the same time he was funding the movie and series.
But the strongest connection between the two may be Tim Ballard. At the same time he is the president of the non-profit O.U.R. he is also a partner with Fletcher, Thomas and Molen in the for-profit movie and television ventures.
Thomas’ partner Darrin Fletcher openly concedes the non-profit O.U.R. and the forprofit Abolitionists entities are very closely aligned:
We love the O.U.R. team; they love our team. We actually work extremely well together. We’re a little incestuous in that sense. We consider ourselves all one team.
At pre-release screenings of the move The Abolitionists it’s difficult to detect any difference between the non-profit Operation Underground
Railroad, Inc. and the for-profit Abolitionists, LLC. Tim Ballard attends the screenings that also serve as O.U.R. fundraising events. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has also made numerous charity/movie promotional appearances to promote the movie and the charity, sometimes wearing his AG police jacket and badge.
The close connection between the movie/TV venture and the charity could violate tax law. A 501(c)(3), tax-exempt organization can lose that status if it serves a private interest more than insubstantially. Tax law is complex and nonprofit, tax-exempt charities, in certain circumstances can legally engage in joint ventures with for-profit organizations. But if an exempt organization provides more than an incidental benefit to the for-profit entity the organizations tax-exempt status could be revoked by the IRS and tax deductions disallowed.
O.U.R.’s tax attorney, Dan Becker, said he was unaware Ryan Welch was ever on his client’s board. He was also asked if Tim Ballard’s role with The Abolitionists, LLC was a conflict of interest. Becker pointed to the entity’s conflict of interest policy, which, he said, spells out the procedure for disclosing conflicts of interest.
The policy, which he provided, requires officers and directors to affirm they understand “that the Organization is charitable and that in order to maintain its federal tax exemption it must engage primarily in activities that accomplish one or more of its tax exempt purposes.” The policy warns directors that they are to “protect the interest of Operation Underground Railroad, Inc…when it is contemplating entering into a transaction
or arrangement that might benefit the private interest of an officer or director. Or might result in a possible excess benefit transaction.” It says officers and directors have a duty to disclose actual or possible conflicts with the governing board. The board would then investigate the proposed transaction or arrangement. If the board determines a person has failed to disclose an actual or possible conflict “it will take appropriate disciplinary and corrective action.”
The policy does not say whether any actual or potential conflicts must be disclosed to donors or taxpayers. O.U.R.’s officers and directors won’t say either. The charity’s press person Shannon Shupe had arranged an interview with Ballard, his attorney and accountant. But as questions piled up she cancelled it. “We are currently in the midst of fielding numerous interviews with major national news media outlets and it’s a struggle for
me to carve out time with Tim for these meetings because of the exorbitant amount of time he spends rescuing children,” she said. O.U.R. COO Jerry Gowen also discontinued returning calls.
A tax-exempt organization that is willing to serve as a non-exempt project’s fiscal sponsor by allowing use of its tax-exempt status is supposed to provide oversight and control over how the money is spent. Otherwise the parent entity is merely serving as a money conduit. It’s because all taxpayers subsidize tax-exempt charities and have an interest that charities are not used to illegally evade taxes.
The IRS imposes the most restrictions on 501(c)(3) charities because they not only can operate tax-free but allow their donors to get tax deductions as well.
When a tax-exempt charity becomes a fiscal sponsor of a non-exempt charity it becomes responsible for making sure the funds it grants that charity are not misused. Some tax experts believe fiscal sponsors—such as Jess Larsen’s Child Rescue charity—not only have a duty to monitor funds they pass on to their “project” or “program” entities—like Tim Ballard’s O.U.R. —but they also have a duty to control the funds as well. One expert tells agents for non-exempt entities that piggyback on tax-exempt entities, “You will not have direct control over funds your fiscal agent receives on
your behalf, and will need to deal with the fiscal agency to arrange disbursement.”
Another says sponsors must retain discretion and control as to the use of the funds and must maintain records that establish that the funds were used for 501(c)(3) purposes.
As of March 3, 2015, O.U.R. is responsible for protecting its own 501(c)(3) status. Before that Child Rescue Association and, later, the Elizabeth Smart Foundation were responsible for assuring that the money O.U.R raised through them was being used for charitable purposes. It was the sponsors’ job to make sure no tax-deductible donations inured to the benefit of the for-profit movie production company or that no officer or director had an improper tie to a for-profit venture.
It turns out that neither Jess Larsen nor Ed Smart controlled or monitored O.U.R.’s expenditures. Both sponsors permitted O.U.R. to fully control the passed-through donations. In the absence of Larsen and Smart having those records Packer-Chronicle asked O.U.R.s to provide that financial detail. O.U.R. declined.
Larsen, whose heads the charity that funneled the most money to O.U.R. in 2014, said he has not been tracking O.U.R.’s expenditures. He said he had no responsibility to control how O.U.R. spent money. “I did not have control,” he said, “it is not fair to call me a parent.” But Larsen did say, “We definitely require financial accountability from O.U.R.”
Larsen has yet to get that financial accountability. He said he only needs to get it, all at once, in the form of receipts, in about May of this year after O.U.R. files its 2014 income tax return. He concedes there was no ongoing monitoring of money.
Larsen says, however, when O.U.R. does provide financial details, he will account for every penny. “My requirements include the actual records and receipts, all receipts. We will get itemized expenditures and receipts.”
Every single penny? he was asked.
But what if he finds some of the money was misspent? He said he would consult an attorney.
Get Informed! Further information about Human Trafficking, Sex Slavery & Kidnapping Myths & Facts:
President Trump’s fantastical human trafficking claims, Washington Post– 7 Feb. 2017: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/02/07/president-trumps-fantastical-human-trafficking-claims/
The false claim that human trafficking is a ‘$9.5 billion business’ in the United States, Washington Post– 2 June 2015: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/06/02/the-false-claim-that-child-sex-trafficking-is-a-9-5-billion-business-in-the-united-states/
The fishy claim that ‘100,000 children’ in the United States are in the sex trade, Washington Post, 2 Sept. 2015: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/09/02/the-fishy-claim-that-100000-children-in-the-united-states-are-in-the-sex-trade/
The bogus claim that 300,000 U.S. children are ‘at risk’ of sexual exploitation, Washington Post, 28 May 2015: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/05/28/the-bogus-claim-that-300000-u-s-children-are-at-risk-of-sexual-exploitation/
Super Bowl Sex-Trafficking Myths Return, Reason, 1 Oct. 2020: https://reason.com/2020/01/10/super-bowl-sex-trafficking-myths-return/
Human Trafficking in America: Myths and Realities, Reason, 8 Nov. 2015: https://reason.com/video/human-trafficking-in-america-myths-and-r/
Trafficking in Persons Report 2019 (TIPS Report), United States State Department, june 2019: https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/2019-Trafficking-in-Persons-Report.pdf
Police, survivors debunk human trafficking kidnapping myths, Michigan Live, 16 Jan 2020: https://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/2020/01/police-survivors-debunk-human-trafficking-kidnapping-myths.html
VERIFY: Do child sex traffickers look for victims at the store?, KBTV Channel 9, 11 July 2017: https://www.9news.com/article/news/verify/verify-do-child-sex-traffickers-look-for-victims-at-the-store/73-455918970
Police: No increasing trend in missing kids, West Hawaii Today, 17 June 2020: https://www.westhawaiitoday.com/2020/06/17/hawaii-news/police-no-increasing-trend-in-missing-kids/
Trump’s Human Trafficking Record Is Fake News, Foreign Policy, 20 June 2019: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/06/20/trumps-human-trafficking-record-is-fake-news/
White Mom’s Burden, New Republic, 25 June 2019: https://newrepublic.com/article/154119/white-moms-burden