GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — Barely a week after it was revealed that Tim Ballard, the subject of “Sound of Freedom,” was no longer involved with the human trafficking organization he founded, VICE News is reporting that he is now no longer CEO of another organization.
VICE News reporters Anna Merlan and Tim Marchman, who have extensively covered Ballard and his former group Operation Underground Railroad, write that The Nazarene Fund, a Glenn Beck-backed group, confirmed that Ballard was no longer CEO on Wednesday.
These two high-profile departures come just a few weeks after the release of “Sound of Freedom,” a film starring Jim Cavaziel that dramatizes Ballard’s time as a federal agent and the founding of Operation Underground Railroad, and just days prior to a North Carolina candidate’s private screening of the film.
Operation Underground Railroad did not offer much detail about Ballard’s departure, simply confirming to FOX8 that he “stepped away.” Ballard took to Instagram on Monday, saying to “expect more lies” and writing that the media coverage was somehow intended to discourage people from watching “Sound of Freedom.”
Mark Walker to host ‘Sound of Freedom’ screening
On Wednesday, GOP gubernatorial candidate and former North Carolina Rep. Mark Walker announced that he would be hosting a private screening of “Sound of Freedom” at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 23 at RED Cinemas on Battleground Avenue in Greensboro. There’s a waitlist for seats at the screening.
A representative for Walker says that proceeds from the event will go to Lantern Rescue, an Asheboro-based nonprofit that describes itself as a group “that rescues exploited, persecuted, and displaced individuals and families.”
Four employees from Lantern Rescue will be attending the RED Cinemas screening in order to answer questions any attendees might have.
Child trafficking in North Carolina
“Critics say the movie, Sound of Freedom, exaggerates child trafficking concerns,” Walker said in a release. “In NC, over 18,000 images and videos of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) were reported to law enforcement last year. Kelly and I will always fight to protect against this evil and as governor, I will make sure our state agencies and partners have the resources they need to fight trafficking.”
Walker cites the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s Internet Crimes Against Children program. The North Carolina Human Trafficking Commission clarifies that, “in 2022, the state Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force received a total of 18,873 Cybertips.” NCHTC does not include data on how many depictions of child sexual abuse material were included in those tips.
In 2021, RAINN reports that, out of more than 29 million reports of suspected child sexual exploitation submitted to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children’s CyberTipline, 84.9 million images and videos of CSAM were included.
North Carolina-funded sexual assault agencies served 368 human trafficking victims from July 2020 to June 2021, the NCHTC reports citing the North Carolina Department of Administration. In 2020, the state convicted all three federal sex trafficking defendants. RAINN states that, in 2019, 60% of offenders were people who were known to the victim and held a position of trust with them such as a coach or a family member.
Anti-trafficking experts have said that “Sound of Freedom” contributes to misinformation about what trafficking looks like and could do more harm than good in efforts to combat it. Operation Underground Railroad has been the subject of similar criticisms with VICE News reporting that people who have worked with the group on “missions” have expressed concerns that their methods might even increase demand of trafficking victims “by going to foreign countries on undercover ‘missions'” that, at times, have seemed to consist of walking around bars and sex clubs asking for underage girls.”
Along with the graph breakdown, which includes numbers for 2023, the State Bureau of Investigations provided a press conference in which officials discuss the increase in CSAM reports that they held in June.
Why Walker supports Lantern Rescue
Mark Walker’s campaign stated that they chose to support Lantern Rescue because it’s a local group and that the subject of trafficking is personally important to Walker due to his wife’s background as a sexual assault nurse examiner.
A representative with Lantern Rescue shared additional details about the Walkers’ relationship with the group, stating that Walker and the group’s co-founder have attended meetings in DC with the Director of National Intelligence in connection to the group’s anti-trafficking work while Walker was in Congress.
They said that Walker has spoken at Lantern Rescue events and the representative describes him and his wife as very “supportive” of the operation.
Lantern Rescue also said that they hope to be a resource for people hoping to find out more about how they can help “the cause,” saying specifically that people have reached out since the release of “Sound of Freedom” as well as wanting to help their anti-trafficking efforts.
The representative for the group says that recently they were able to partner with Randolph County Sheriff’s Office, buying a digital lab thanks to generous donors, that they allow the ICAC officers for the sheriff’s office to use when they are investigating CSAM. They also work abroad, with their human trafficking arm operational in 11 countries, according to the group.
They were founded in 2020 and describe their founders as former intelligence with one of them having served as a Marine.
Lantern Rescue is hosting a “Rescue Run” on Aug. 19 at Bicentennial Park in Asheboro, with the 5k being used to generate support for the organization.
The Nazarene Fund
The Nazarene Fund says its mission is “to liberate the captive, to free the enslaved, and to rescue, rebuild and restore the lives of Christians and other persecuted religious and ethnic minorities wherever and whenever they are in need.” The group says “TNF operators are trained to extract people held in modern-day slavery.”
VICE News reports that the group raises funds off of “unsupported—and, in many cases, unverifiable—claims about their work in Afghanistan.” The outlet states that the Nazarene Fund “at times exaggerated its role in exfiltrating the Afghan girls’ national soccer team from the country, according to people who were directly involved.”
Details around Ballard’s departures from the two groups seem minimal, sources near Operation Underground Railroad allegedly told VICE News that there was an HR complaint against Ballard after a “mission” that prompted an internal investigation.
On a July 14 appearance on Tim Pool’s show, Ballard said he was the co-founder of another anti-trafficking organization, called “The Spear Fund,” which has a website advertising that it’s inspired by “Sound of Freedom” and that it is “coming soon.”
Viewers of Pool’s show donated $50,000 to the organization, according to Pool’s website.
Tim Pool is a political commentator who has been accused of using his popular “Timcast” show to amplify conspiracy theorists and other controversial guests.
‘Sound of Freedom’ & Operation Underground Railroad
“The Sound of Freedom” became an unexpected box office hit after being shelved for five years as a result of the Disney and 21st Century Fox merger. Distributed by Angel Studios, the film portrays a dramatized version of Ballard’s time as an agent working for a division of ICE and the early days of his career as a private human trafficking investigator.
The movie, which had a budget of around $14 million and stars “Passion of the Christ” star Jim Caviezel, has made just under $100 million dollars since its July 4 release. It grossed over $19 million on its opening day, outperforming the newest “Indiana Jones.”
The organization has had a “pay it forward” incentive for tickets, asking people to buy excess tickets so that people can see the film for free. People have taken to social media with conspiracies about theaters attempting to prevent them from seeing the movie.
In addition to the group’s spurious, difficult-to-prove claims about their methods and impact on human trafficking victims, Caviezel’s connections to the QAnon conspiracy theory have come to the forefront during the press tour. He was recently seen on Steve Bannon’s podcast discussing the harvesting of adrenochrome, a core tenant of QAnon’s esoteric beliefs, where they allege that a cabal of elites is trafficking children to harvest adrenochrome to use in rituals.