Life

Called by God

In 2014, I went on a vigilante raid to “save” kids sold for sex. What we did haunts me now.

A housekeeper opens the door to a house as local authorities enter with guns and bulletproof vests.
“You can see the terrified housekeeper when she opens the door to a man with a gun.” Screenshot via Operation Underground Railroad/YouTube 

I’d never heard of Operation Underground Railroad when its founder, Tim Ballard, called me suddenly in the summer of 2014. A former Department of Homeland Security special agent, Ballard said OUR had a child-trafficking sting planned for the Dominican Republic—and he wanted me to come along to document it.

Ballard explained the mission of the organization to me like this: Children in other countries were being trafficked. Local governments were overwhelmed or complicit. And the U.S. government was unwilling to jeopardize diplomatic relationships to rescue local underage victims. Ballard said he knew how to rescue these kids. He told me he’d been called to this work by God.

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Ballard and I are both Mormon. He knew my parents from church. My dad, who loved my work, kept a few cards with my blog information in his wallet. He’d pass them out to friends, family, and even the nurses treating his leukemia. Maybe that’s how Ballard knew I was a writer.

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When Ballard called, I didn’t ask many questions. I didn’t wonder why he thought it was appropriate for me—the writer of a mommy blog—to chronicle anti-trafficking work. At the time, I was a 28-year-old stay-at-home mother in Utah. I was lonely and grieving: My dad, my best friend, had died not long before. As I changed diapers, managed tantrums, and sat in the playground, I felt unmoored from my past and unsure about my future. I suppose, in my grief and my search for meaning, I wanted him to be called by God, because maybe that meant finally, I was too.

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I accepted his offer quickly.

There were a few emails back and forth before I left with Operation Underground Railroad—instructions on what to pack, my plane ticket, the name of the person who would meet me at the airport. It wasn’t exactly training to join a military-style sting operation, but at the time, somehow, I wasn’t worried. I left my kids and got on a plane, arriving in the Dominican Republic the day before the sting.

(A representative for Operation Underground Railroad replied to detailed questions for this article: “Slate is rehashing old claims from nearly seven years ago during Operation Underground Railroad’s first year in operation. As any other successful organization does, we have evolved and are continuously working to professionally improve our standard operating methods and practices.”)

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I was the youngest person, and the only woman, on the “jump,” as they called it. A camera crew filmed everything, because Ballard seemed to intend to pitch a TV series about his anti-trafficking efforts, and they needed footage. The production company was based in Utah but reportedly had Hollywood royalty interested: Gerald Molen, the Oscar-winning producer of films like Jurassic Park and Schindlers List. This was a rescue mission, but it was also reality TV.

We stayed in a big beige house with a bewildered local housekeeper. Once everyone arrived, we sat together to go over plans for the next day. I took notes. The traffickers thought we were Americans looking to have a sex party with underage girls.

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I was told Ballard’s team coordinated with local authorities who were too overwhelmed or ill-equipped to do this work on their own. Members of the OUR jump team found people willing to traffic kids and set up a date to “party” with however many kids they could provide, the more the better. The authorities were told where and when the party was happening. When they arrived, the girls would be sent outside, where I would be with them, while Ballard and the traffickers would stay inside. The police planned to wait outside until the OUR team had undercover footage of a trafficker accepting upfront cash for sex with the kids. After the cash changed hands, Ballard would give a signal, and the authorities would rush the house to make arrests. They would be armed.

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I froze up at the thought of the guns. Ballard reassured me. My job was to keep the trafficked kids comfortable poolside while the sting went on inside. I would be safe. I wrote this down twice and underlined it three times.

After the meeting, the housekeeper set out dinner. I wondered if she’d be kept outside when the sting happened too. Would she be safe? That night, when I went to bed, I left my windows open. I fell asleep to the sound of the members of the jump team doing CrossFit by the pool.

The kids arrived in a bus with their traffickers the next day. There were 26 of them. They were young, middle school–to–high school age. I’d been asked to blow up balloons so the house had a party atmosphere. Many of the kids looked like they’d gotten ready for a middle school dance. I met them outside by the pool and handed out sodas. Some kids started singing; others started swimming.

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Balloons on the floor at the house.
“I’d been asked to blow up balloons so the house had a party atmosphere.” Meg Conley
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Ballard sat inside with the traffickers, supposedly negotiating the price for the services each girl would provide. An operative opened the back door and called to me: “Meg, Tim wants you inside.”

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I went in. One of the traffickers talked to me, and I laughed at his jokes. Some of the other traffickers were women; a few didn’t look much older than the kids I’d been playing with in the backyard. I watched Ballard count money onto the coffee table.

Then he gave the signal. The raid started. I ran to the back door, where I was confronted by a local police officer brandishing a gun. I was told to get on the floor. The cameras were rolling for the hoped-for TV show.

I stayed on the ground as the raid continued, the white tile cool against my flushed face. There was shouting: from the officers, from the OUR undercover team feigning shock, from the traffickers. I stayed on the floor while the traffickers were arrested. I was still there when the kids, wet from the pool, were led through the room and out of the house. Many of them were crying. As they were led away, they stepped between us on the ground, dripping water along the way.

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After the raid was done, we left for a safe house where we would stay before flying home. The video crew asked for my thoughts, filming me while I spoke. I can’t remember what I said, but I am sure it was supportive. I wanted to believe what just happened was meaningful—and I wanted to go home.

I flew home from the raid alone. When the plane landed, I turned on my cellphone. There was a text from Ballard. He said he’d be happy to write a blurb for my book, whenever I got around to writing one. I was touched. A man called by God said he was going to endorse me. For a moment, I felt like I had a purpose.

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When my husband picked me up from the airport, our two children in car seats in the back, I told him about the guns and the kids. “What the fuck was Ballard thinking? You shouldn’t have been in there,” he replied. I remember I thought he was being overprotective. I wrote an article for Huffington Post about Ballard’s heroics and the children’s new hope. When OUR released its first documentary, I attended the premiere. Before the movie started, everyone in the audience who’d participated in a “jump” was asked to stand up. I stood up. The crowd applauded.

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But soon, Ballard’s aggressive sureness began to scare me. Anne Gallagher, whom the U.S. State Department called “the leading global expert on the international law on human trafficking,” published an essay critical of OUR’s tactics. She argued its raids showed an “alarming lack of understanding about how sophisticated criminal trafficking networks must be approached and dismantled” and called OUR’s operations “arrogant, unethical and illegal.” Ballard sent the article to me and called her a “bitch.” Then he asked me to write a rebuttal. (Ballard did not respond to detailed questions about his comments.) I had nothing of worth to say in response to a woman who’d dedicated her life to this work. How could he think I did? I didn’t write the piece.

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Still, I was on occasional planning calls with OUR staff. They were mostly as inexperienced as I was. They believed in Ballard, too, and were doing their best to bootstrap his vision of salvation. The calls were fervent but flawed. Everybody wanted to “save the kids,” but no one really knew anything about these kids. We talked mostly about fundraising. The calls never addressed real things children need to be saved from. Toward the end of my association with the group, I told one person anxious about the recent bad press that I was concerned about an organization that relied so much on Ballard and his vision of the world. The other person was worried, too. 

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OUR centered Black and Latino children in its fundraising work but ignored requests from Black activists to change the organization’s name. At the same time, Ballard called an Operation Underground painting by Utah artist Jon McNaughton “an early Christmas present.” McNaughton, who had famously painted Barack Obama burning the Constitution in 2012, depicted Ballard, his wife, and other white people carrying Black and brown children rescued from trafficking along a literal railroad. Harriet Tubman stands to the side in reverence along their path.

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Disillusioned and disturbed, I sought more understanding of the group’s place within the anti-trafficking world. I reached out to anti-trafficking experts. When I told an international anti-trafficking expert about the 2014 raid I attended, she immediately said, “Do you know how wrong all of that was?” The research, I learned, tells us our 2014 raid was most likely just another childhood trauma for those 26 kids. We made their lives worse.

But what she grasped in a moment, it took me years to understand. When Ballard called me into that house, he put me in harm’s way so that I could write a story about him. (Ballard did not respond to specific questions about the raid.) A condemnation of Ballard? Yes. But it’s a condemnation of me, too. I’d imagined myself the same way he did, or said he did—as a savior of these children. I tried to find meaning in my own life on the backs of exploited kids.

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I began to face the truth.

Operation Underground Railroad is now famous for its international sting operations. They are a big fundraiser: In 2015, a Silicon Valley man funded a sting with $40,000 and watched it happen in real time. With the help of OUR, a rich person can become a vigilante hero for the day, their living room transformed into a personal situation room. For those who can’t afford the situation room, Ballard carries the drama with him to every interview and every fundraiser. That drama, and a real desire to save children, moves a lot of donors, whether or not it’s accurate. Vice recently investigated a few of Ballard’s stories and found “a pattern of image-burnishing and mythology-building, a series of exaggerations that are, in the aggregate, quite misleading,” and has detailed “disturbingly amateurish” operations like the one I attended.

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The TV show never got picked up. But Operation Underground Railroad made a video of the raid I went on and posted it to its YouTube channel. It’s still there. You can see the terrified housekeeper when she opens the door to a man with a gun, me lying on the floor while police pace around me, and Ballard winking at the camera. The video ends with the line, “26 victims liberated, 8 traffickers arrested.”

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A black-and-white photo of a woman lying on the ground with her face to a tile floor.
The author lying on the floor during the raid. Meg Conley
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I was told two of the children had been trafficked for the first time that day. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that OUR may have created a demand. After the sting, I asked people on the jump team where the 26 kids were taken. I was given only vague answers. Aftercare wasn’t really their focus, I was told, but they partnered with people who did it well.

I found out what really happened from a Foreign Policy report:

In 2014, after OUR’s first operation in the Dominican Republic, a local organization called the National Council for Children and Adolescents quickly discovered it didn’t have the capacity to handle the 26 girls rescued. They were released in less than a week.

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Some testified, the article reported. The local organization lost track of others. All those kids in 2014 got from us was a soda and a swim—and Ballard came out ahead in the deal.

A representative for Operation Underground Railroad said, “O.U.R. remains laser focused on our mission to help rescue and protect victims of child sex trafficking and exploitation, bring their perpetrators to justice, provide survivors with life-saving aftercare services, and raise awareness of this worldwide scourge.”

Anti-trafficking work is not a punch-pow battle between good and evil. It means finding kids who are being trafficked and getting them into comprehensive aftercare. It means actively creating a world where fewer and fewer kids are trafficked—the consistent labor of prevention. It’s passing safe harbor, affirmative defense, and vacatur laws, designed to provide safe transitions for victims or help them avoid the criminal justice system. Anti-trafficking work is providing support for gay and trans kids kicked out of their homes and therefore exposed to heightened risk of being trafficked. It’s pushing for racial justice. It’s writing and voting for policies that provide a safety net and economic certainty.

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Anti-trafficking work, the kind that really works, doesn’t have an immediate satisfaction. It’s slow and steady. There are no starring turns.

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But seven years after my mission with them, Operation Underground Railroad is sticking to its story. Ballard opened the organization’s 2020 online fundraising gala by thanking the people watching from home. “The true heroes are you, our supporters, those of you who have allowed us to take your light into dark places. And our operators,” he said, “who are really in the darkest corners of the Earth all the time.”

Though his reality series never panned out, Ballard is represented by WME, one of the biggest talent agencies in the world. A TV show based on a book he wrote, Slave Stealers, is currently in development. And a new action movie about him, Sound of Freedom, is forthcoming. Jim Caviezel plays Ballard, with Mira Sorvino as his wife. In the trailer, released last summer, a blond Caviezel treks through the jungle of Colombia to save children from a crime syndicate. The light-filled Ballard home flashes across the screen as a contrast to the dark Colombian spaces. Caviezel sheds righteous tears, and terrified boys’ and girls’ faces, often speckled in dirt, are front and center. “Mister Timoteo,” one crying little boy asks the screen Ballard in Spanish. “You rescue kids, right?”

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