Tim Ballard: Searching for Hope in the Fight Against Modern-Day Slavery
Tim Ballard shares with “All In” host Jamie Armstrong the miraculous story of how two of the children he rescued became his own. Ballard explains how he discovered a passion for rescuing children from sex slavery, his gratitude for the influence of his wife and how he is able to bring light into the darkness because of the faith that carries him.
JAMIE ARMSTRONG 0:00 When Tim Ballard left his secure job at Homeland Security to start Operation Underground Railroad in 2014, he could only hope that the inspiration he received would lead him in the right direction. Since that time, Tim and his team have helped rescue nearly 1600 children from sex slavery and put more than 700 human traffickers behind bars. These are the moments when it's easy to feel that God is present in his work but Tim has admitted, often, that there are other times when the weight of the mission gets heavy. Today we're talking with Tim about the personal side of his work to rescue children and how his faith in God and support of his family helps to keep him going, even in the darkest moments.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we asked the question, "What does it really mean to be 'all in' the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" I'm Jamie Armstrong, and I'm excited to be here today with Tim Ballard, founder of "Operation Underground Railroad" and author of the new book, Slave Stealers. You may have also heard some of Tim's story at Timeout for Women events, where he has shared his message of hope and light with more than 60,000 women.
Tim, thank you so much for joining me.
TIM BALLARD: Thank you.
JA: 1:05 For our listeners who might not know, can you tell us what "Operation Underground Railroad" does?
TB: 1:11 Yeah, we are a private organization, a nonprofit organization. We're made up of law enforcement, former law enforcement, former military. And our job is to go around the world and empower law enforcement to rescue children who have been kidnapped, who are being exploited. There's millions and millions of children who are stuck in this trafficking scenario, where there's slave labor or sex trafficking, and the response just isn't where it needs to be in the world. And so what we're trying to do is just empower law enforcement and go in, whether it's undercover or whatever technique, to get these kids out and get them healed.
JA: 1:47 And what are the statistics? How many children are you estimating are in some kind of slavery situation?
TB: 1:52 Well, to really understand it, there's it's there's over 30 million people who are enslaved- that's men, women, and children. Our focus is the children, and according to most studies, credible studies, there's about 6 million children who are forced into some form of slavery.
JA: 2:10 I think people will be shocked by that number, they don't think about it.Give us some of the statistics on your organization.How many children have you rescued to date? How many countries have you worked in?
TB: 2:21 So we're about five years old. We're in 20 countries, stretching from United States to Asia to every continent. And we have been able to rescue over 1500 victims so far, but that's not even the number that I like the most. The number that is even more powerful than that is the amount of arrests that we've participated in, over 600. Because every pedophile every trafficker that goes to jail, I mean, each one of these people, these wicked, dark people, they can abuse up to 100 Kids, easily, in a lifetime. Maybe more.
JA: 3:00 Right.
TB: 3:00 And so you start recognizing that every time you put one of these guys away, you're rescuing kids that never know, that never will know that they needed rescuing because they were never taken in the first place.
JA: 3:11 The preventive measures there. People love to hear the rescue operations stories, and it just, it's so exciting. But tell us how the rescue is just the very beginning of the journey for these kids.
TB: 3:24 Yeah, I mean, you know, there's lots of ways to get the kids out. And we're experts in all of them, whether it's, you know, just a cold, undercover case where we're, you know, pretending to be the Americans who are traveling. Americans were the number one consumers of child pornography, so that's why our faces are very helpful to our foreign partners, especially that we play that role. Sometimes it's online investigations. So there's lots of ways to get them out, but as you're suggesting, you're right, you know, that the rescue is not even close to complete. I mean, these kids have been rewired. They've been completely hurt mentally, emotionally, and they've been made to believe that they're just commodities. And so there's a long path, sometimes even a life long path of healing. And so one of the most important things we do is we partner with aftercare centers all around the world. And we make sure that they have what they need. We won't even go into a country unless that part of the equation is completed. The first question we ask, if the law enforcement and agency in any country says, "come help us save kids," our first question is, "What are you going to do with the kids we rescue?" And we have to be okay with the answer. We have to go in. We have to vet out these organizations, generally, they're private organizations. We make sure they have everything they need. And then once the kids are, are liberated, they're placed, we place them there, along with our law enforcement partners, and then we follow up. We go back. We know these kids, we go back, we see them regularly, they know us, we make sure they have what they need. Some of them we help get adopted. If that's an option.
JA: 5:08 A lot of these people are probably wondering why don't you just take them back home?
Yeah, unfortunately, the majority of cases there is no family. I mean, that's the problem, that's how they got trafficked. There was no structure, there was no familial structure that would have protected them. And so when you liberate them, there's nowhere for them to go. Sometimes the parents are part of the problem, or they're non-existent. And so that's why these aftercare centers have to be family with it. And that's our requirement. We make sure they're a family environment. We've learned that children will heal 10 times faster in a family environment. That's why we're really pushing adoptions.
Yeah, that makes sense. And you're committed to these kids for years. Just making sure they get the education they need, the counseling they need.
TB: 5:56 Absolutely. In fact, next week, I'm going down to a Latin America country. It's an operation we did years ago and the prosecution, we're finally going to trial, we're going to put these guys away forever. And some of the kids we rescued are now college age. And they heard I was going to be in and they asked to talk to me, and I happen to know what they're going to tell me, they're going to tell me they're so excited because they're ready to go to college. And what they don't know I'm going to tell them is, well, we are giving you a full-ride scholarship to whatever school you want to go to. So those are the highlight moments for me. Not going undercover, not, you know, that part is important. These are the highlight points where I get to go down next week and tell these, these now, you know, now they're becoming adults, and the aftercare centers that we placed them in have helped them tremendously and they're ready to go to school. And we're going to tell them, you got a full ride and we're going to support you forever.
JA: 6:49 You were gracious enough to invite me on a trip to Haiti and the Dominican Republic last year. So I've seen firsthand the aftercare programs and they really are amazing. It's life-changing to watch these kids heal.
TB: 7:02 It is. It's the part that I want to show people first and foremost to go and see that the people, you know, the sizzle, people think is the rescue. And they want to see that. And the powerful part is not that. The powerful part is what you saw.
JA: 7:16 It really was amazing to see. Okay, let's back up for a minute, and talk about your time with Homeland Security. You used to be an agent, and you worked in a children's Crime Unit. Did you intend for that to be your line of work?
TB: 7:31 Oh, yeah, I loved it. That's what I wanted to do since I was a kid. And I never thought I'd leave that until they pushed me out because I got too old. That, I mean, that was my job. That was my goal. And I love my job, I never didn't like it. So I studied all things to do with national security. And I was expecting to chase terrorists and I got to do that for six months. And then they, this was the early 2000s, back in the days and if you were to Google child trafficking, the best thing that would come up is probably, you know, the Department of Transportation or something. You know, it's just not-- it wasn't a term. And even for us, we were like, what is modern day slavery? What is this? What's happening to kids? Not that it's a new crime, it's just sort of really surfacing, you know, and no one was talking about it. And my boss called me in and said, we're going to move you. We want to move you from the unit you're in and to help us start a child Crimes Unit. And I was devastated. You know, I didn't study that. I didn't want to do that. In fact, my wife and I had talked previously, you know, that we would never do crimes against children, you know?
JA: 8:39 And why not?
TB: 8:40 Because, you know, it's so devastating. I mean, to picture what's happening to kids and you know, my wife would always say, and I'd agree with her, "We have children, I don't want you to be exposed to that and bring that darkness into our into our lives." And so I had to tell my boss that I couldn't do it, you know. And he said, "Well, I can't make you do it. But can you go home and at least think about it before you say no?"And I went home and again, you know, my wife said, I can't believe they're going to ask you to do that. The answer's no. And I agreed, of course, and she said, again, we have children. And that night was a long night for me, a sleepless night. And I woke up in the morning, I was scared to death to go talk to this supervisor and tell him no.He's his big, 6"4', big burly, you know, he wears cowboy boots to work and big white handlebar mustache, you know, just picture this guy. And I didn't want to go tell him no. So I'm practicing my rejection speech in the mirror. And my wife comes up to me with tears in her eyes, and she said, "We're making the wrong decision." And I just look at her, just stunned because she was so just passionate about rejecting this position the night before and she said, "For the same reason I thought we couldn't do it, is the reason we need to do it. I mean, if it's true that there there are millions of children stuck into this thing, how can we say no?"You know, for the same reason I thought we couldn't do it because we have kids, that's how we know we know what a childhood is supposed to be. And how can we say no because we're afraid of our own pain? And so the answer just became yes, one word. And I started working child crimes in there in the early to mid-2000s.
JA: 10:29 Why do you think they chose you?
TB: 10:31 Well, I can tell you what he told me whether he was being serious or manipulating me at work, but he said, "I need you to do this." Now, understand, this particular supervisor, He hadn't-- I didn't really know him. He didn't know me. I didn't know he knew the first thing about me. I was still a relatively new agent. I was on the border. His office was more inland.
JA: 10:49 Right.
TB: 10:50 And he said, "I'm choosing you to do this because I think you are a man of faith." That's what he told me, and I was taken aback by that. He said, "If you're not a person of faith, this particular crime will destroy you."And like I said, that's, you know, whether it was a manipulation, it worked. It worked on me for sure. But I certainly felt that later on, that was the truth. I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't be working this if I didn't have a powerful faith in the atonement and in the Savior. Because without that piece, it's hopeless. It's a hopeless feeling.
JA: 11:32 Because you do, in your line of work even then, and now, you're interacting with evil people, and you're seeing the darkest things in the world. How do you not fall apart?
TB: 11:44 Right? I mean, I've watched guys and girls, you know, in this work who quit and they lose their faith. How could a loving God allow this to happen? There must not be a god. I mean, you gotta understand the things we see. It's incomprehensible. I won't even try to tell you, even a little bit, about what we-- what's going on. Because you wouldn't believe it, the devastation and the horrible things that are done. And so you kind of get it, where they're coming from. But my perspective was different because of something that would happen to me. People used to ask me like, "How do you do this? How do you sit toe to toe with a trafficker and buy and sell children and not become dark?" And I couldn't answer that question for a long time. Because if I gave my honest answer, they would think I was crazy. Because the answer was, man, I feel really good when I'm doing that. And what, are you some kind of crazy nut that you feel good doing that? It wasn't till later, I was reading the scriptures and pondering, and I started learning about, or relearning or internalizing, the doctrine of angels. And what an angels job is and you know, if you read the Book of Mormon, and you pick the five principles, that the Lord definitely wants us to believe, the Five, you know, doctrinal truths. Angels has to be on that list.I mean, think of how many times are we taught, this is real, I send them to you. These are real people. And so I started recognizing, that's what I'm feeling. That's why I feel actually closer to God as I'm witnessing the worst things. I mean, I'm toe-to-toe with the trafficker, the kids are in the back room. He's talking to me about what he's done to these kids, showing me videos, and I've got to look at those videos and laugh and act like I'm his friend. It's the only way I'm gonna get these kids out. And I'm feeling, what I now recognize the whole time, was the spirit and light. And the closer I get to the dark, the brighter those angels are because they're with those kids. And they're sitting, encouraging me, and blocking him, the trafficker, so he doesn't see me-- what's in my eyes. I mean, once I opened up to that doctrine, and then you go in with that knowledge, then you recognize it, you know, in a way that's sure. And then you start praying for it. It's a lesson for everybody really I mean, this is a-- you don't have to be working in the darkness of sex slavery to apply this principle. This is something that everybody can and should employ because there's darkness around all of us.
JA: 14:23 That's amazing, I love your insights on that. It's something most of us probably haven't thought about. Can you explain, you have to act as a pedophile? You have to pretend you are a sex tourist. Is that what your role was?
TB: 14:39 Sometimes I'm a businessman doing business for a pedophile, sometimes I am the pedophile. Sometimes, whatever the case requires. Sometimes I've been a tour guide, on you know, hosting sex tours, which is a real thing. I mean, that actually exists. And so, whatever the case requires, we go in and that's how we infiltrate. I mean, that's how we get-- we've got to gain the trust of these bad guys, and they have to bring us in and show us. It's the only way to fight to find out what's going on.
And being an American man is really the best cover. Unfortunately, yes, because we are the United States, we are the highest consumers in the world of child rape videos. And so if a Colombian cop goes undercover, he can only get so far without, you know, the suspicion. If we show up, it's like, they're not cops. You know, in fact, we've had operations where we really do it up, so they really believe we are the real thing. You know, we've had donors give us yachts that we've used and put on the-- that's where we sailed into Mexico on our yacht, you know.
TB: 15:40 And so the traffickers show up, see us on the yacht, certainly aren't cops.
JA: 15:46 Right, they don't have that kind of money.TB: 15:48
So we really can set the stage. And when the traffickers feel that comfort, then they're more apt to bring in all the kids that they're holding in captivity so we can get them out.
JA: 15:58 We're talking about really hard things right now. What can you say to people who might be having a hard time hearing this?
TB: 16:04 Yeah, you know, it's, it's a great question. It's maybe the most important question you're gonna ask me during this podcast. I was with, I just got interviewed last week, I was with Glenn Beck and he said the same thing. He says, "Every time I bring you on my show, I can watch my ratings go down." I'm like, "Thank you. That's very kind of you." And he says, "No, but it's because people want to turn it off." And what I told him is what I'll tell you, is we are asking people-- I am pleading with people, just brave through this with us because there's history. There's history attached to this. Why was it possible? And when you put it in this context, I think it allows people to be brave. Why did slavery exists for hundreds of years in this country that we call promised, that we call blessed? It's this blight on our history. How did good American people live for hundreds of years on this land and allow this to happen?
And when you start studying the answer to that question, it's quite alarming because of the parallels today. And the answer is this: People just didn't talk about it. They didn't want to talk about it. If you lived in the north, for example, you didn't see it. You didn't see slavery. People in New York in the 19th century say they didn't travel to Georgia or South Carolina, any more than you and I are traveling to Mexico or Thailand. Again, not that you need to travel to those countries because the trafficking is happening right here. But the point I'm making is the parallels are pretty interesting. And what's interesting about it, and this is where I come off, like sounding like a jerk. I know that but I'm just gonna do it anyway.
JA: 17:41 Go ahead.
TB: 17:43 I hear people say all the time, and we probably have all thought this. If I had lived in the 19th century, I would have been an abolitionist. I would have stood up with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. I wouldn't have that-- and then you say, Wait. And here's why I'm a jerk: I don't think you would have. Because if you would have been you would be now because the parallels are the same. Again, they're not looking at it any more than you are. You've heard of human trafficking, and you've heard of modern-day slavery. Everyone's heard of it by now. But when we hear those terms or hear Tim talking about it and telling you stories, I turn that podcast off, I turn the radio off, I'm out. That's what the people did in America for hundreds of years. That's why it didn't go away. When it finally did go away, it wasn't that you know, as much as I love Abraham Lincoln, as you know, you've written articles about my books on LinkedIn and stuff as much. He didn't just rise up one day and say, "Hark, I now end slavery." That's not what happened. You know, what happened was people finally got brave. People finally said You know what, I'm going to look at this. I'm not going to run from this. People like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery. And they were loud, and they spoke and people listened, and he's not wrong. That's what happened. People got brave, and they listened.
And I know it hurts. Believe me, I, of all people, know it hurts. I go home and collapse. I rarely get through the week without at least one total breakdown. I'm embarrassed to admit that, but then I get back up and I go. And I have a wife that loves me and is part of the mission and I have my faith and my relationship with the Lord but I know you have to lose innocence to even listen to this. I know. And I know it hurts. But I don't know what else to do but just ask people to engage it anyway, to be brave like Harriet Beecher Stowe. Listen, learn what you can because when you do that you become converted, just like all those abolitionists became converted in the 19th century. And then the foundations of the land shook, the government shook and they had to act. That's what we're trying to do. We need to start a new movement similar to that old one, where everybody says, "What can I do?" And they figure out what that is. It's the only way to end this is the fastest growing criminal enterprise on the planet. It's not reversing, we have to reverse it.
JA: 19:58 So everyone needs to get uncomfortable and take some action.
TB: 20:01 That's what I'm asking you to do.
JA: 20:02 OK, now let's talk about your transition from work as an agent to Operation Underground Railroad. Can you briefly explain to us why you left the government?
TB: 20:14 I never intended to leave. The laws changed in the mid-2000s. They passed, Congress passed, this great law called the "Adam Walsh Child Protection Act." And what it did was it kind of made things easier, opened up doors. And one of the doors that opened was it allowed U.S. agents to investigate Americans who are traveling overseas and abusing children. And holding these pedophiles accountable for the crimes against children they committed overseas as if they committed it on our own soil. So this was a revolutionary law. And I was in the middle of the Child Crimes Unit and they put me on the team. They said, "Tim your job, you speak Spanish, go south, find the American pedophiles." So I went in, they sent me to undercover school, and I went in. And what I saw blew my mind. I mean, I knew it was bad, but I didn't know that this bad. And the problem was, I kept seeing cases where the kids were there being sold. But I didn't show up at the child brothel, at this undercover, at the same time that the American did. And if I couldn't prove the American was there, there's no mandate or funding or, you know, jurisdiction for me to act. And so you can only take that so many times, and then you realize the host country that is supporting your little mission, your expeditions, they're saying, "Stay. We need your American face. We need resources. We don't know what to do next." And having to say no, over and over again, again, not because the U.S. government was doing something wrong. I wouldn't tell myself no, were I my own boss, but there was no mandate, it'd be illegal to stay and operate.
JA: 21:42 You don't have jurisdiction there.
TB: 21:44 No, not unless you make a connection to a US traveler.
JA: 21:47 OK.
TB: 21:47 And so two things happened. I came across two cases, in 2012 that just changed my life. One was, that we've spoken at length about. And you know this family is a little boy that was born in Utah. His father was a bishop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And this little boy was kidnapped from the church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I learned about it because the Desert News did a story on it. And I'm reading this story and I just thought, I gotta help this family, I gotta help this father. I know enough about the world to know that Haiti's probably doing very little in the way of a proactive investigation to find this little boy. And so that was weighing on my mind. And then I met the man, I met the father, Guesno Mardy, and invited him to Utah. And we sat down, and I said, "What's being done to find your son?" And as I imagined, he told me, "Tim, nothing. I walk the streets at night, arbitrarily picking some neighborhood, flashlight in hand, and pray that I hear my son cry. That's what's being done." And then my heart just broke, and I made a promise to him that I shouldn't have made. You know, I'm glad I did, but it wasn't probably prudent at that time. I said, "I will never stop, you have my word. I will never stop until we find your son."
About the same time, I'm in Colombia doing training, training Colombian agents on how to do trafficking cases. And I didn't want to do the training this time. I was tired, I wanted to do a real case. And so instead of the training, I shut the laptop down, and I said, "Guys, let's just-- we're the kids being sold, where's it happening? We have three days together, let's not go over all this PowerPoint, let's just find the kids and go rescue them." And so they got all excited. They said we got to go to Cartagena, Colombia. That's where the kids are being sold. That's where the cruise ships come in and the foreigners and the Americans and the Westerners come in. So we set this thing up, and we were going to rescue over 100 kids. And I was, again, being you know-- saying things and making promises I shouldn't have made, that I had no authority to make. I was basically writing checks that I couldn't cash. I was telling them, "Oh, don't worry, I'll find the money. We need about $100,000 to do this right? I'll get it." What, why, how? I don't know, but I've said it. "And oh, you need a team of about 10 American agents to be undercover? Got it. Done. Let's go, check next." And so I get these guys all riled up, I'm going home on the airplane. And I'm like, I did it again. I made a promise to Guesno Mardy, I made a promise to these Colombian agents, and really, by extension, to the kids in Cartagena, who I now have identified. And I knew the answer. Again, if I were my own boss, asking for that much money or resources, I'd tell myself no, because it's illegal. It's not a U.S. operation. And so when I finally had that discussion with my boss, he's like, "Tim, I'm sorry, you made those promises." And then I went home to my wife, and I'm just devastated. What do I do? It's now 2013, months have passed, I'm trying to forget about the promises I've made. And they come to the point where I have a series of very powerful spiritual experiences and the Lord saying, "Quit your job and go do it. I'll take care of you. I'll take care of it, quit your job." And quitting the job, all that does is it frees me up. I looked at like, can I take a leave? Can I take leave from work? And I couldn't I didn't have enough money or leave to go do it on my own. And so the only option was to quit and pray that people provide the resources and let us go do this.JA: 25:06
And your wife was okay with this?TB: 25:08
Not only was she okay with it, she was— she would get upset at me when I told her I wasn't going to do it because I was way too scared. We had six kids at the time and I was going to go from the most secure job in the world, a federal employee, to the most insecure job, starting a nonprofit that's promising to privatize something that's not really been privatized, the rescue of children. You know, so it was a scary thing. But that was the fork in the road that was transformative for me. And I knew that I had the backing, the assurance of the Lord, that I was supposed to do it. And then we jumped off and we did it.JA: 25:44
Let's talk about your first mission in Haiti in 2014. That took an interesting turn for you personally. Can you explain a little bit about that operation and what did and did not happen?
TB: 25:55 We went to Haiti, looking for the boy, for Gardy, the little LDS boy who was kidnapped from his church. We went to the police, we always work with the police. We don't work outside of the jurisdictions. The authorities and the police were more than happy to have us help. They admitted freely, we don't have the resources to do a long-term practical investigation. And we just, we can't. And so we investigated and we found the traffickers. We found the people that took Gardy and they let us, basically, evidence led us, to this compound that was posing as an orphanage. And that's where they kept the kids. They kidnapped these kids after, like after the earthquake in 2010. That was a harvest day for traffickers. They go in and they scoop up the kids. I mean, this is the part that people don't realize when you know, there's a tsunami, there's an earthquake, some horrible thing happens. And everyone's focusing on, you know, as they should, you know, focusing on the infrastructure collapse, the people need food. And the well, the part that sometimes gets missed is overnight, hundreds of thousands of orphans were made, with no protection, with no parents, their parents are dead, right. And now the traffickers come swooping in, they take the kids. And then what happens is traffickers set up orphanages, because all they got to do is put orphanage on the wall, and the kids are just brought to them. And they can sell those kids for thousands of dollars. So we found the place where Gardy had been held. And we went undercover with hidden cameras and discovered that these kids, a lot of them were kidnapped during the earthquake, and other times. And they were being sold for about $10,000 each. No questions asked. You come in and buy these kids. So we did a sting operation in that orphanage. This was early 2014, the very first operation, and we were able to get the evidence, caught them in the act of selling kids to us. I had to pick a couple of kids to buy and we bought these kids in a sting operation and that gave us the evidence we needed. The bad guys went to JA:il. All the 28 kids in that place were liberated. But the little boy wasn't there. Gardy wasn't there, Gardy he had already been sold to somebody. And so it was a very bittersweet experience.
JA: 28:09 Yeah, I can imagine.
TB: 28:10 I mean, it was probably one of the most spiritual and enlightening experiences as well. Because I had to go tell this father, Guesno, I had to go tell him that his son wasn't there. He was waiting at a hotel, praying that I would walk through that hotel holding his son's hand. That was our dream. But when he wasn't there,I had to go, his cell phone wasn't working that day so I had to go in person, which was probably providential by design, because of what happens next. I walk in the hotel and there he is, and he sees me and I don't need to say anything. He looks at my face, and he knows his sons not there, and we sit down and just start crying. And finally, he breaks the kind of silence and he says, "Tim, stop crying!"
And I'm like, "well, you're crying like what are you talking about?" Like, this is a moment to cry, my friend. You know, like, I'm kind of taken aback. He said, "Don't you realize what just happened?" You know, and at first, I thought he was just trying to play a mind game to help himself and help me. But he wasn't. I found out later what he was saying was very sincere. He said, "Don't you realize that 28 kids were rescued?" And I said, Yes. And he said, "And don't you realize that if Gardy hadn't been kidnapped, your team never would have come here, those kids wouldn't have been rescued. They'd still be for sale. They'd be in the hands of evil people." And I said, "Yeah, I guess I never thought of it that way." And then he said this, he said, "If I have to give up my son so that those 28 kids can be rescued. That is a burden I'm willing to bare."JA: 29:39
Oh wow. Well, and also, you've taken this to a very personal level because of the brother and sister that you purchased in that sting operation in Haiti. Can you tell everybody what happened with those kids after that?
TB: 29:52 Yeah, you know, so I'm laying in bed that night. I'm in a broken-down hotel room, I can't sleep, even though I haven't slept in 48 hours leading up to the operation. And all my operators are just out. They're so glad they can finally sleep. And I can't sleep because I'm having these thoughts run through my head. I'm seeing all the events of the day, very bittersweet, right? The 28 we rescued, the one we didn't. And these two kids, they kind of took over my thoughts. I bonded with them. I mean as we drove from the orphanage to the hotel where we were going to do the sting deal, where the arrest was going to happen. And I'm this hardened trafficker, right, playing in that role. This little boy jumps into my arms and just starts cuddling with me. And he just, it's his first ride ever. And he just-- and I'm holding him and the traffickers are sitting right behind me, and I'm like fighting back tears. I mean, if there's ever a time when I came close to breaking character, it's right at this moment. But it was a spiritual thing like I was feeling this connection. And so that night, I'm thinking all these thoughts. And I started having, really, an anxiety attack, likeI start sweating, and I kneel down to pray. Because I've been in this situation before, where you get this attachment to the kids you're helping, and you just pray, "Lord, please let me out," like help me separate, because I can't go on to the next case. And the Lord has always been very helpful in that. And the more I prayed, the more I saw those kids, the more vivid the memory of the day, the previous days had been. And then I started seeing them in situations and events that I hadn't experienced with them yet, which was very daunting. I didn't know what it meant, but I knew that I had to get out of this prayer really fast. So I jumped up, I'm like, okay, that's not working. I'm out, you know, that was not the brave or right thing to do. But I was just like, have you forsaken me? Remember, we had this deal, you know, you're supposed to, you know, do this thing for me, you're making it worse. And so then I call Catherine, and I start telling her this story. And I'm, like, I said, "Can you just come down and help me just come down?" And she's just silent. And she's having this-- she's much more in tune, as you can tell, than I am, in every way, especially spiritually. And she's having this experience, and it's just quiet. And she just says to me very calmly, she says, "I don't need to come down." She's like, "but I'll tell you what you need to do. You need to go adopt those kids. We'll bring them home"
JA: 32:19 Wow, sight unseen. She says, "Bring these kids home."TB: 32:22
And I thought, what? Like, we have six kids, you know. And we didn't know, a surprise attack comes later. So then there's seven by the time, you know, but she knew. And this was not like-- this was tough. I mean, this was not like an easy thing. And it wasn't like a casual thing to her. She knew, in that moment, that she was to tell me to do that.JA: 32:43
And this is something I didn't know until I read your book, but you talk about how they were moved on, after you went home that night. And so you went back to see them and they were gone.
TB: 32:54 It's an amazing story. And again, it ties into this thing of, you know, it ties into this thing of these gospel principles of when you're living what the Lord's asked you to do, you can expect he's gonna lift his end. So I go down to the police station, and they're like, oh, sorry, no, you're not you're not from this country. It's not the same thing. We can't even tell you where they are, or anything about them. I said, "what are you talking about?I'm the one that rescued them. What do you mean you can't tell me where they are?" They said we can't tell you anything, it's against the law. And I respected it, the laws a good one. It's to protect children from traffickers. You can't just go and ask about a kid, they're not going to tell you where he is or she is. They said there's one person in the country that can tell you, if she wants, she can make an exception. And maybe, since you were involved in the rescue, that you can convince her to tell you where they are. And she's appointed by the president and good luck finding her.
So I go to her office, I email, I call. Haiti's not-- it's a chaotic place, right? It's a very, it's very much a developing nation. And I could not get ahold of her. I tried every way. I waited at her office. I mean, I couldn't get ahold, and no one would break the policy for me and tell me where my, where these kids were. I was calling them my kids at this point.
JA: 34:07 So how did you end up with them?TB: 34:08
So finally I learned, I get smart and think, okay, I can't do this on my own. The Lord talked to my wife and said, do this. So I was back in Haiti, and it was eight months, eight months since the rescue operation. And I asked my wife and children to kneel down and pray at eight o'clock Utah time, where they were because it was 10 o'clock my time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. And I was going to walk through the gates of the office where this woman works. And there's these metal gates that open up to a courtyard, and then the office. And so I show up at just a few minutes to 10. And one of my operators is with me, and he says, "Let's go, what are you waiting for?" I say, "I'm not walking through that gate until 10 o'clock, because that's when I know my wife and children are on their knees." And what happens next is, just there's no other word for it, just miraculous. I opened that gate, And as I'm opening the gate, someone's pulling on the gate. And there's this woman who's exiting as I'm entering, and she's this elderly Haitian woman, gray hair. And I'm all amped up, you can imagine. I'm knowing that the miracle is going to happen and when it happens, I'm not going to miss it, right? So nothing gets in my way. Nothing's passing me without me interrogating it, right? So this poor woman, I inappropriately grabb her arms like pretty, you know, pretty intently, you know, and she's taking aback. And I said, "Who are you?" You know, in English, which no one speaks English, in Haiti. And yet, this woman speaks perfect English. And she says, "Well, who are you?" Which, you know, makes me jump. And then, I listened to her question and figure it's a pretty reasonable response.
JA: 35:40 Sure, yeah.
TB: 35:42 So I said, "Look, I'm sorry, I'm amped up here. I'm looking for these two kids, and I can't find them." And she said, "What are their names? Maybe I can help you."
I know, it's not the woman who's in charge. I know that, so I'm thinking who are you to know? Who are you? I mean, no one will tell me anything, and you're going to tell me? And there's 30 thousand orphans in Haiti, and you're going to know these names, which by the way, I don't even know if this is their names. And so I tell her what their names are. And she instantly, her eyes just pop open and tears are flooding out her eyes. And she said, "I know where the kids are." And she says, "You're the one who rescued them.
"I said, "Yeah."
She said, "at the patient Ville hotel?"
I said, "Yes, 28 children." I'm like, Oh my gosh, you know, you know something What? And she just starts saying, "Praise Jesus!" I mean, she is like, in full worship mode, very, obviously, a very believing woman.
And when she finally comes to, she says, "The only reason I know who your kids are," she's like, you won't believe this. She says, "I don't even work here. I'm not even here that often."
And I said, "What? Who are you?"
You know, she says, "When those 28 kids were rescued eight months ago, they were brought here. And they were given to three different orphanages. And they called three different orphanage directors from different orphanages to come in. And there's hundreds of these mom and pop orphanages all over, you know, housing 330 thousand orphans in Haiti. And she says, "You won't believe this, I'm just picking up paperwork because I'm the director of a little orphanage miles away. I just happened to be here today picking up some things. But I was one of the orphanages that was called. And I took a third of the kids. And the other third, I remember your two kids, and I know who they're with, with my friend, who's a director somewhere else. She calls that friend and within 24 hours, the kids are brought to me.JA: 37:32
Oh my gosh. That is a miracle.TB: 37:34
And that's how I learned who they were and where they were in that began the process.
JA: 37:39 And it took four years, almost.
TB: 37:41 Four years of fighting the bureaucracy and getting them home.
JA: 37:44 You got them home this summer.TB: 37:45
We got them home this summer.
JA: 37:46 And we have you been able to be sealed with them?
TB: 37:49 We were sealed a couple months ago.JA: That's so amazing. What a happy ending, I'm so glad. We've just talked about so many powerful experiences that you've had in your own life and in your family. What does it mean to you, to be all in the Gospel?
TB: 38:04 That's a really good question, and I think the best way for me to answer that is to take you to an experience that I had. I've kind of glossed over this experience, but something happened when I was about to leave my nice, comfy job. And I want to preface this by saying I'm not good at this. I'm not saying that I'm the example of what it means to be "all in," because I struggle with that all the time. With that said, I mentioned my wife. But she said, you know, don't jeopardize my salvation by not doing this. Something else she told me, even more powerful than that, that opened my eyes and made me-- I had to answer that question. Am I all in or not? Because this was a gospel question. Understand, because the Lord had told me, and there was no question, I knew the miracles. I could spend an hour telling you events that led to this point where "Tim you need to leave, Tim you need to leave," and I didn't want to go, I did not want to go. And I knew he wanted me to I didn't want to. So that was it. Are you all in or not? Because I felt like he was asking me to do something that was totally irrational in my mind. I mean, even my own family is like, what are you doing? You can have a pension in 10 years and what are you doing jumping into a nonprofit with six kids? You know, it was irrational. It was irrational. But I'm either going to be all in on this thing or not. I mean, either I'm going to believe these covenants are real, or not. And what helped me, and this is the thing I reflect upon when I'm struggling to be all in on every aspect of the gospel. My wife said this to me. She said, "Okay Tim, you're at a crossroads. Just close your eyes."
And I'm like, stressed out by the way, at this moment. This is December 2013. She's like, "Calm down, close your eyes. And just picture this for me, just humor me." She said, "You see, there's two roads before you. One of the roads is: stay with the secure, government job that you love. And that road to you, describe it to me."
I said, "Oh, it's secure. I see the end. I see retirement, I see security for my family."
She said, "Now see the other road. What do you see?"
"Nothing. I see black and scary and the unknown and falling off a cliff financially and in every other way." She says, "Okay. Now erase that image. Now just picture you're meeting your maker. You're meeting with Him. Your post-mortal meeting. And he's saying to you, 'Well, Tim, is there any doubt I told you, you need to leave?' And you're going to say no. He'll say, 'But you didn't leave, did you? You didn't do what I asked you to do.'"
She said, "Picture that meeting. Are you picturing it?"I'm like, "Yep, I'm picturing that meeting. I'm talking to him."
She's like, "How are you feeling about your choice?"
I said, "Really, really bad."
She says, "Okay, go back to that path. Go back to that path, the fork in the road? What do you see now?"And I swear to you, I just saw it. That path that looked so secure and bright before was completely dark and scary. That became the scary-- the secure road became the very scary road. And this other road, though I couldn't see the end, it was comforting and light, and wonderful. Just like that. And I thought that's it. What will I lose by going the secure path here, because it's not the will of the Lord? What blessings will be lost? And from then on, in that instant, I was able to go all in and do the irrational thing. I've tried, I'm not great at this, I've tried to use this little parable, this exercise on all the decisions that come before me. Are you all in or not? Are you going to do this or not? And when I do that, and I found it in the Scriptures, it's there, in Alma, chapter five, Alma tells asks us to do the same thing. He says, picture yourselves standing before the judgment of God, you're dressed in white, picture it. And when you do that, if you do that every day, you probably going to make the right decisions. And you're going to choose to be all in.JA: 42:02
And because of your leap of faith, thousands of lives have been impacted. It's really just amazing. I'm so inspired by the work that you do. Let me ask you about your new book, "Slave Stealers." It has a very interesting format. It's going back and forth between 19th-century slavery and your experiences in modern-day slavery. Can you explain what inspired you to write the book? And why did you choose to talk about the history like that?TB: 42:28
I don't think I would be able to do what we're doing with "Operation Underground Railroad," without the history of the original underground railroad and that abolitionist movement. And I want to say this first, you have to be very careful. And I'm very careful in my book, you can't mix the two, they're different forms of evil. They're both evil. They're both slavery. And I make this point clear. We don't want to cannibalize history. Each story is unique and needs to be preserved. And that's important, it's important to me, and I make that point like I said. But doesn't mean there's not parallels that we can learn from. When I was sent to do child crimes in the government, I was sent to undercover school. And my first simulation exercise, I'm in this kind of set, you know, and there's cameras and a black wall and black windows, you know, they're watching me. I'm scared to death. And they say, "Go to this guy. He's an undercover operator, one of the best in the nation, and he's playing the role of a smuggler. He doesn't know what you want, convince him to find kids for you, or that he knows what you know, talk to him."
And this guy's going to try to beat me up and show me what a bad undercover operator I am, right, to help me. And I start bringing up kids. And he says, I'm three minutes into this conversation, I'm stumbling tripping over myself, and he says, "Out of roll, stop. Out of roll." He says, "What is this?"
I'm like, "I'm not going to talk about this. I have a daughter. I'm not going to talk about this." And he leaves. And I and I thought now what do I do? And it wasn't that my agency wasn't like, was uncaring. Quite the contrary, the HSI Homeland Security, they're leading the way. But you've gotta understand this was the time when we were all just kind of really trying to figure out what was going on. And so minus any kind of real solid, kind of curriculum, I, in quiet desperation, almost, I turned to history. I knew it was slavery. So I bought every book I could on Abraham Lincoln. I mean, that's what actually led to my book, "The Lincoln Hypothesis," is my study. But I was not studying it to find those things I found for that book, I was studying it to survive, to figure out what do we know about slavery? How does it function? How did it function then? What lessons might I learn? And so that was the beginning. So when I created this private foundation, I knew I had to make a connection back to that movement. That was the thing that sustained me. And I've learned things, not just being inspired by these great abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, but even tactically. I mean, undercover operations that Harriet Tubman or Levi coffin, executed. We've learned from even that, the politics of it, how do you deal with the politics and how do you deal with telling the story? How do you deal with the aftercare? There's so many applicable lessons. And so that became my roadmap. And the one person, who more than anyone else from that movement that inspired me, is a little known abolitionist, named Harriet JA:cobs. Little known because people didn't know she existed for a couple generations. Because she wrote this book in 1861, published "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," and she had to change all the names, because her rescue was so raw still, that she had to protect people in the south who had helped her. And so by the next generation of academics, they thought it was a work of fiction.
JA: 45:36 Oh, interesting.
TB: 45:36 So they lost, she was lost to history as someone that didn't really exist. It wasn't until a modern-day professor, her name is Jean Fagan Yellin. She discovered that she was real, her name was Harriet Jacobs. And when I learned this story, it touched me because she had to rescue two children. This was at the same time I was trying to rescue my two children. And so she becomes my inspiration. In fact, I travel, this might sound silly to some, but I traveled thousands of miles to her hometown of Edenton, North Carolina, to learn, to be inspired, to walk where she walked, to pray where she prayed, and to get the tools I needed spiritually, physically, everything to go find my two children and pull them out of this different, but also form of slavery. And so that's what this book is about. Every chapter goes back and forth between Harriet's story and my story, not that I'm comparing myself to her. Because it's about me, on my knees, learning at her feet, teaching me. And so we go back and forth, as she rescues her kids, and I learn what I need to, to help in my personal mission. So they're two separate stories and both narratives. They both can be described as they're full of rescues and triumphs and tragedies and miracles and both stories kind of keep you on the edge of your seat.
JA: 46:58 It really is a fascinating book, I love it. Tim, where should people go for more information?
TB: 47:03 They can go to our website, which is ourrescue.org and, of course, pick up the book at Deseret Book, which tells the whole story.
JA: 47:10 Perfect. Thank you, Tim.
TB: Thank you so much.
JA: A big thank you to Tim Ballard for joining us. You can find his newest book Slave Stealers, on desetbook.com. We hope you enjoyed this podcast. To listen to more episodes of All In, visit LDSliving.com/allin.