Paul Hutchinson—an executive producer of Sound of Freedom, the film focused on the heavily fictionalized exploits of anti-trafficking activist Tim Ballard—touched the naked breasts of an apparently underage trafficking victim during a 2016 undercover operation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Footage of the incident and its aftermath was captured by videographers working with Operation Underground Railroad, or OUR, the private anti-trafficking group Ballard founded. An investigator with the Davis County Attorney’s Office obtained the footage and wrote detailed descriptions of it as part of a criminal investigation into Ballard and OUR carried out with the FBI. That investigation was closed this year without any charges being brought. The descriptions were included among documents obtained by VICE News through a public-records request, and make clear that the trafficking victim appeared to be—and was believed at the time by Hutchinson and OUR operatives to be—about 16 years old. They also assert that OUR believed the footage had been destroyed.
A description of one of the videos, written by an investigator, shows Hutchinson expressing concerns over whether he could be prosecuted by Mexican authorities over the incident. He was speaking to Matt Osborne, an OUR operative, who dismissed his worries while making clear he didn’t think the video should be shown to the U.S. government. Osborne is currently the president and chief operating officer of OUR, as he has been since Ballard resigned from the organization earlier this year following an internal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct.
Hutchinson, 52, is an anti-trafficking activist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur with lines in, among other things, ballistic protection technology and private vaults who’s long been associated with the Utah anti-trafficking movement. According to his LinkedIn, he was the first investor in Sound of Freedom. Currently affiliated with the Child Liberation Foundation, he was a key fundraiser and operative for OUR before splitting with Ballard several years ago over, as he put it in an email to VICE News, “similar reasons as those you are bringing to light in your stories.” Provided with a detailed description of what was in the investigative files, he did not deny that the videos showed him doing what the investigator’s description said they did, or dispute that he had felt the trafficking victim’s naked breasts. He did dispute that she was a minor, asserting that he had a sworn affidavit from Mexican federal police saying that she was over 18. He did not respond to multiple requests, sent over a period of weeks, to provide a copy of this document.
A detailed description of another video shows Hutchinson potentially creating demand for trafficking while posing as a wealthy sex tourist. According to an investigator’s description, he asked a trafficker, who was showing him pictures of sex workers, for younger girls—or, as he and the trafficker both described them, “mas fresca.” The trafficker, according to the investigator’s description of the video, tells women who are working with him to find girls as young as 14 to provide to Hutchinson.
There is no suggestion in the files that Hutchinson’s behavior was aimed at anything but identifying and exposing traffickers, but federal agents with extensive experience working undercover overseas told VICE News that Hutchinson’s methods ran contrary to best practice. For years, experts in the anti-trafficking field have raised concerns about OUR’s methods potentially creating demand for trafficking victims, due to scenarios precisely like this one. Rather than finding minors who were already being trafficked, requesting younger victims while undercover could cause traffickers to try and find people to fill that request. In other words, such a request would not rescue trafficking victims; it could potentially create them.
Tim Ballard—who has said he is likely to run for the Senate seat Mitt Romney is vacating—did not respond to requests for comment for this story; OUR provided a statement which can be found below.
“There is a lot to the story, a very dangerous situation and I am happy to let the world know the details when the time is right,” Hutchinson wrote in an email to VICE News. “Every operator who was present stands behind me in how I reacted to the situation. I have zero reservations as to how I handled myself undercover.
“You don’t find trafficked children in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. We had to go to the most dangerous places on the planet to find the children.
“All my undercover work was done with integrity and honor.”
Documents related to the incident can be read here.
The footage reviewed by investigators was taken as part of the filming of The Abolitionists, a 2016 documentary movie and 2019 television series featuring Hutchinson. The documentaries valorize the exploits of Ballard and OUR, who are depicted carrying out private undercover operations in foreign countries aimed at liberating child sex slaves. (Darrin Fletcher and Chet Thomas, the producers and directors for the film, did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News.)
The files obtained by VICE News consist of audio transcripts and timestamped descriptions of what investigator Bryan Purdy of the Davis County Attorney’s Office saw while reviewing the footage—which OUR, according to an investigator’s note, believed it had “scrubbed.”
A description of one video—which was, going by its associated file name, taken in February 2016 using an “earphone cam”—starts, “Paul Hutchinson and his team are standing in the street area talking with local men.” They cross the street and go into a club, where females are seen walking toward them down a staircase.
“A female,” the description—which like the others in this story we are reproducing verbatim aside from minor redactions, complete with typographical and grammatical errors—reads, “gets to the bottom of the stairs and there is an adult male standing to her left side. The male is wearing a light-colored shirt with long sleeves and a necktie. The male uses both of his hands to lift the female’s shirt up to her shoulders exposing her naked breasts. While he continues to hold the female’s shirt up with both hands, another adult male approaches from directly in front of the female. This male (identified as Paul Hutchinson based on his own statements on a phone call to Matt Osborn.) is wearing a light-colored shirt with short sleeves. Paul approaches the female and lifts both of his hands and places them on each of the female’s naked breasts. The female uses her hand to push down Paul’s hands and pulls her shirt down. There is another female standing above them higher on the stairway wearing a dark colored skirt/shorts and a dark colored tube top shirt.
“Paul leans in and kisses the first female on the side of the cheek,” read the investigator’s notes.
The adult male in the white shirt, according to the description, goes outside with Hutchinson and his team. “You want more touch, feel, oh no more touch,” he says. Another man says, “You like more 16” and that he can provide IDs. Hutchinson pays one of these men—which isn’t made clear in the description—money and says, “For showing ‘em to me right there.”
Purdy, the investigator, also wrote a description of a second video, which to go by its file name was taken the same day as the first one using a “backpack cam.” (According to a note, this video was taken in the same club and in the same time frame as the other one, using a different camera.)
“Another girl like her, (inaudible),” says a local male’s voice, according to the description. “16, she’s 16.”
One of the OUR operatives is heard saying, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Hutchinson is heard saying, “Yeah, let’s get out of here, I’m down a grand.”
“For a thousand bucks you got your hands on some breasts,” says a male voice, to laughter.
“What was I going to do?” asks a second male voice, whose words are described as being interrupted repeatedly by laughter. “Okay, she’s 16, here, feel them, they’re nice. I’m like, shit, those are 16.”
“You think they’re under age, huh?” asks the first male voice.
“Oh yeah,” says a third male voice, “I would put money on that.” The men continue their discussion for a bit before the first male voice says, “Yeah, those girls were young, man.”
“I don’t know how wise it was to grab that girl’s boobs, though,” says the second male voice.
“You didn’t get that on video or anything, did you?” asks the first male voice.
In a statement to VICE News, Hutchinson wrote, “In regards to the undercover mission in Cabo San Lucas, 23 victims were liberated, and some very bad men are now in prison. Your reference to the trafficker testing our legitimacy is a non story. I have a sworn affidavit by the federal police saying she was over 18.”
A description of a third video covers a February 28, 2016 phone call between Hutchinson and Matt Osborne. During the call, which took place on speakerphone and was filmed in a room with Hutchinson and several other men in it, Osborne talks to the videographer filming the call about the hard drive containing the footage he’s shot, at which point Hutchinson brings up the incident at the club.
During the conversation he refers to himself in the third person as “Paul Stone”—a reference, according to Purdy’s description of the video, to the alias he used while undercover—and asks if he’s “gonna get in big trouble from the Mexican authority for touching a sixteen-year-old on film.”
“When you get the hard drive I have to, I have to confess to something,” he says, according to a transcript. “But I believe that it helped to make them, really believe that we weren’t a police officers in any way. Uh, (starts to laugh), so, so we uh, we, we we, were taken to the um to the strip club, (Paul laughs again as well as the man next to him.) K so, the very first time that V. was vetting is out and um he took us, he took us to the strip club, and, and, the, a owner of the strip club brought down the minors. And um, and V.’s the very first time V.’s shown us any minors, and, uh, brought down these minors well, well Paul Stone (referring to himself as the Undercover name he was going by) is standing there at the bottom of the stairs. A, these two girls working the strip club, these two minors come down. The owner of the strip club pulls up one of their shirts and grabs one of Paul Stone’s hand and places it on her breast and so it’s on the video. I just wanna find out if I’m gonna get in big trouble from the Mexican authority for touching a sixteen-year-old on film?”
“Uh, is it clear that they pulled it, pulled your hand there?” asks Osborne. (In the copy of the description obtained by VICE News, this entire passage is highlighted and the word “LIE” is written next to it, with a margin note reading “PAUL PUTS BOTH HANDS ON VOLUNTARILY.” Those appear to be an investigator’s notes; the Davis County Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.)
“It’s not clear on the video,” says Hutchinson. “I was standing on the side and he grabbed the hand from down on the right hand, on my right-hand side as he pulled up her shirt and put em up. (Paul then raised his hands, one his right hand while holding the phone and then raised his left hand in a motion of grabbing with his hand.) And so, we feel like and if, we were all there, and we all feel like, if I had hesitated, and oh yeah. I’m not really interested in touching that right now as he was pulling it up, I think it would have thrown up a lot of red flags. Um, but a, that is on the hard drive. I just wanted to run that by and see what your thoughts are.”
“Yea I don’t think at this point that will be an issue, a maybe if it was the Mexican’s,” says Osborne. “And we’re sending it just the Mexicans. I don’t want this video to be to HSI, the U.S. Embassy because I’m sure, and I’ve done it before too one time, I’m sure that technically you guys probably entrap some of these people. Try not to, a yeah, and I’ve done it before accidentally. So, I’m just content that is not an issue.”
A man sitting on a couch, according to the description, tells Hutchinson, “The only thing you have to do is not tell your bishop.”
A final description of a video carries no reference to when or where it was taken.
According to an investigator’s notes, in the video, a trafficker is showing Hutchinson and a male associate photos of females on his phone. “Paul and the other male are joking that they are old, and saying 20, 22, 30, 40 years old. The trafficker says 16 and they ask him who? He replies he doesn’t know them but states these are the girls.
“Paul pulls out his wallet and gives the guy $20. Then says, I’ll give you $100 just to see them. Paul states, ‘Mas Pequeno’ (meaning more small) as he is handing the trafficker the money.
“They continue to see images of women on the traffickers’ phones of what appear, based upon Paul and other team members statements, to be adult women in their twenties and thirties. The traffickers try to say the girls are ‘16 or 17’ but Paul would say they look like they were 30 and continue to ask for younger girls.”
The description ends with an account of the trafficker talking to two females “and telling then to go out and find ‘la mas chicas’ (the smallest) the more young you can find. La mas chicas. 16, 14, 15, he pay you in dollars.”
Tim Ballard did not respond to a request for comment; in response to other reporting VICE News has done about him recently, he issued a statement to a crowd in Boston and, later, another through the SPEAR Fund, his new organization, referring to VICE obliquely as “a tabloid that is often hostile to people of faith.”
In response to requests for comment about this story as well as others, an OUR spokesperson sent one statement, which read as follows:
These allegations have been raised previously, written about by Vice and thoroughly investigated by the Davis County District Attorney. That investigation concluded without the filing of any charges.
Following Tim Ballard’s departure from O.U.R. three months ago, we have been working tirelessly to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our domestic and international operations.
At O.U.R., we are proud to support law enforcement in liberating any person in the grips of human trafficking or exploitation and we strive to ensure ongoing aftercare for all those affected. Our resources have contributed to the arrest of over 7,400 suspected predators and have impacted the lives of over 7,800 individuals. Currently, we are carrying out an average of five missions per week worldwide. We are committed to this important work until everyone in need is safe.
Update, September 19, 5:46 p.m. EST:
After publication, an OUR spokesperson provided additional comment, saying that Matt Osborne “promptly notified the Mexican federal police” after an OUR employee told him about the incident. The statement adds that Mexican police investigated the incident “and did not press charges as the woman was an adult,” but adds that Hutchinson’s actions “do not represent O.U.R.’s standard operating procedure and were inappropriate, regardless if the woman was an adult or not.”
The statement reads, in full:
An Operation Underground Railroad employee flagged the incident involving Mr. Hutchinson to Matt Osborne, and he promptly notified the Mexican federal police. The Mexican police investigated the incident and did not press charges as the woman was an adult. Mr. Hutchinson has never been employed by O.U.R. in an official capacity and O.U.R. ceased any affiliation with him shortly thereafter . The actions by Mr. Hutchinson do not represent O.U.R.’s standard operating procedure and were inappropriate, regardless if the woman was an adult or not.