‘Sound of Freedom’ Angel Studios Targeted in Tim Ballard Lawsuit

Lifestyle

A new, fifth lawsuit against disgraced anti-trafficking activist Tim Ballard, whose exaggerated rescue missions abroad were the inspiration for the hit film Sound of Freedom, has also taken aim at Angel Studios, the distributor of the controversial 2023 movie. It’s the first civil action targeting Ballard that simultaneously goes after the media company that made millions by mythologizing his exploits.

Brought by the same law firms representing multiple women accusing Ballard of sexual assault in previous complaints (allegations Ballard disputes), this latest suit claims that Ballard and various companies connected to him defamed plaintiff Kely Johana Suárez Moya, a Colombian woman, as a child trafficker and sexual predator. The 369-page document argues that Suárez was wrongly arrested during a sting operation run by Ballard in her home country, which then became the “founding myth” of his organization Operation Underground Railroad — leading to salacious headlines about her and, eventually, her vilification in Sound of Freedom.

Named in the suit alongside Ballard, his wife Katherine Ballard, and OUR (which forced Ballard out last year after a sexual misconduct investigation) are Angel Studios, Sound of Freedom Movie LLC, and VAS Portal, the company through which Angel crowdfunds investment and ticket sales for their films with potentially deceptive promotions. Harmon Brothers Marketing, an agency run by the same Utah brothers who lead Angel, which typically handles advertising for the studio’s projects, is named as well. So are the SPEAR Fund — another anti-trafficking organization that touted Ballard as a top advisor but has since removed him from the “team” page of their website — plus Alejandro Monteverde, director and co-writer of Sound of Freedom, and Janet Russon, a Utah woman who allegedly provided Ballard intel for his operations via her “psychic” abilities. Ballard, Angel, the Harmons, SPEAR, Monteverde, and Russon did not reply to requests for comment.

Suárez’s suit describes how she was raised in poverty by a single mother in a “humble” Colombian town and, as a young woman trying to earn some money, made a fateful decision that landed her in prison for a year and a half. According to this account, Ballard, a former U.S. intelligence agent, traveled to Colombia in 2014, shortly after founding OUR with the desire to portray himself in a documentary or TV series as a heroic savior of trafficked children. There, he made contacts with individuals he asked to procure adolescents for a pedophile sex party on an island offshore of the city of Cartagena. This was to be a sting known as “Operation Triple Take,” in which OUR volunteers posed as the pedophiles paying for sexual access to trafficked minors.

Suárez, according to the complaint, had no part in this plot until she accepted an acquaintance’s invitation to attend the party and receive pay for sex work. The document alleges that one planning session for the event was attended by a young woman named Natalie Taborda Atencio, or “Naty,” who promised Ballard she could bring several children from local high schools to the island, and an 18-year-old named Samuel David Olave Martinez, whom Suárez knew from a modeling school they both attended. Martinez allegedly told Ballard he would be able to recruit kids from that school for the party. He was also informed, the filing claims, that one of OUR’s ruse pedophiles was a wealthy North American hoping to have anal sex with an underage Black girl — and proposed to Suárez, who was then 20 years old but looked younger, that she come to the island to have sex with him for money. Other adolescents were enticed to join the event with a social media invite circulated on Facebook, the suit further claims.

In fact, Suárez’s lawsuit alleges that Colombian court documents show that none of the youths were trafficked — except by Ballard and his OUR associates, and Suárez says she brought no one to the event herself. Agents of the CTI (Colombia’s equivalent of the FBI) raided the party after Ballard passed money to Martinez and another man who helped to obtain the fake sex slaves for the supposed pedophiles, leaving the young adults and teenagers “confused and traumatized,” per the complaint. Suárez, who happened to be sitting next to Martinez, was arrested as a trafficker along with him and two other men. Ballard had arranged for the entire operation to be filmed for publicity purposes.

The suit goes on to allege that Suárez, who “had no involvement in planning the party, obtaining the young adults, and was not aware of the false pretense of the party until she was arrested,” was wrongly presented by Ballard as responsible for the actions of Atencio, the woman who helped set the party up — but was not present for it. The complaint also states that he mischaracterized Suárez as a “Ms. Cartagena” beauty queen (she had never won a beauty pageant, only competed and lost a competition to represent her neighborhood as part of a Colombian independence celebration) who ran a modeling school and trafficked her students to pedophiles. The suit states that she led no such institution, nor had the means of supplying children to pedophiles, and alleges that Ballard was “essentially mixing the life stories” of Martinez and Atencio.

Nevertheless, the island sting made news worldwide, and Ballard’s heroic reputation soared, with Suárez “tragically condemned by the Defendants to the entire world as being a child trafficker without any due process or due diligence by the Defendants,” as the filing puts it. Headlines about the Colombian beauty queen turned child slave trader ruined her name overnight, and she spent the next 18 months behind bars before she was released by habeas corpus pending trial. “The man who claims to rescue kids from cages, placed a kid into a cage for 18 months, for his own fame and stardom,” the complaint says.

Suárez claims to have become a pariah in her community thanks to the inaccurate press coverage about her, but that this eventually contempt subsided — until the release of Sound of Freedom in 2023. The film, heavily publicized as based on the “true story” of Ballard’s rescue missions, dramatizes the island raid and features a villainous Black woman trafficker and former beauty queen named “Katy Giselle” who abducts children under the pretense of auditioning them for a modeling school. The character is played by Yessica Borroto, who appears to resemble Suárez, and promotional materials from Angel Studios repeatedly emphasized that she is based on the real Suárez, who was not found guilty of any crime.

Billboards and posters in Colombia advertised the movie with side-by-side images of her and Borroto as “The Queen of Cartagena,” leading to another round of hate mail and vicious personal attacks, Suárez claims. Ballard even traveled to Colombia to testify against her in hope of securing a conviction ahead of the movie’s release, while in promoting the film OUR deemed her “nothing short of a monster.” Ballard falsely claimed that Suárez’s release was due to judicial corruption.

The suit, which does not omit the many embarrassing details of Ballard’s spectacular fall from grace last year, ultimately lays out seven causes of action against all named defendants: Defamation, injurious falsehood, intentional interference with economic relations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy for misappropriation of Suárez’s name and likeness, and invasion of privacy for false light. That last cause of action is a bitterly ironic one: Angel Studios has branded its religious films and TV shows as “stories that amplify light.”

Angel had a hit with Sound of Freedom, which went viral in part due to a “pay-it-forward” offer allowing fans to buy tickets for strangers in order to spread the film’s anti-trafficking message. It took in about $250 million worldwide, and Amazon snapped up the streaming rights for an eight-figure sum. Anti-trafficking experts blasted the film as an inaccurate portrayal of the problem that could harm actual victims, but the studio easily weathered this backlash with passionate defenses from their core audience.

It’s less clear how the fallout from a defamation suit tying them closer to Ballard — his legal woes have already engulfed OUR, which this week announced a new CEO amid the turmoil — might affect the studio’s fortunes. Banking on a “true story” supplied by an apparent serial fabulist might be good business in the short run. Long term, you probably want to avoid smearing real people with no criminal convictions as child abusers.

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