This story has been updated.
Saved in America has in the last four years collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from generous San Diegans and other donors at big-ticket galas, like the one Thursday at the US Grant hotel.
The organization, a nonprofit based in the Valley Center home of its creator, private investigator Joseph Travers, describes itself as a group of former law enforcement and military personnel that helps families locate missing and exploited children. Since its formation in 2017, SIA has received extensive publicity extolling its work.
Now, though, former supporters and local leaders are distancing themselves from the organization’s claims. Multiple groups listed as supporters on the organization’s website provided Voice of San Diego copies of requests asking Saved in America to remove their names. A Congressman scheduled to receive the group’s major award at the Thursday gala said he is not attending. Same for a former high-ranking San Diego city official who made a large donation to the group in the past. And a top law enforcement official running to be the county’s next sheriff said a quote from her praising the group that was used to promote the event was inaccurate and she has demanded the group take it down.
Travers has not responded to multiple requests for comment for this story. He did not respond to an opportunity Tuesday to address the accusation that his group used an inaccurate quote to promote the event from the second-ranking official at the sheriff’s department.
Previous fundraisers at Liberty Station, the Cuvier Club in La Jolla, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. and at Red Rock Casino in Las Vegas have raised more than $560,000, according to the Saved in America website. A review of public tax records of the National Christian Information Center (NCIC), an organization also started by Travers and connected to SIA, shows the nonprofit raised $2.4 million from 2017 through 2019 but details are limited about who the donors were. NCIC was granted religious tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service at Travers’ request.
At the galas, Travers showcases his “team of heroes,” including former US Navy SEALs and former law enforcement personnel. This pairing of widely respected professionals has been SIA’s primary appeal, a hook that grabbed the attention of local and national media. The nonprofit also claims a close working relationship with law enforcement across the country. But multiple law enforcement organizations, including the San Diego Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, say they have no relationship with the group.
A copy of an invitation to media for this week’s event, from Stephanie Brown, vice president of marketing and public relations for Manchester Financial, says the event offers access to speakers, Travers, two of his “team of heroes,” political supporters and “a mother and a 15-year-old” daughter “who was a victim of traffickers and recovered by SIA three times.” Both the mother and daughter have been identified by SIA, but Voice of San Diego has chosen not to in accordance with our ethics guidelines.
Phone calls and email requests to interview Travers, Brown, and other featured speakers have been ignored, even though organizers offered other media a chance to interview them in the event invite email.
Saved in America promotes itself to donors with examples of their field work, this year touting an “operation” from April and May of this year, that it did in conjunction with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police. It is described as having performed “recovery operations for 11 missing children.”
This operation included an appearance of Travers’ “Mobile Command Center,” a $130,000 RV, with a $10,000 exterior wrap courtesy of his supporter, that was funded in part by taxpayer dollars after former San Diego County Supervisor Kristin Gaspar directed more than $100,000 to it in county grant funding. Gaspar was a former board member of SIA and a major political ally of Travers, helping him raise money and appearing at multiple organization galas. The county is now reviewing whether the group violated the terms of its grant by using the money to fundraise, as the Union-Tribune reported in June.
But the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department is distancing itself from Travers’ claims. Las Vegas police officer Misael Para, a department spokesman, told Voice of San Diego there was no joint operation. Nothing was planned, nothing would be planned, Para said. His department went so far as to notify local media there was no joint operation in the works with Saved in America.
Nevertheless, the lure of heroes finding victims hooked the Fox5 Channel, KVVU-TV, in Las Vegas to do a story on the effort. The Fox5 story is included in the information promoting Thursday’s US Grant event.
It was this revelation about the so-called operation, among other things, that concerned Gaspar’s successor, San Diego County Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer, who said she found upon taking office that her predecessor had earmarked funds for another planned Travers endeavor.
“Saved in America should have never received public funds,” Lawson-Remer wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego. “Thanks to local investigative reporting, county staff and the will of the voters, we were able to divert funding towards more appropriate priorities in our community that do not have the problematic background of that organization. I am hopeful our experience will encourage future potential funders to be similarly scrupulous in their efforts.”
Despite Las Vegas police saying they did not participate with Saved in America in a joint operation, SIA is still using the Las Vegas event to appeal to donors, highlighting the role of Travers’ son, Joshua Travers, a police officer from Charlottesville, Virginia.
Saved in America claims Joshua Travers did advance “intelligence” in preparing for the “operation.” According to an SIA operation debrief, he gathered pictures of missing children from the Las Vegas area pulled off of a public website provided by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. He then arranged an appointment with the missing persons department at LVPD to confirm the list was accurate. Las Vegas police told Voice of San Diego any citizen can do so.
But the debrief implies significant cooperation between “SIA Law Enforcement Liaison” Joshua Travers and a sergeant in missing persons from LVPD.
Joshua Travers’ role was working in “cooperation and coordination with the LVMPD Missing Persons Bureau, to gather intelligence to locate the children if possible,” according to the debrief.
Para, though, said Joshua Travers was told “if they find someone, to call 311 or 911 as any citizen is advised to do.” There never was any sort of “cooperative effort” between Saved in America and Las Vegas Metro, Para said.
The operation did not find any missing or exploited children. Travers repeatedly advertises his services are free to parents. He instead gets money from fundraisers or appeals based on each “joint operation,” such as the one in Las Vegas, where he asked donors for $15,000 to pay for the search.
Las Vegas Metro is just one example of efforts by the organization to claim relationships with law enforcement agencies across America. SIA has repeatedly claimed to work locally with the FBI, San Diego Sheriff’s Department and San Diego Police. All three law enforcement agencies told Voice of San Diego they have no working agreements with Travers or his group.
A Sept. 8 press release from Saved in America touts that “Papa” Doug Manchester will be honored Thursday, and he is quoted praising the “heroes who have served our country and are once again serving to assist families in need.”
Jack McGrory, San Diego’s former city manager, is also listed as an honoree at the event. “It is an honor to support Saved in America and the incredible work they do to help vulnerable children,” he is quoted as saying in the press release.
McGrory, though, told Voice he will no longer attend the event. He said it was due to a family matter. He also said he did not say or write the quote listed in the press release. “It is not mine,” he said. In an earlier interview McGrory said he had heard some troubling conversations about Travers and Saved in America after he had given the organization $10,000.
Rep. Darrel Issa is set to receive the “4th Annual #ChildSavedNotSold award” at this week’s fundraiser. But an Issa spokesman said the Republican congressman is not going to the event.
“We are not scheduled to attend any event in the area on that day,” Jonathan Wilcox, Issa’s spokesman, wrote in an email.
Former acting director of ICE and customs, Mark Morgan, is scheduled to deliver the event’s keynote speech. Morgan has not responded to inquiries on his attendance.
Mark Larson, a KUSI news personality who has emceed previous SIA events in San Diego, is once again scheduled to do so at the Grant on Thursday.
A contestant on Trump’s former reality TV show, The Apprentice, Stephanie Myers will join Larson, as she has at previous galas. Myers is on Traver’s advisory board and does guest spots for SIA as an expert on sex trafficking. Both Myers and Travers made numerous media appearances to applaud former President Donald Trump’s efforts to stop trafficking and promote Saved in America. They’ve appeared on OAN, Newsmax TV, Breibart and KUSI.
Other organizations listed on the Saved in America website as “partners of the organization” have asked that their names be removed from Travers’ website.
The Texas Association of Licensed Investigators said they were considering whether to ask Travers to “remove our logo and name from his promotional material.”
Rotary International said, “We have asked Soroptimist International of the Americas to contact Saved in America to remove its logo.”
Previous supporters as defined by Saved in America whose logos were on the website until recently include Cox Communications, Harley Davidson, Southwest Airlines and others. Three organizations supporting Saved in America on their website are organizations Travers created, including the National Association of Missing and Exploited Children, created by Travers in 2017. That is different from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an established national organization. Its name also appears as a Saved in America supporter. NCMEC said it is aware of the sound-alike organization, but would not respond to questions from Voice of San Diego.
A 2019 Saved in America fundraiser at the Estancia La Jolla Hotel and Spa featured State Senator Brian Jones. Jones praised Travers and his team at the event. Jones’ Chief of Staff Craig Wilson said the 2019 statements “were based on the information that was available to us at that time.”
He said Jones’ office will be “monitoring the situation before issuing any further public statements on the matter.”
Tickets for this year’s gala are $250 apiece.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators asked Travers to remove the organization’s name and logo from his promotional material. Catherine Smit-Torrez, the organization’s former president, wrote in an email that she would ask TALI’s board to vote on whether to ask the organization to remove TALI’s name and logo from its promotional material, not that she had already done so.
Update: Five months after this story was published, TALI sent Saved in America a letter affirming its support for the organization and its mission.
Disclosure: JW August is a founding board member of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition, which tracks both labor and sex trafficking.