An episode in a Discovery Channel series about the military-style rescue of kidnapping victims around the globe will on Saturday spotlight a local man’s efforts to recover children from sexual exploitation and abuse by human traffickers.
But part of what makes former bodyguard Ty Ritter’s story unique is that his missions to South America, the Middle East and other faraway lands are all-volunteer efforts funded primarily through donations to a nonprofit organization.
“We fill a gap. Traffickers are operating like the drug cartels do. It’s an epidemic,” said Ritter during an interview at Taylor’s Steakhouse in La Cañada Flintridge, where over the years he’s made the social connections necessary to found and operate his La Crescenta-based nonprofit Project Child Save.
The U.S. State Department last year estimated that more than 12 million people, most of them women and children, are subjected to forced labor and prostitution around the world.
Project Child Save aims to locate and recover children kidnapped in America and trafficked to other countries. It works with families who contact the group or are referred to it after exhausting other options, including law enforcement.
Ritter, who at 64 shows few signs of retiring his combat boots, said he and a handful of mostly ex-military volunteers have conducted more than a dozen such covert missions over the past several years, but there’s no fanfare surrounding these rescues.
While Ritter is staunch in protecting the privacy of those he assists — one area family confirmed they’d sought his assistance but asked not to be identified — he points to scars left by knives and bullet wounds on his face, chest and legs as evidence of his work.
“I’ve seen him come back with gunshot wounds on his legs, a machete wound across his cheek and broken ribs. I’ve also seen the files on some of the children that have been involved, and I’ve met some of his team that goes out with him,” said Ian Loveless, a La Cañada Flintridge insurance agent who stepped in to chair the nonprofit’s board after meeting Ritter at Taylor’s and organizing a charity golf tournament that raised approximately $30,000 for the cause. Loveless’s wife, Denise Loveless, also serves on the board.
Ritter said he decided to place himself in the public eye to raise awareness of the trafficking problem, publishing a child-protection guidebook for parents as well as making media appearances that include the “Dr. Phil Show” (again, through a La Cañada acquaintance) and the coming episode of Discovery’s “Kidnap and Rescue” series.
“If I was going to put a dent in what’s going on, I had no choice. Everything is to get the word out,” said Ritter, who also hopes for increased donations to expand the nonprofit’s rescue efforts.
Ritter said the path to founding Project Child Save began decades ago after he foiled a Las Vegas kidnapping while working as a bodyguard for a casino owner. Word-of-mouth about the incident brought requests for help from other families.
The Burbank native later founded a school for bodyguards but lost that business, then worked for a few years behind the till of a local grocery store and today makes a modest living from part-time stunt work for film and television.
Ritter and members of his rescue team have refused to take even a small salary from the nonprofit, said Loveless.
“As a board member, I’ve been saying you’re entitled to take a little bit. Much to his own detriment, he hasn’t,” Loveless said.
Ritter described drawn-out investigations and hair-raising raids of guarded rural safe-houses for kidnappers, including one that required navigating the jungles of Brazil. Sometimes he and his team return fire against kidnappers who put up a fight, he said, but other times kidnappers simply flee.
But it’s in describing child victims, who he said are often malnourished and suffering the effects of physical assault, where Ritter gets choked up.
“Hollywood loves stories about kidnapping, but no one wants to hear about what’s really happening to children as young as 3 years old. I’ve got stories, but you’d have to be twisted to want to hear them,” he said.
In his efforts to protect those victims from the public eye, he also sacrifices the ability to share tangible proof of these rescues that could draw heavy media attention beyond the upcoming cable series.
“Nobody knows how many kids this happens to,” Ritter continued. “People don’t want to deal with this. That’s why I hope the [Discovery Channel ] show will be really important.”
“Kidnap and Rescue” airs at 10 p.m. Feb. 12.