Three men are facing federal charges for their alleged involvement in a ring that kidnapped at least a half-dozen people near the U.S.-Mexico border, later demanding ransom for their release and often refusing to release them after payments were made, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
Edgar Adrian Lemus, 23, and Francisco Javier Hernandez Martinez, 20, both of Vernon, and Junior Almendarez Martinez, 23, of Watts, are each charged with one count of money laundering conspiracy, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The defendants made their initial court appearances Tuesday and were ordered detained. They are scheduled to be arraigned June 28.
Lemus and Hernandez are charged in one criminal complaint and Almendarez in a separate complaint. All three were arrested Monday evening. If convicted, they would each face up to 20 years in federal prison.
According to affidavits filed with the complaints, each of the kidnappings targeted victims who were waiting or attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. In each incident, the kidnappers offered to assist in smuggling the victims across the border from Mexico, but instead would hold them for ransom. The kidnappers insisted on ransom payments from the victim’s family members to release the victim, the affidavit alleges.
The kidnappers used specific sections at Walmart and other stores in Southern California to meet with the family members to collect the ransom payments, prosecutors said. After the payments were made, however, the kidnappers demanded additional money rather than releasing the victim, according to the affidavit.
Law enforcement identified Lemus, Hernandez and Almendarez as individuals that either picked up or received ransom payments from the victims’ family members, the affidavit alleges. Specifically, the defendants allegedly match the individuals captured on video surveillance footage during the ransom drops.
Lemus allegedly picked up a $19,000 ransom payment on April 20 at a Walmart store in South Gate from the husband of a victim in Mexicali who had been promised she would be smuggled into the United States, but who had been abducted instead.
After delivering the payment, the kidnappers allegedly refused to release the victim and demanded additional payment. After the victim’s husband told the kidnappers that they had made him crash his car and he was in the streets begging for more money, they stopped calling him. The victim was released on April 22.
Hernandez allegedly picked up a $15,000 ransom payment on May 26 at a Walmart in Paramount from the husband of another kidnapping victim who was being held in Mexicali. After the ransom payment was made, the kidnappers demanded an additional $16,000 because the victim purportedly broke a package believed to contain narcotics, the affidavit states. All three allegedly were seen together on May 31 at a shopping center in Pico Rivera for another ransom payment pickup.
Almendarez was observed with Lemus and Hernandez after Lemus picked up a ransom payment at a Target store in South Gate, an affidavit attached to the criminal complaint alleges. From Feb. 9 to June 2, Almendarez allegedly made 10 cash transfers — all but one sent to individuals in Mexico — totaling $14,720 at a MoneyGram store in Lynwood. Several of the transfers were sent to a receiving MoneyGram agent in Mexicali, where the kidnappings occurred, the affidavit alleges.