Couple Arrested in Deadly Cross-Border Kidnapping Plot

(AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

(CN) — The photo sent to a California woman was from her son’s Facebook Messenger account. It showed the young man had been beaten and was — according to the FBI — proof he had been held for ransom in Tijuana.

Southern California resident Edgar Esteban Guzman was visiting family in Tijuana when he received a phone call from a Mexican phone number, federal prosecutors say. He told his family he had to leave after he took the call but said he would be back by dinner.

He never returned.

A day later, Guzman called his mother and said he needed $25,000 in ransom. The photo then came over Facebook Messenger, after which the kidnappers told Guzman’s mother they would be over to take the young man’s car instead.

In a phone call, Guzman told his mother a pregnant woman would meet her at a Lowe’s parking lot to pick up Guzman’s Chevrolet Camaro and $1,000.

The following day, authorities in Mexico found Guzman’s body in Tijuana.

On Monday, U.S. authorities announced charges against former California resident Leslie Briana Matla, 20, and Juan Carlos Montoya Sanchez, 25, in a money-laundering conspiracy that involved a string of kidnappings and the death of at least two people.

According to the FBI’s charging documents, another victim, Salvador Acosta Medina of San Diego, was kidnapped in Tijuana and according to tracking information his phone’s last known location was the Hotel “Aqua” in Tijuana on March 28.

Medina’s adult son was called while in the United States by a man from a Mexican phone number who said he would need to deliver $25,000 to the women’s restroom of a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Video surveillance shows a woman prosecutors say was Matla leave the restroom with a dark backpack about six minutes after the son, referred to as R.V. in an FBI agent affidavit, made the ransom drop.

The woman’s trip into the U.S. started at 4:19 p.m. that day when she entered through the pedestrian port of entry in San Ysidro. Prosecutors say Matla — seen on video surveillance wearing a sweatshirt-style shirt with a dark colored backpack — arrived at the McDonalds an hour before R.V. and waited in the restroom.

FBI agents found a Western Union transfer from Medina in San Diego that was paid to Sanchez about an hour later.

The day R.V. delivered the money to the McDonalds’ restroom he received a WhatsApp message from his father’s account that said he would be released later that day. Mexican authorities found Medina’s body in Tijuana, according to prosecutors.

A third victim, identified as J.N. in the charging documents, was also kidnapped in Tijuana. One of his relatives in Pasadena, California, received a phone call on April 22 from a Mexican phone number during which an unknown man accused J.N. of killing a family of four while driving drunk. The man on the phone demanded a “fine” of around $20,000, according to prosecutors.

The family member who received the call, identified in the affidavit as L.V., knew this was a ransom setup but was told to bring the money to a strip mall in Santa Ana, California, at 6:30 p.m. that day.

L.V. contacted another relative, identified as G.V., and throughout the day received numerous calls from the kidnapper and a WhatsApp video call from a Mexican phone number which prosecutors say was the same number used to call Guzman before his kidnapping.

During the call L.V. says they saw J.N. in the video and he appeared beaten with one arm bandaged.

L.V. said she was able to view the kidnapper’s WhatsApp account profile and saw a picture of a pregnant woman next to a man and a small child.

She called the number and the man in the profile photo answered in what appeared to be a room with wood plywood walls and a ceiling with open beams, according to prosecutors. The man placed his finger over the camera, said “one moment” in Spanish and then hung up.

G.V. offered to deliver the ransom to Tijuana, but the kidnapper said the woman was already on her way to the United States from Tijuana. The family was instructed to meet the woman at a Food 4 Less parking lot in Lynwood, California, and was told the pickup person was pregnant according to prosecutors.

The pregnant woman arrived at the Food 4 Less, but prosecutors say L.V. did not go. The woman then described her car to L.V. in a phone call, and afterward L.V. says she started to receive iMessages from the account asking her where she was and whether there was a Rite Aid near the Food 4 Less, according to prosecutors.

Mexican authorities rescued J.N. at the Tijuana hotel where he was being held captive and arrested nine suspects.

U.S. authorities arrested Matla — a U.S. citizen — last week and nabbed Sanchez, a Mexican national, over the weekend. Both have been charged with one count each of money laundering conspiracy.

They face up to life in federal prison if convicted.

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