HOUSTON (CN) – A woman answers the phone and her daughter’s voice cries out, “Mommy, mommy do whatever they want!” A man tells her he will cut off her daughter’s fingers and kill her if she does not pay a ransom. He asks her, “Here’s the deal, how much does her life cost you?”
He did not have the woman’s daughter – he had randomly dialed her number with a prepaid cellphone from the Mexican prison where he is incarcerated – but the screams and his threats turned the mother’s legs to Jell-O and she fell to the floor.
“I told him I was getting sick. He said, ‘No. You need to listen or we’re going to put a bullet in her head,” the woman testified Thursday in Houston federal court.
A federal grand jury charged Yanette Rodriguez Acosta aka Yanette Patino, 35, of Houston, with eight counts of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in July 2017 for helping the Mexican prisoner, Ismael Ramirez, carry out his “virtual kidnapping” scam.
Acosta pleaded guilty to the conspiracy charges in February. U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal on Thursday sentenced her to 88 months in federal prison.
Throughout the sentencing hearing, Acosta sat at the defense table with her arms folded tight across her chest, holding her black sweatshirt close in the chilly courtroom, and dabbing her eyes with tissue as several victims testified about how the scam had traumatized them.
Prosecutors first called a middle-aged woman with a cast on her ankle to testify. Victim No. 79 walked on crutches to the witness stand, her patterned shawl scraping the floor. “I don’t know where to start,” she said.
She said she got a phone call one morning in 2015 from who she thought was her then-13-year-old son.
“My son said, ‘Mom just do what they want.’ A rude man got on the phone and said he’d kill my son. He just wanted $10,000. I offered him everything, jewelry, my car, me, just to get my son back,” she said.
Her voice cracked as she said it took her 12 years to get pregnant with her son. “The man’s telling me I have to go to the bank,” she said.
She said she heard her son scream on the phone and believed the man had made good on his threats to cut his fingers off.
“It’s not just about money. It’s that someone is doing something to your kid. I know now it wasn’t real. He really did not get his fingers cut off. But the way they talk to you, it’s real,” she said.
She said the incident has given her horrible panic attacks for which she is taking an anti-depressant.
Prosecutors said in Acosta’s indictment that from Aug. 20, 2015 to Oct. 21, 2015, Ramirez called 39 people in Texas, California and Idaho from Mexican phone numbers and demanded ransom money to release their children.
Acosta went to designated drop-off points where Ramirez had ordered victims on the phone to drive after withdrawing cash from their banks. She picked up $13,000 one person dropped off in Houston on Sept. 17, 2015, and $15,000 another one dropped in Houston two weeks later, according to the indictment.
Acosta wired, and recruited her friend to wire, some of the money to Ramirez in Mexico. They sent $17,000 to Ramirez over two weeks in autumn 2015, her indictment states.
Acosta kept $7,000 and used it to throw a party, buy a car and pay for her divorce, federal prosecutor Kate Suh said.
Another woman testified Thursday she had talked to her daughter on the phone on Sept. 28, 2015. Her daughter was attending Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“She was teaching special needs kids, and she said, ‘I am in a rough neighborhood,’” the petite brunette testified.
“Two days later. I get this phone call. She said, ‘Mom I need help.’ They pulled her away from the phone and said they would cut off her fingers,” she continued.
She said she followed the man’s directions to drive to the bank. “He kept screaming, ‘Where are you now?’ And he’d say, ‘OK go here.’”
She pulled over, she said, and he screamed, “What are you doing?”
“That’s when I realized someone was watching me,” she testified.
The mother said after she dropped off the cash at a park, she called her daughter and slammed on her brakes in the middle of the freeway when her daughter said, “Mom, what are you talking about?”
She said she reported the scam to police, but they did not believe her. They thought her daughter was in on it. The FBI got involved and connected her case to around 80 other people Ramirez had targeted.
Three years later, the woman said, she cannot get Ramirez’s voice out of her head.
“I hear his voice every time I get in the car. I couldn’t get in the car for months. Now I hesitate to get in a car especially to go to places I am not familiar with. I still won’t answer the phone,” she said.
Acosta’s defense attorney, assistant federal public defender Ashley Kaper, said that despite what the brunette woman thought, no one was watching her as she drove to the bank.
“This was a man in prison in Mexico making random phone calls based on zip codes and area codes. There’s no indication Mr. Ramirez knew any person’s personal information. Many people didn’t take the bait because they don’t have a child. In these cases there was a match,” Kaper said.
Kaper asked Rosenthal to give Acosta a downward departure from the sentencing guidelines, claiming she was a minor participant, only involved in two cash pickups.
“There’s no question everyone feels sympathy for the victims,” Kaper said. “It’s also important you look at all enhancements equating her with Ramirez. If he was here he would get a similar sentence. She only did two pickups and made $7,000. She made a horrible decision to make easy money and admitted it.”
Kaper asked the judge to sentence Acosta to 65 months, while prosecutor Suh lobbied for 106 months.
“The victims said this was like having a gun to the back of their heads for hours, then learning it was a toy gun. But they would have preferred that to what happened to them,” Suh said.
Judge Rosenthal said she had to take into account that Acosta has been convicted of smuggling undocumented immigrants. On the other hand, Rosenthal said, the character statements from her family, and the fact that she had complied with all her bond terms, worked in her favor.
“Some cases involve such conditions that they are persuasive of evil in the world. What’s evil in this case is a willingness to exploit people’s biggest fears for profit… It’s evil from top to bottom and every participant in it is evil, did evil acts to cause others pain,” Rosenthal said before handing down the 88-month prison term.
Acosta will be on supervised release for three years after she does her time. She must also pay a $6,000 judgment.
She made a statement in front of Rosenthal before she was sentenced and U.S. marshals took her into custody.
“I apologize to the families involved. I am sincerely sorry for what happened. I didn’t mean to cause any pain. It was easy money for me to get and I didn’t understand the consequences,” Acosta said.
At least one of the victims in Acosta’s case lives in The Woodlands, a northern Houston suburb in Montgomery County. A Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy who asked not to be named said during a break in the hearing that there’s no telling how many people fell prey to the scam.
“You have to understand virtual kidnapping is a very underreported crime. When you ask for victims, I can’t tell you how many victims there were,” he said.