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.