LOS ANGELES – Law enforcement officials have arrested three men allegedly involved in a ring that kidnapped at least six people near the U.S.-Mexico border, later demanding ransom for their release, and often refusing to release them after payments were made.
Edgar Adrian Lemus, 23, of Vernon; Francisco Javier Hernandez Martinez, 20, also of Vernon; and Junior Almendarez Martinez, 23, of Watts, have been charged with one count of money laundering conspiracy. Lemus and Hernandez were arrested Monday evening on a federal criminal complaint. Almendarez was arrested – also on Monday evening – on a separate complaint. The three defendants are expected to make their initial appearances this afternoon in United States District Court in downtown Los Angeles.
According to affidavits filed with the complaints, each of the kidnapping incidents 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 states.
The kidnappers allegedly used specific sections at Walmart and other stores in Southern California to meet with the family members to collect the ransom payments. After the payments were made, however, the kidnappers demanded additional money rather than releasing the victim, according to the affidavit.
Law enforcement has 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 kidnapped 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 allegedly 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 a criminal complaint charging him alleges. From February 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.
A complaint contains allegations that a defendant has committed a crime. Every defendant is presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
If convicted, the defendants would face a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
The FBI investigated this matter. The South Gate Police Department and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office provided substantial assistance.
Assistant United States Attorneys Jeffrey M. Chemerinsky and Kathy Yu of the Violent and Organized Crime Section are prosecuting this case.