Pharr Man Sentenced in Absentia for Hostage Taking Conspiracy
McALLEN, Texas – A 21-year-old Pharr man has been sentenced to life in federal prison following his convictions of conspiracy to commit hostage taking and conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens, announced Acting U.S. Attorney Abe Martinez. A federal jury sitting in McAllen convicted Luis Gerardo Betancourt in absentia following a five-day trial and less than three hours of deliberation on March 30, 2017. Also sentenced today were 25-year-old Mexican citizen Luis Enrique Perez-Talavera and Jonathan Carlos Valdez-Harris, 22, of Phar, who had both previously pleaded guilty.
Today, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane ordered Betancourt to serve life in prison. Perez-Talavera and Valdez-Harris received respective sentences of 240 and 120 months in federal prison. Betancourt and Perez-Talavera were ordered to pay $26,000 in restitution, while Valdez is to pay $3,000. In handing down the sentence, the court noted how vulnerable one of the victims was, an eight-year-old child, and that the hostage taking conspirators exploited her age and vulnerability to pry additional ransom from family members.
The investigation began Dec. 4, 2015, when authorities learned of people in other states being forced to pay for the release of family members being held hostage at an undetermined location. Testimony at trial revealed that an individual had paid approximately $17,000 for such release. The jury heard that some family members received threats such as to cut off body parts and kill the hostages, one of whom was an eight-year-old victim, if monetary demands were not met. Further investigation revealed Betancourt’s involvement in the conspiracy. The jury heard that he was responsible for recruiting and transporting co-conspirators as well as the receipt of money sent by the victims’ family members.
The hostages held during the course of the conspiracy were eventually released Dec. 8, 2015.
Betancourt was present upon the jury’s selection, but failed to appear for trial, presentation of the evidence and his sentencing hearing. He is considered a fugitive and a warrant remains outstanding for his arrest. Anyone with information about his whereabouts is asked to contact the United States Marshals Service in McAllen, Texas at (956) 618-8025.
The FBI Safe Streets Task Force conducted the investigation with assistance from Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, police departments in Pharr and Robstown Police Department and the Orange County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office. Assistant U.S. Attorneys David A. Lindenmuth and Roberto Lopez Jr. are prosecuting the case.