Four suspects accused of extorting families across the United States by claiming their loved ones had been kidnapped were indicted by a federal grand jury Friday in San Diego.
According to the office of U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy, the suspects ran a bogus kidnapping ring and demanded thousands of dollars in ransom from Latino families who were made to believe that their relatives had been abducted.
Federal authorities said all it took was a phone number, and a simple phone call to unwitting families, for the suspects to feign the kidnappings.
"They would just randomly dial numbers and go right down the row, starting 0-0-0-1 and go down until they got somebody on the line," explained Daniel Page, special agent with Homeland Security Investigations. "[They] would continuously call that person and tell them they have their family member and they won't let them go."
The suspects include: Ruth Graciela Raygoza, 63, of Chula Vista; Maria Del Carmen Pulido Contreras, 42, of Los Angeles; Adrian Jovan Rocha, 25, of Tijuana, Mexico; and Jonathan Rocha, 23, also of Tijuana, Mexico.
All four defendants have been arrested, with all but Pulido taken into custody in San Diego. They appeared in court for the first time Friday.
The U.S. Attorney’s office says that an indictment unsealed Friday shows that all four suspects are now facing charges of conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering in connection with the extortion and kidnapping ring. The defendants were allegedly the masterminds behind the operation, which included many conspirators.
The indictment states that conspirators of the fraudulent foursome allegedly falsely told dozens of families in Maryland, Minnesota, Virginia and other states that they were holding one of their loved ones captive.
Often the conspirators of the defendants told victim families that they had smuggled their relatives from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador into the U.S. and would not release them without payment.
On one occasion, the suspects even threatened to harm or kill the supposedly abducted person unless ransom payments were wired to various different locations in San Diego and Los Angeles, the indictment says.
In most cases, victim families were ordered to wire between $1,500 and $4,000 through MoneyGram or Western Union to the suspects. The four defendants would take turns picking up the cash and then rewire or deliver the funds to other conspirators in Mexico.
"Once they got [a victim] sending money, they would keep asking for more," said Page.
Officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) worked to bring down the bogus kidnapping and extortion ring.
The indictment alleges that on one occasion, an undercover HSI agent posed as the son of a kidnap victim during a phone conversation with a conspirator.
The conspirator, who didn’t know he was speaking with an undercover agent, threatened to kill the supposedly abducted relative if the agent didn’t wire $700 to “A. Jovan Rocha” – one of the defendants – in San Diego. The agent sent the ransom money and that same day, Adrian Jovan Rocha picked up the cash.
A detention hearing for all four defendants has been scheduled for Nov. 14.
Page said this case should serve as a warning to all to be on the lookout for this type of phone-based scam.
“They’ve just got to be weary of people randomly calling them and they need to talk to family members about what’s going on no matter where they are in the world before they send any money, anywhere,” said Page.
Federal authorities said the investigation into the extortion and fake kidnapping operation is ongoing, and there may be more suspects and victims involved.