A couple was arrested in San Diego last week on accusations they collected payments in a kidnap-for-ransom scheme that left a San Diego man and a Norwalk man dead in Tijuana, Mexico.
Leslie Briana Matla, 20, and her boyfriend Juan Carlos Montoya Sanchez, 25, who are both Tijuana residents, are accused of traveling to the U.S. to collect ransom payments from the families of three men kidnapped in Tijuana in April and March, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
"When there has been a death associated with a conspiracy like this, it is particularly important for us to charge the case, to prosecute the case, to make sure the victims’ rights are vindicated," U.S. Attorney Joseph Axelrad said.
Malta and Sanchez were two of 11 arrested in the scheme that targeted more than 20 victims from the United States and Mexico. An additional nine were arrested in Mexico, the Baja California Attorney's Office said.
In three instances on March 28, April 13 and April 22, men were kidnapped south of the border while on business or visiting family members, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. A caller told their families to drop off ransom payments at various locations in Southern California, according to the complaint.
“Victims in this case were beaten, were tortured, and of course in two instances, tragically two victims, two hostages were killed,” Axelrad said.
The San Diego man’s body was discovered by Mexican authorities on March 29, the day after his son was directed to drop a bag with $25,000 in the women’s restroom of a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro.
The Norwalk man’s body was found in Mexico on April 14. The day before, his family attempted to pay a $25,000 ransom to a woman in the parking lot of a Lowe’s in Norwalk. Investigators believe the woman was Matla, according to the complaint.
Mexican law enforcement rescued the third victim, a Pasadena man, from a hotel in Tijuana where the other two victims were also held hostage. Investigators received a tip from a woman who called to report her family member was kidnapped and had a ransom demand of $20,000. His family was told a pregnant woman would collect their payment in the parking lot of a Food 4 Less in Lynnwood before the man was rescued, the complaint said.
Nine suspects were arrested at the hotel, according to the complaint.
The suspects kept their victims in motels in Tijuana and targeted people they believed could pay for the ransom in dollars, according the Baja California Attorney's Office.
The group took advantage of the difficulty for authorities to cooperate on different sides of the border.
"Hopefully prosecutions like this give people in the community some comfort that we take this seriously, that we go after these sorts of crimes with all of our effort because we want people to feel safe. We want people to know that they’re not going to let stuff like this stand," Axelrad said.
Based on border crossing records and surveillance video from payment pickup locations, investigators believe Matla was sent from Tijuana to San Diego, Norwalk and Pasadena to collect the money. The complaint also says Sanchez received wire transfers from two of the kidnapping victims.
Matla and Sanchez were charged with one count of money laundering. The couple, who remain in federal custody in the United States, could face life in prison if convicted.