When Clemens Tinnemeyer discovered "a big pile of money" stashed in his motor home in June 2008, one thought crossed his mind: "Payday!"
"I was just surprised," Tinnemeyer testified Thursday.
The Las Vegas man's decision to take off with the cash set in motion events that led to the Oct. 15, 2008, disappearance of his 6-year-old grandson, Cole Puffinburger.
Tinnemeyer, 54, testified Thursday during the trial of two men accused of kidnapping Cole, who was found unharmed near downtown Las Vegas three days after his alleged kidnapping.
Prosecutors claim the defendants, Jose Lopez-Buelna and Luis Vega-Rubio, kidnapped the boy as revenge after Tinnemeyer stole $4.5 million from their drug cartel.
But the defense has accused Cole's family and friends, including his mother and maternal grandmother, of staging the kidnapping to lure Tinnemeyer back to Las Vegas with $8 million in cash.
Tinnemeyer, who admitted he was a drug smuggler, testified that he was in a motel room in Ontario, Calif., when he saw a news report announcing his grandson's kidnapping.
"I was pretty upset," the witness said, showing no emotion. "I was a little beside myself. I was a little suicidal, a little homicidal, a little crazy."
Yet Tinnemeyer said he waited two days before surrendering to authorities.
"I didn't know what I was going to do," Tinnemeyer testified.
Initially arrested as a material witness, Tinnemeyer has been in custody since his surrender on Oct. 17, 2008. In court Thursday he wore a red inmate jumpsuit, his dark gray hair in a short ponytail.
Tinnemeyer testified that he has pleaded guilty to a drug-distribution conspiracy charge.
When federal prosecutor Marty Woelfle asked if the government has agreed to request a reduced sentence if he provides "substantial assistance" in the kidnapping and drug case, Tinnemeyer replied, "Nothing like that was ever told to me."
Tinnemeyer testified that he began smuggling drugs in September 2007, and identified Lopez-Buelna, whom he knew as "Miguel," as one of his employers.
He told his wife, Diane, he was a tour guide for casino high rollers.
Tinnemeyer said he was given $20,000 cash to buy a motor home. For his first trip he followed Lopez-Buelna to Ensenada, Mexico, where the motor home was fitted with a secret compartment. He detailed subsequent smuggling trips to Atlanta, Chicago and New York. Sometimes his girlfriend, Terri Leavy, went too.
Tinnemeyer said he received a prepaid cell phone and $5,000 in travel expenses before each trip, and was paid $25,000 for each domestic run; $35,000 for trips into Mexico.
Tinnemeyer testified he first opened the hidden compartment while in Las Vegas in May 2008. Inside he found packages of what he assumed was cocaine.
After driving to the Midwest and East Coast, Tinnemeyer and Leavy ignored instructions to return to Las Vegas and instead ditched the prepaid cell phone and headed to Mississippi, where they planned to buy a house. In Como, Miss., Tinnemeyer went back to the secret compartment. He removed a medicine cabinet and vanity, then unscrewed a panel covering the opening. That's when he discovered the cash.
After hiding some of the money, they drove to Waveland, Miss., where he put $9,000 in a bank and filled two foot lockers and two suitcases, which he left in a storage facility.
Then he and Leavy went on a spending spree. They paid $14,000 for a Dodge truck, $30,000 for a Corvette, and $20,000 for a boat. They paid $9,000 for a Lexus, a gift to Leavy's son.
They sent $60,000 to Tinnemeyer's daughter, Julie Puffinburger, and $60,000 to Leavy's son. They sent another $50,000 to Leavy's sister.
In testimony Wednesday, Julie Puffinburger, Cole's mother, denied the defense allegation that she staged her son's kidnapping. She admitted receiving $60,000 cash in the mail, and said she assumed her father had sent it.
Tinnemeyer testified that he later retrieved the cash hidden in Como.
After the couple spent about a month in Mississippi, Leavy's ex-husband, Robert Leavy, helped the couple move to California with the cash. They gave him $20,000 for his assistance.
The couple rented a beach apartment in La Jolla, Calif., but about five weeks later, on Sept. 30, 2008, they left for Reno with $10,000 in travel money.
On the way, they paid a visit to the family of Terri Leavy's other ex-husband. During that stop, Leavy's ex-brother-in-law and two other men held them at gunpoint and bound them with duct tape, Tinnemeyer testified.
"They held us and tortured us a little bit and beat us up a little bit," he said.
Tinnemeyer said the men wanted all the stolen drug money, but after 10 or 12 hours they got only the $10,000 he was carrying. He said the bulk of the money was hidden in Hemet, Calif., though Robert Leavy and a friend later moved it .
Drug Enforcement Administration agents later found more than $3.5 million of the cash in a Riverside, Calif., storage unit.
Tinnemeyer's testimony is to continue today. Webster and Roberto Lopez face drug trafficking and money laundering charges in the case. Tinnemeyer testified that he introduced Webster to the drug organization, and Webster also became a smuggler.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at email@example.com or 702-384-8710.