Three Mexicans face federal charges on allegations of holding illegal immigrants hostage in a Las Vegas apartment while trying to extort money from the victims' relatives.
Four of the hostages escaped from the apartment Nov. 18 while their captors, who had been drinking, were asleep.
A criminal complaint was filed Friday in Las Vegas against Victor Mendoza-Aguilar, 33; Nadia Rico-Alejandre, 33; and Ma Hilde Andrade-Padilla, 26. All are charged with hostage taking, a federal felony that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. They made initial federal court appearances Friday.
The hostages, all men in their 20s, weren't free for long. They, as well as the three defendants, are being detained by immigration officials who believe all seven entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico.
Though the practice is rarely seen in Las Vegas, authorities in border states often find smugglers who agree to bring fee-paying illegal immigrants into the U.S. but instead hold them for ransom. Though the smugglers often abuse captives to encourage relatives to pay, the four young men were apparently unharmed -- though they told authorities they were repeatedly threatened.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rob MacDonald said the four victims reported seeing Mendoza-Aguilar carry a firearm inside apartment 125 at 522 N. Lamb Blvd.
"The clear message being that they were not allowed to leave," the prosecutor said.
One of the victims told special agents he had walked across the border with a Mexican guide on Nov. 11. He said he first was taken to a house in Phoenix, then as part of a group to the Las Vegas apartment on Nov. 15.
There were about eight men already being held at the apartment by two women and six men, he said. It's unclear how many were still there at the time the four men escaped.
According to a probable cause affidavit prepared by Stephen Cabot, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, the hostage "stated that he was told not to get up, talk or go near the windows, and that he and the other aliens were fed water, coffee and bread only by one of the females."
There were also four children in the residence, he said.
Cabot wrote that authorities found and arrested the four men at a North Las Vegas motel on Nov. 19, though it is unclear from court papers what lead ICE to them.
A U.S. citizen from Minnesota, Hector Rodriguez-Martinez, 35, was with the men at the motel. He identified himself as a cousin of three of them -- as well as "the family member who had been contacted by the captors to negotiate payment in exchange for the release of his relatives," according to court papers.
The man said one cousin called him on Nov. 16 and said the three would be released only after the captors received $6,000. The money was wired, as instructed, in three separate payments.
Rodriguez-Martinez said he later received text messages from "Mike," who demanded more money and warned that without payment his cousins "would be dropped off in the desert."
Rodriguez-Martinez told agents he was flying to Las Vegas on Nov. 18 when he learned the hostages had escaped.
The special agents also went to the Lamb Boulevard apartment on Nov. 19 and contacted the occupants, including Rico-Alejandre, who gave them her cell phone number. "This is the same number which Hector Rodriguez-Martinez stated had been used to negotiate the ransom of his cousins," according to the affidavit.
The agents also interviewed Mendoza-Aguilar "and subsequently arrested him for being illegally present in the United States," according to the document.
MacDonald said the agents returned later with a search warrant, finding the apartment already cleaned out. Rico-Alejandre, Andrade-Padilla and another suspected illegal immigrant were later arrested at 6419 Diego St.
Mendoza-Aguilar, according to the affidavit, admitted he had been arrested in 2004 near Nogales, Ariz., after illegally entering the U.S. He said he lived in Las Vegas with his two brothers, and identified his co-defendants as his cousins.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Lawrence Leavitt on Friday appointed lawyers for all three defendants, who are scheduled to return to court Dec. 17.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at email@example.com or 702-384-8710.