Las Vegas resident Julie Puffinburger took the witness stand Wednesday and calmly denied allegations that she staged her 6-year-old son’s kidnapping in October 2008.
Federal prosecutors allege a Mexican drug cartel kidnapped Cole Puffinburger after his grandfather stole $4.5 million in cartel money, but defense lawyers kicked off the trial by blaming the boy’s mother and grandmother for his disappearance, which attracted national attention.
"We are going to tell you right now, and not wait, whether or not there was a kidnapping because there was not," attorney Robert Draskovich Jr. said in his opening statement Wednesday.
Draskovich represents Jose Lopez-Buelna, one of two men charged with kidnapping the boy on Oct. 15, 2008.
Prosecutors allege Lopez-Buelna and Luis Vega-Rubio burst into Cole’s home and abducted him at gunpoint.
"Cole’s safety was the implied ransom," Justice Department attorney Margaret Honrath said in her opening statement.
The prosecutor described the day of Cole’s disappearance as "the most horrific day" in the child’s life. But the defense said he spent four days playing games, eating peanut butter sandwiches and watching movies.
Draskovich said Cole was never bound, drugged or otherwise mistreated "because he was taken by insiders who cared about him."
The defense lawyer blamed the boy’s mother, Julie Puffinburger, and grandmother, Diane Tinnemeyer. He said they were desperate for the return of the boy’s grandfather, Clemens Fred Tinnemeyer, and the cartel’s money.
Prosecutors called Julie Puffinburger as their first witness. She had answered lawyers’ questions for more than two hours before Honrath asked her directly, "Did you have anything to do with the kidnapping of Cole?"
"No," she replied.
On cross-examination, Puffinburger also denied telling Las Vegas police and the FBI that she had started a rumor in August 2008, while her son was with his father in South Carolina, that Cole had been kidnapped.
"So they’re wrong when they write that in their reports, is that correct?" Draskovich asked.
"Yes," she replied.
Attorney Todd Leventhal, who represents Vega-Rubio, raised the same issue during his opening statement, telling jurors Puffinburger had spread the rumor in an attempt to lure her father from hiding.
"Why is she doing this? She’s doing this because greed is alive and well in this family," Leventhal said.
Draskovich said Puffinburger and her mother staged the kidnapping when the earlier ruse failed.
Puffinburger, a property manager, testified Wednesday that she was home with her son and fiance, Billy Joe Murray, when a man entered the unlocked front door around 7 a.m. She said the man had a badge and identified himself as a police officer, but Murray realized the man was a fake and was about to throw a punch when the man pulled a gun and told the family to get down on the floor.
"They tied us up, and they covered us with blankets over our heads," the witness said.
Murray’s entire face was covered with duct tape, but only Puffinburger’s mouth was taped. She said Cole was not tied up and was crying and holding onto her arm.
Puffinburger said she saw another person and heard other voices. She recalled hearing the first man say, "Look for the money."
"You could hear them searching around the house," she said.
She heard the first man say, "Good job, guys." Next, she felt Cole leave her side.
"I just heard him screaming, ‘Mommy, Mommy,’ and he was crying," the mother said, her voice cracking.
Cole was found four days later, unharmed, at a Las Vegas bus stop.
Draskovich said the evidence suggests Murray was unaware that the kidnapping was staged. Though he cried throughout his police interview, neither woman showed any emotion after the incident, he said.
"I think I was numb," Puffinburger testified Wednesday. "My son had just been kidnapped."
Honrath said Clemens Tinnemeyer worked for Lopez-Buelna, who ran cartel operations from Las Vegas.
"He’s not your ordinary granddad," Honrath said. "He’s a criminal, he’s a felon, and he’s a drug smuggler."
The prosecutor said Clemens Tinnemeyer drove a motor home with a secret compartment for cartel cocaine and cash. After his arrest on drug charges in Utah in May 2008, he got greedy and raided the compartment, she said.
Draskovich said Clemens Tinnemeyer had told his daughter he had $8 million when he disappeared.
Honrath said the government will call Clemens Tinnemeyer as a witness because of his unique perspective.
Leventhal said Clemens Tinnemeyer and his girlfriend, Terri Leavy, also had been held at gunpoint by members of Leavy’s family in California. He said they beat Clemens Tinnemeyer, breaking a finger with a wrench, in a failed effort to persuade him to turn over the money.
Puffinburger testified that Vega-Rubio delivered a threatening note to her home in July 2008. She said she took it to police, but they gave her no help.
She also testified that she received $60,000 cash in the summer of 2008 and assumed it had come from her father. She said she spent some of the money and kept the rest in a safe deposit box.
Prosecutors have indicated they do not plan to call Cole as a witness during the trial, but defense attorneys served Puffinburger with a subpoena for the boy on Wednesday.
U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro is presiding over the trial, which is expected to last four weeks.
Two other defendants on trial, Erik Webster and Roberto Lopez, face drug trafficking and money laundering charges.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710.