A federal jury was persuaded by defense lawyers who said Cole Puffinburger’s family and friends staged the young boy’s 2008 abduction.
"We do not believe that a kidnapping occurred," presiding juror Emma Garcia said Friday.
Garcia said jurors would have acquitted Jose Lopez-Buelna, 50, and Luis Vega-Rubio, 38, of kidnapping and hostage-taking charges if given the chance.
But prosecutors dropped those charges Wednesday during plea negotiations with the two defendants. The government had presented all of its evidence to the jury before reaching plea agreements with the two kidnapping suspects.
Three weeks earlier, Justice Department attorney Margaret Honrath gave her opening statement to the jury and promised to prove Mexican drug traffickers kidnapped 6-year-old Cole at gunpoint on the morning of Oct. 15, 2008. She called it "the most horrific day" in Cole’s life.
The prosecutor said Cole had been snatched from his Las Vegas home as revenge after his maternal grandfather, Clemens Tinnemeyer, ran off with $4.5 million in drug money. She said the kidnappers held Cole hostage for four days before releasing him unharmed.
But defense lawyers accused the boy’s mother and grandmother of faking the kidnapping to lure Tinnemeyer out of hiding with the cash.
Cole’s mother, Julie Puffinburger, testified during the trial and denied the allegations. She and the boy’s father are divorced and share custody.
Garcia said jurors based their conclusion about the kidnapping on "all of the witnesses, starting with the mother." Jurors did not believe the woman, Garcia said.
Puffinburger testified she was home with her son and fiance when intruders burst through the unlocked front door, tied up the adults and took the child.
Garcia said jurors took note of Puffinburger’s appearance in a photograph taken shortly after the incident. The woman was wearing glasses, and her makeup looked "perfect," Garcia said.
Jurors also considered the testimony of a neighbor who said she never heard a child screaming that morning, and a surveillance video that showed Cole boarding a paratransit bus around 10:30 p.m. on Oct. 18, 2008. Cole can be heard on the video saying he had been with a "guy" who knows his grandfather.
"He was calm, cool and collected," Garcia said. Evidence also showed that Cole had been treated well while away from home, the juror said.
Garcia said she doubted drug traffickers had kidnapped the boy, because they would not want the attention that such a crime attracts. In addition, she said, no ransom demand was made.
In the end, Garcia said, jurors believed Puffinburger and her associates had learned about Tinnemeyer’s windfall and thought, "Let’s smoke him out and see if we can get a piece of the pie."
Tinnemeyer, 54, pleaded guilty in February 2009 to conspiracy to transport cocaine and is awaiting sentencing.
He testified that he worked as a drug smuggler for Lopez-Buelna but decided to run off after he discovered "a big pile of money" in a motor home he drove for the drug-trafficking organization.
Tinnemeyer surrendered on Oct. 17, 2008, and authorities found more than $3.5 million of the stolen cash in a Riverside, Calif., storage unit.
At trial, prosecutors claimed Lopez-Buelna ran the drug organization’s operations from Las Vegas.
Plea agreements in the case have been sealed, but defense attorney Robert Draskovich Jr. said Lopez-Buelna pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, conspiracy to launder money and two counts of money laundering. He faces a minimum of 10 years in prison.
Defense attorney Todd Leventhal said Vega-Rubio pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of interference with commerce, and prosecutors can argue for a prison term in the range of 51 to 63 months.
The defendants faced a life sentence if found guilty of kidnapping Cole.
Puffinburger identified Vega-Rubio, a Los Angeles resident, as the man who delivered a threatening note to her home in July 2008. A fingerprint found on the note matched the suspect.
"He pled guilty to writing the note," Leventhal said.
The lawyer said Vega-Rubio accepted the plea bargain because he did not want to risk a life sentence that would prevent a reunion with his children. But Leventhal argued that prosecutors should not have put his client on trial and made him face that risk.
"The bottom line is: Luis did not kidnap Cole. Luis did not commit hostage taking on Cole," the defense lawyer said.
Jurors were not allowed to talk about the case until the trial concluded Friday with their conviction of the remaining defendant, Erik Webster, on conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to launder money.
Lopez-Buelna’s younger brother, Roberto Lopez, also accepted a plea deal Wednesday to end his involvement in the trial. He pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering.
Neither Webster nor Lopez were charged in the kidnapping.
U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro is to sentence all four defendants May 19.
Daniel Bogden, the U.S. attorney for Nevada, said he cannot comment on the case while it is pending.
After Friday’s verdicts, jurors met behind closed doors for about an hour with prosecutors and defense lawyers involved in the case.
Leventhal said Navarro listened to the discussions, and he hopes the judge will consider the jurors’ comments when she sentences Vega-Rubio. The defense attorney plans to ask Navarro to sentence his client to the two years he already has spent in custody.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at cgeer@review journal.com or 702-384-8710.