A witness testified Thursday that he started a false rumor about the kidnapping of 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger two months before the boy’s October 2008 disappearance.
Shayne Skougard, who lived with the Puffinburgers at the time, told jurors he had vowed to do whatever was necessary to protect the family after the boy’s grandfather stole millions of dollars from a Mexican drug-trafficking organization. The witness said he started the rumor after meeting with Jose "Miguel" Lopez-Buelna.
Skougard said Lopez-Buelna told him, "The big boss man is getting very angry. We need to come up with a plan to say Cole is gone, so nobody has to get hurt."
Prosecutors allege Lopez-Buelna ran the drug organization’s operations from Las Vegas. He and Luis Vega-Rubio face kidnapping and drug charges in connection with Cole’s disappearance. The boy was taken from his Las Vegas home on Oct. 15, 2008, and was safely returned three days later.
In a federal trial that began last week, prosecutors have alleged Cole was abducted at gunpoint as revenge after his grandfather, Clemens Tinnemeyer, ran off with $4.5 million in drug money. But defense lawyers have accused the boy’s mother and grandmother of staging the kidnapping, which attracted national attention, after the earlier ruse failed to lure Tinnemeyer out of hiding.
Skougard testified that he had known Cole’s mother, Julie Puffinburger, since the third grade. He said he began living with the woman, her fiance and Cole in August 2007.
"You are loyal to the Puffinburger family, correct?" defense attorney Robert Draskovich Jr. asked the witness.
"Correct," he replied.
The witness, a truck driver, said Tinnemeyer told him he smuggled cocaine in a motor home that he drove throughout the country. Tinnemeyer disappeared in June 2008.
Skougard recalled answering the door in July 2008 at the home he shared with the Puffinburgers. A man, whom he identified in court as Vega-Rubio, handed him a note "for the lady of the house."
The witness said he and Julie Puffinburger took the note, which they found threatening, to Las Vegas police, but police said they could not help the family.
Skougard said he then went to Tinnemeyer’s friend Roger "Country" Rice and asked for his help in arranging a meeting with the people behind the threats.
The witness testified that he later attended a meeting with Rice and Lopez-Buelna at a fast-food restaurant, and Lopez-Buelna said Tinnemeyer had worked for him for 15 years.
Skougard said he assured Lopez-Buelna he would do whatever it took to find Tinnemeyer .
The witness said he traveled to Mississippi, Florida and Utah in search of Tinnemeyer but failed to find him. Lopez-Buelna then suggested the kidnapping rumor, he said.
Skougard testified that he returned home and shared the idea with Julie Puffinburger and her fiance, Billy Joe Murray .
The witness said he went to at least one bar that Tinnemeyer frequented and spread the rumor about Cole, "who meant everything" to his grandfather.
"We thought maybe that would bring him out and he would turn himself in to the big people," Skougard testified.
The witness said he also did some work for Lopez-Buelna. For instance, Lopez-Buelna once gave him cash to buy insurance for a motor home, he testified.
"I told these people I’d do whatever it takes to keep the family safe," Skougard told the jury. "I was afraid to say no."
He said he never accepted compensation from Lopez-Buelna for the work he performed.
"I don’t want to be in debt to anybody like Clem is," Skougard explained.
On cross-examination, Skougard admitted he failed to mention Lopez-Buelna during his police interview shortly after the boy disappeared.
"When you’re in fear for your life, you’re afraid to talk," said the witness, who was not home during the incident.
Draskovich, who represents Lopez-Buelna, later told Skougard, "I’m not saying that you were involved with the staged kidnapping."
"Neither was the family," the witness replied.
David Johnson, a forensic scientist with the Metropolitan Police Department, testified Thursday that he found one of Vega-Rubio’s fingerprints on the note delivered to the Puffinburger home in July 2008.
U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro is presiding over the trial, which had been in recess since Friday. Testimony is scheduled to resume this morning.
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710.