The mother of 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger might have been involved in the boy’s kidnapping, a Las Vegas police detective said Wednesday.
Julie Puffinburger, who remained under investigation in connection with the Oct. 15 abduction, told authorities she had previously spread rumors about Cole’s kidnapping in an attempt to draw her father out of hiding, robbery Lt. Clint Nichols testified during a Family Court custody hearing.
Her father, Clemens Fred Tinnemeyer, disappeared in May after stealing millions of dollars related to "major drug trafficking," and investigators believe Cole’s kidnapping was intended to send him a message, police have said.
Tinnemeyer was already at the center of a federal investigation when Cole was kidnapped, Nichols testified.
"There was on ongoing investigation involving a ton of money, a ton of drugs and a Mexican cartel that was serious about getting that money back," he said.
Julie Puffinburger told investigators that on three occasions she visited her bars and other hangouts of her father’s and lied about her son being kidnapped, Nichols said. During those times, Cole was on vacation with his father, Robert Puffinburger, Nichols said.
Whether Julie Puffinburger had other reasons for spreading the kidnapping rumors was unclear.
Within days of the kidnapping, Tinnemeyer, 51, and his companion, Terri Leavy, 42, were arrested in Southern California on federal material witness warrants. Las Vegas police have also arrested Jose Lopez-Buelna, 48, whom they identified as a "person of interest" but who has not been charged in the kidnapping.
Lopez-Buelna was arrested on an illegal gun possession charge, but North Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Natalie Tyrell dismissed the case Wednesday morning because prosecutors had not filed a formal complaint within the time limit.
District Attorney David Roger said his office was waiting for additional information from police before filing charges on the gun possession, and federal prosecutors would handle any kidnapping or drug cases.
Meanwhile, Lopez-Buelna was being held by federal immigration authorities.
Wednesday’s Family Court hearing was held to settle the custody dispute between Robert and Julie Puffinburger, who divorced in 2004. Julie Puffinburger was Cole’s primary caregiver before the kidnapping, but Robert Puffinburger took custody of the boy after the incident at the urging of police.
In his motion for full custody, Robert Puffinburger asked Family Court Judge Gerald Hardcastle to grant the request, citing his son’s safety and questions about the mother’s involvement in her father’s crimes. The motion raised questions about her recent purchases of a new house and vehicles and whether she knew of the impending danger.
One of Robert Puffinburger’s lawyers, Bryce Duckworth, said her acceptance of nearly $61,000 in cash from her father should raise red flags when taken with the kidnapping.
"That certainly should raise some suspicion and some concern," Duckworth said. "It think it would be irresponsible to simply put blinders on to pretend this never happened and just go on with our daily business."
Detectives seized $60,920 on Oct. 22 from her Silver State Schools Credit Union safe deposit box, according to a search warrant.
Julie Puffinburger told investigators her dad had mailed her the cash, and she put it in the bank, Nichols testified. She did not say she knew the cash was drug money, he said.
Dennis Leavitt, her lawyer, said she guided police to the stash.
"The reason they found it was because she told them where it was, told them where it came from and told them how to get it," Leavitt said.
Nichols disputed that, saying she only revealed the cash after authorities found out about it and confronted her.
Leavitt painted his client as a victim in the case who was tied up and threatened before her son was taken from her.
"What wrongdoing did she do?" he said. "Somebody broke into her house, tied her up, and if she lifted her head up, they hit her with a pistol."
Julie Puffinburger had been Cole’s primary caregiver since he was born, he said.
"The sad thing is when they found Cole that Saturday night … Cole was crying for his mom and asked the bus driver to call his mom," Leavitt said.
Cole was found by a bus driver on a dark residential street near downtown Las Vegas three days after his abduction. He appeared to be unharmed, police said.
After Cole was turned over to him, Robert Puffinburger filed for a restraining order to keep his ex-wife away.
Julie Puffinburger had received just one five-minute phone call with her son since then, Leavitt said.
After the 30-minute hearing, Hardcastle granted Robert Puffinburger temporary custody with supervised weekend visits for Julie Puffinburger pending another hearing next week.
Contact reporter Brian Haynes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0281.