Accused drug cartel members indicted in kidnapping of Midlands m - - Columbia, South Carolina

Accused drug cartel members indicted in kidnapping of Midlands man

The three defendants (Source: FBI) The three defendants (Source: FBI)
On July 15, federal agents rescued a St. Matthews man in this house located in Cumberland County, NC (Source: WECT) On July 15, federal agents rescued a St. Matthews man in this house located in Cumberland County, NC (Source: WECT)

The three alleged Mexican drug cartel members accused of kidnapping and holding for ransom a St. Matthews man over an unpaid drug debt last month have been indicted by a federal grand jury.

Juan Manuel Fuentes-Morales, 26, of Monterrey, Mexico, Ruben Ceja-Rangel, 57, of Mexico and Luis Castro-Villeda, of Garland, North Carolina were all charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, substantive kidnapping, hostage taking for ransom, and two counts each for brandishing a firearm in furtherance of a crimes of violence.

The defendants face a maximum of life in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 on each charge. All three are being represented by federal public defenders.

In an affidavit supporting the arrest of the three alleged Mexican drug cartel members, FBI Special Agent Luke Davis said the 23-year-old victim and his father had not been able to secure payment for 200 pounds of marijuana they had delivered to a customer for a Mexican drug trafficking organization several months ago.

During the course of the investigation into the disappearance of the unidentified man, agents learned that the victim and his father were working for the drug trafficking organization delivering cocaine, marijuana and money in locations in South Carolina and North Carolina, the affidavit stated.

The victim's father told agents the victim had delivered $200,000 worth of marijuana to an unidentified customer who didn't have the money to pay. According to the agent, the victim had "fronted" the pot to the customer, expecting payment at a later date. The customer never made the payment.

The cartel held the victim and his father responsible for the $200,000 loss, according to the affidavit. When the victim and his father could not pay the debt, the victim allegedly stopped working for the organization.

The affidavit notes it is "unclear at this point whether or not [victim] was actually ripped off as described, or whether [father] and [victim] actually stole the marijuana themselves..."

On July 9, the victim was supposed to pick up a friend and co-worker from a home in the St. Matthews area. When the victim never made it to the home, the victim's fiancee got worried and began to search for him.

The fiancee found the victim's truck parked in a neighbor's yard still running. A neighbor said he had noticed cars in the driveway earlier in the day and when he when to see who it was, he saw a black vehicle speed away.

Later that day, the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office was notified the victim was missing.

Hours after the victim went missing, the fiancee received a call from an unidentified hostage taker, who was calling from Mexico. The hostage taker told the fiancee the victim was with him and was unharmed.

He said he would call back in 24 hours and advised he wanted the victim's father to answer the phone.

Agents determined that the same phone in Mexico had been used to call a telephone in North Carolina. A federal judge later signed an order to tap that phone.

Agents believed Juan Manuel Fuentes-Morales was using that phone to communicate with the cartel in Mexico, according to the affidavit.

Between July 10 and July 15, the hostage takers placed 13 additional calls to the victim's fiancee's phone. According to the affidavit, the victim's father spoke to the hostage takers each time.

"We negotiated with hostage takers in Mexico," said Thomas. "Several different phone number several different people and we had agents across the country 15 different FBI locations involved hundreds of people on the ground."

Agents listened and recorded the calls which revealed the hostage takers demanded ransom amounts ranging from $100,000 to $400,000 and the return of the 200 pounds of marijuana the victim had allegedly lost.

During the negotiations, the victim's father asked the hostage takers to provide proof that his son was still alive. Cell phone records show Fuentes-Morales traveled to a second location to presumably speak with the victim to ask a "proof of life" question, the affidavit states.

On July 14, agents executed a search warrant at an address in Garland, North Carolina. Agents located Fuentes-Morales there.

Fuentes-Morales denied knowing anything about a kidnapping. He told agents he bought two cell phones from Walmart for an unknown man. Fuentes-Morales said the unidentified man had made several calls and then gave him the phone to keep.

On July 15 at approximately 5 a.m., agents executed a search warrant at an address in South Roseboro, North Carolina and found the victim chained and blindfolded. Ruben Ceja-Rangel and Luis Castro Villeda were holding him hostage, according to the affidavit.

When interviewed, the victim said he was abducted by gunpoint. He also told agents that during captivity, he found a knife and tried to escape by cutting off his restraints, the affidavit states. He said Fuentes-Morales hit him in the jaw and pointed a gun at his head when he was found to be trying to escape.

"The fact you're chained to a floor and blindfolded," said FBI Special Agent in Charge David Thomas. "You're held there and told you're going to be killed if they don't get the money and if you don't have money to give it's obviously very traumatic psychologically even if not physically."

Agents say this was a targeted attack. They say the people don't need to be worried for their safety, but that what happened shouldn't be taken lightly either.

"We're dealing with an organization that have the ability to reach into the United States, contact people to travel into another state, kidnap someone, and try to enact a ransom," said Thomas. "It's a fairly complex ability to do that."

Thomas says most of the drugs that enter the Carolinas come from Mexico.

"Over the past several years since we've been here almost all of our drugs come Mexico to Atlanta to here," said Thomas. "North Carolina, South Carolina -- that's the drug trafficking trade now. Almost every case that we work now has ties back to Mexico"

The victim was treated and returned to his family. He was not taken into custody.

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