By Marty Graham
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Four people who admitted to extorting money from Latino families who believed they were ransoming kidnapped family members were sentenced to prison in San Diego federal court Monday.
The 124 families in the U.S. sent nearly $200,000 to the extortion ring to free loved ones they believed were being held by smugglers after being brought into the U.S. illegally. Those claims to the families were false, according to court documents.
U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy called the scheme “a cruel hoax that caused significant emotional and financial damage.”
The extortion ring was able to exploit families across the U.S., including Maryland, Virginia and Minnesota, because human smugglers often contact families for payment or more money after they have brought people across the border into the U.S., according to Asst. U.S. Atty. Jose Castillo.
“This happens often enough that it’s well understood in the community that’s how smuggling transactions can work,” Castillo said in a phone interview. “The defendants were able to exploit that to enrich themselves.”
According to the indictment, the extortion ring would contact the victims and instruct them to send payments of $1,500 to $4,000 to the San Diego area. The defendants then took the cash and divided it up between themselves and co-conspirators in Mexico. In several instances they threatened to kill the person they claimed to hold – or another family member.
The indictment does not say how the group picked its victims, or learned the names of loved ones who might be trying to come to the U.S.
In the meantime, the frightened and worried families awaited word about their loved ones.
“This has been by far the worst experience of my life,” one victim wrote to the court. “They told me they would kill my niece if I did not send the money requested. I got sick as a result of ... the stress that I was subjected to and feeling so powerless.”
Ruth Graciela Raygoza, 64, and Maria Del Carmen Pulido Contreras, 43, who live in Southern California; as well as Adrian Jovan Rocha, 27, and Jonathan Rocha, 24, U.S. citizens who live in Tijuana, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to launder money in July.
Raygoza was sentenced to three years and four months, Pulido and Adrian Rocha to one year and nine months and Jonathan Rocha to a year and three months in federal prison.
(Editing by Sharon Bernstein)