San Jose issue warning about kidnappings-for-ransom

Almost two weeks ago, a massive San Jose police investigation ended with the safe rescue of a local businessman kidnapped by men pretending to be police officers, armed with fake badges and real guns and looking for a cool million in ransom.

While kidnappings for ransom are prevalent in some Latin American countries and have started to occur in parts of this country, they are highly unusual for San Jose. Nonetheless, San Jose police are concerned enough that they called a news conference Wednesday to bring attention to the crime.

“These cases are a relatively rare occurrence up here; we just don’t see them,” acting Police Chief Chris Moore said. “But we are seeing them in Arizona and Southern California. So if members of the public see an undercover police operation, if they are not sure, call 911. We want them to be aware and to assist us.”

Kidnappings for ransom similar to the one alleged to have occurred Nov. 4 in San Jose are increasing in the U.S., particularly in the Southwest, according to law enforcement experts. There have been so many in Phoenix that the police department there created a task force to deal with ransom kidnappings, which peaked in 2008, they say, at about 360. So far this year, police there say they have investigated 188 kidnappings for ransom, which experts say have spread to the city because of its proximity to the Mexican border.

Moore emphasized that witnesses, victims and their families should immediately call police no matter what their personal situation. Police said nearly a third of all such kidnappings are never reported. Experts say that one of the causes for this is that, in many cases, both assailants and victims — often Latino — are associated with the drug trade.

Police would not talk about the victim in this case, except to say that his family waited precious hours to report the crime. They reminded the public to call them at the first indication of trouble.

Trouble in this case came in the form of five fake cops.

Police displayed the weapons, including a stun gun, walkie-talkies, a fake police badge and several baseball-style hats that said the words “Police” or “DEA” on them.

The victim, who owns some restaurants on the East Side of the city, was abducted between Nov. 4 and 5 near Story Road and Hobie Lane in the eastern foothills of San Jose after he left his home to run some errands, police said.

His family tried calling his cell phone about 12:30 a.m. Nov. 5, but got voice mail. Shortly after 1 a.m., police said his family received a call from one of the suspects, demanding that they pay $1 million in ransom by 6 a.m.

The family held off on calling police until about 7:15 a.m. After a 15-hour search involving 125 officers, San Jose police identified the two-story home at 177 Fargate Circle in which the gang had the victim bound with duct tape.

Officers captured two of the suspects, who drove a Ford Crown Victoria — the same kind favored by many police departments — from the home. Two more suspects were captured soon after by special operations officers when they left the residence to smoke.

The final suspect surrendered when police called out to him with a bullhorn that he was surrounded. As they took him into custody, the victim leaped from the second-story window to escape.

Arrested were Jose Villalobos, 28, of Los Angeles; Libni Ramirez Sanchez, 23, of Hayward; Efrain Martinez, 34, of San Jose; Wilber Gomez, 26, of San Jose; and Jose Valencia, 33, of San Jose. All were booked on felony charges that include kidnapping for ransom, carjacking and assault. Their next court date is Nov. 30.

Some of the suspects have criminal histories, including Martinez, who was convicted of drug possession while armed, and Villalobos, who was convicted of grand theft.

After his escape, the victim was hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries from his leap, and from being assaulted with an electric stun gun by his captors. When police went to the victim’s home, they found drugs, a spokesman said at the time. He said investigators had not yet determined whether the kidnapping was drug-related.

Said San Jose police Lt. Glenn Harper: “No matter who he was, I’m proud that so many San Jose police officers worked so hard to help rescue him.”

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