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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

4 indicted in HSI probe targeting bogus kidnapping and extortion ring

SAN DIEGO – Four members of a virtual kidnapping ring based in Tijuana and Southern California have been indicted on federal charges for allegedly extorting Latino families across the United States, falsely claiming a family member had been kidnapped and demanding thousands of dollars in ransom.

Ruth Graciela Raygoza, 61, of Chula Vista; Maria Del Carmen Pulido Contreras, 40, of Los Angeles; Adrian Jovan Rocha, 24, of Tijuana, Mexico; and Jonathan Rocha, 22, of Tijuana, Mexico, are charged with conspiracy, wire fraud and money laundering. The indictment, unsealed Friday, stems from a probe by San Diego-based special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

Three of the defendants were arrested Thursday in San Diego. The fourth defendant, Pulido, was arrested Thursday in Los Angeles. All four made their initial appearances in federal court Friday.

"This was a truly brazen and heartless scheme that understandably left numerous victims across the country traumatized," said Derek Benner, special agent in charge for ICE HSI San Diego. "As this indictment demonstrates, those who hope to profit by preying on the vulnerable should be on notice – HSI will use all of the resources and authorities at its disposal to hold you accountable for your crimes."

According to the indictment, the defendants and their co-conspirators falsely represented to numerous families in Maryland, Minnesota, Virginia and elsewhere that they were holding a loved one captive. On one occasion members of the ring threatened to harm or kill the supposedly-abducted person unless payments were wired to various locations in San Diego and Los Angeles.

The extortion victims were typically instructed to send between $1,500 to $4,000, either through MoneyGram or Western Union, to locations in San Diego and Los Angeles. Defendants would then pick up the money, which they re-wired or delivered to other conspirators in Mexico.

In one case, an unknown male co-conspirator was unwittingly speaking to an undercover HSI special agent posing as the son of a kidnapping victim. During their phone conversation, the caller threatened to kill the kidnapped father if the special agent did not wire $700 to "Adrian" in San Diego. That same day, the indictment alleges defendant Adrian Jovan Rocha picked up the money that had been sent by the undercover HSI special agent.

According to the indictment, the defendants told families they had smuggled their loved ones from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and other locations into the U.S. and would not release them without payment.