SAN DIEGO (AP) — A Southern California woman and her boyfriend have been arrested on suspicion of collecting ransom in a kidnapping that killed two of three U.S. citizens held in Mexico, federal prosecutors said Monday.
Leslie Briana Matla, 20, and Juan Carlos Montoya Sanchez, 25, are charged with one count each of money laundering conspiracy, the U.S. Department of Justice said. It’s not immediately known if they have attorneys.
Matla picked up ransom payments in Southern California from family members of kidnapping victims held in Tijuana, Mexico, according to the criminal complaint.
Records show Sanchez received wire transfers from two of the kidnapping victims, the complaint alleges.
Three men — residents of San Diego, Norwalk and Pasadena — were kidnapped separately in Tijuana while on business or visiting family, prosecutors said. The victims’ families were notified via a caller with a Mexican telephone number to deposit ransom money at specific locations, prosecutors allege.
Mexican authorities found the San Diego victim’s body on March 29 — one day after the man’s adult son placed a bag containing $25,000 inside the women’s restroom of a McDonald’s in the California community of San Ysidro near the border, officials said.
The body of the Norwalk victim was found in Mexico on April 14. A day earlier, the victim’s family unsuccessfully tried to pay a $25,000 ransom to a woman whom law enforcement believe was Matla at a Southern California Lowe’s parking lot, according to court documents.
On April 22, a woman from Pasadena called law enforcement to report that kidnappers demanded $20,000 for the return of a family member held in Mexico.
One of the kidnappers, calling from a Mexican phone number, informed the Pasadena victim’s family that a woman would pick up the cash at a Food 4 Less parking lot in Lynwood, a city near LA. That same day, law enforcement rescued the victim, who was being held hostage at the same Tijuana hotel as the first two kidnapping victims.
Nine suspects were arrested by Mexican authorities at the hotel, U.S. officials said.
A review of security camera footage, border crossing records and social media led law enforcement to identify Matla as the woman sent to San Ysidro, Norwalk and Lynwood to pick up the ransom money on the dates in question, the affidavit alleges.
If convicted of the charge, Matla and Sanchez could face up to life in federal prison. Matla is from the Southern California city of Colton, but lives in Tijuana, where Sanchez is from.