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Four in O.C. Accused of Holding Illegal Immigrants for Ransom

After $5,400 is handed over, the suspects spot police and toss the money from their car.

November 12, 2005|Claire Luna | Times Staff Writer

Four suspected immigrant smugglers are now in custody after police freed three Mexican citizens allegedly being held for ransom at a house in Orange, authorities said.

Unlike a similar incident in May 2004 in which 79 illegal immigrants were found crammed into a single-story Canoga Park house, no other captives were being held at the West Sycamore Avenue home.

A relative of the immigrants -- a husband and wife, both 25, and a 16-year-old girl -- had called Santa Ana police Wednesday and told them that their captors were demanding $5,400 for their return, said Sgt. Lorenzo Carrillo.

The trio had already paid the smugglers $5,000 to be driven to Orange County after they crawled under a fence near Tijuana, officials said.

Police helped the relative get the money and arrange a meeting place off the Garden Grove Freeway in Santa Ana. After the immigrants were exchanged for the cash Thursday night, the suspects got on the freeway.

When they saw police, they threw the cash out of the window, Carrillo said. All but $200 was recovered after police arrested the four. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials found an additional $26,000 in the house in Orange.

Jose Mandujano, 35, of Orange; Erika Olivas, 30, of Orange; Christian Lopez, 19, of Santa Ana; and Diego Elenes, 22, of Orange are each being held on $1-million bail at Santa Ana City Jail on suspicion of extortion and kidnapping.

Immigration officials were working with the U.S. attorney's office to determine whether they would face federal charges.

The immigrants, who were not identified, were being held so they could help police with their investigation and perhaps testify, customs officials said.

Attempts by smugglers to extort additional money from immigrants are common and "another example of how ruthless and greed-driven this illicit trade is," said Virginia Kice, a customs spokeswoman.

"The whole objective of human smugglers is to up the profit," Kice said. "It's a very brutal and a very lucrative enterprise."

The threats are not empty, she said. Women have been raped and people of both genders pistol-whipped, beaten or killed if ransoms were not paid, Kice said.

In the May 2004 incident, officials arrested suspected smugglers in Canoga Park after they had demanded a ransom from their victims' relatives.

A month earlier, more than 100 immigrants were discovered being held against their will in a Watts bungalow. The Watts house had been in use as long as two years, funneling up to 400 people a week into the country at $3,000 to $10,000 per person.

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