Nancy Mendoza Moreno, right, sits next to her attorney, Sandra Resnick,… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
SAN DIEGO — The young woman invited the wealthy businessman over for drinks. He arrived holding flowers and a bottle of Remy Martin cognac. She smiled. Her flirting seemed to promise more than cocktails. The businessman, Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, also brought condoms.
But when he walked through the door of the two-story home in Chula Vista, Gonzalez said, he got the surprise of his life. Several heavily armed men in ski masks jumped him, raining blows until he passed out. When he awoke, he could hear them celebrating his capture. Then he heard a voice addressing the men: "Can I go home?"
The alleged femme fatale with a taste for pricey liquor, Nancy Mendoza Moreno, 24, is on trial in San Diego, accused of luring Gonzalez and two other men to Mexican kidnappers who extracted large ransoms for their release. Neither side disputes the tale Gonzalez, 37, laid out in court last week. The defense, however, insists it's a case of mistaken identity.
In some of the photos shown as evidence, Mendoza appears in sexy lingerie. In court she wears a gray business suit, and on some days keeps her long hair braided in a ponytail. Her large brown eyes fix on witnesses, but they betray no emotion.
Prosecutors say Mendoza was a key member of a Mexican gang that blazed a trail of Tijuana-style violence and mayhem in San Diego suburbs from 2004 to 2007. Called Los Palillos, or "toothpicks," the gang had split from the powerful Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel and moved across the border, where its members allegedly used Mendoza in their efforts to target people they thought were linked to the cartel — the kind of people who would pay a ransom but not call the police.
Gang members kidnapped several victims by setting up phony drug deals. Posing as cops, they kidnapped another man in front of his home. Getting within striking distance of other victims was a constant challenge. Some lived in gated communities and traveled with bodyguards. Mendoza, prosecutors said, made things a lot easier.
"She was used as a lure successfully, repeatedly," Deputy Dist. Atty. James Fontaine said during his opening statement last month.
Investigators, a gang member and a onetime friend of Mendoza painted a picture for jurors of a woman who lived a cross-border double life. In Tijuana, Mendoza was an aspiring flight attendant who studied hard and lived in a working-class neighborhood. In San Diego, she was a party girl who bounced from hotel to hotel, dabbled with cocaine and became romantically entangled with one of the gang leaders.
She was allegedly paid well. After one kidnapping she received $15,000.
The kidnapping ring's first target using Mendoza, prosecutors said, was the 25-year-old son of Jose Manuel Nunez, a well-known drug trafficker nicknamed "Balas," or bullets. They snatched his son, Eric, nicknamed "Balitas," or Little Bullets, in October 2006 after a night of partying, allegedly with Mendoza, who prosecutors say informed the kidnappers of his whereabouts. Mendoza's defense attorney, Sandra Resnick, has claimed that she did not alert the kidnappers.
Three months later, Mendoza allegedly joined a 24 Hour Fitness gym frequented by Jorge Garcia Vasquez, the brother-in-law of the notorious cartel financier Jesus "Chuy" Labra. Mendoza was 19 years old; Garcia was 58. She asked for help with exercises and he became her trainer, according to court documents. "The defendant ... befriended Mr. Garcia Vasquez, then began to reel in her prey," prosecutors wrote in the documents.
One day, Garcia accompanied Mendoza on what he thought was an errand, prosecutors say. Instead, he was jumped at a traffic stop, where he struggled so fiercely he had to be subdued with a Taser before he was whisked away to a stash house. Mendoza's defense team claims that Garcia has Mendoza mixed up with another woman.
Nunez and Garcia were eventually released by the kidnappers, who cleared a total of about $1 million in ransom money, according to investigators. They were lucky. Gang members allegedly murdered nine people, dissolving some of their bodies in barrels of lye.
The next target was Gonzalez, who testified three weeks ago. Gonzales said he knew kidnappers were plotting against him — he had installed a video surveillance system at his $1.5-million home and hired a private investigator. The kidnappers apparently believed Gonzalez was a cartel member. His face appeared on a poster of most-wanted fugitives distributed by Baja California authorities, who suspected him of kidnapping.
Then a 31-year-old champion off-road racer who owned car dealerships and a popular seafood restaurant, Gonzalez always denied any cartel connections. His actions in early 2007 weren't consistent with cartel protocol: He told his wife to contact the FBI if he was kidnapped.