California man is charged with running a ‘virtual kidnapping’ scam from his Mexican prison cell after ‘duping at least 30 American families into paying thousands of dollars in ransom for abductions that never happened’
- Julio Manuel Reyes Zuniga, 48, allegedly ran a ‘virtual kidnapping’ scheme from inside a Mexican prison
- He and four co-conspirators would call residents of Southern California and claim they had abducted one of their relatives
- They would then demand that the person hand over ransom money or electronics in order for the safe return of their loved one
- No actual kidnappings had taken place, but the victims would usually make thousands of dollars worth of payments
- Reyes Zuniga, who lived in California until he was convicted of two killings in Mexico in 1996, was extradited back to the US earlier this week
- He has pleaded not guilty to 31 charges in the case; he faces life in prison if convicted on multiple counts
A California man imprisoned in Mexico ran a ‘virtual kidnapping’ scheme that duped dozens of Americans into paying ransoms to free family members who were never actually kidnapped, federal prosecutors claim.
Julio Manuel Reyes Zuniga, 48, appeared in a Los Angeles court on Thursday after being extradited back to the United States earlier this week. He pleaded not guilty to 31 charges, including extortion, conspiracy to commit extortion, foreign communication of threats and conspiracy to launder money.
Reyes Zuniga, a reputed member of the Rancho San Pedro street gang, allegedly ran the virtual kidnapping scheme between 2015 and 2018 while he was incarcerated at the Santa Martha Acatitla Prison near Mexico City.
Investigators believe Reyes Zuniga worked with four unnamed co-conspirators in the plot, which specifically targeted residents of Southern California.
The group allegedly used cellphones to call their victims, telling them that they had abducted a loved one and planned to harm the person unless a ransom was paid. In reality, no such kidnappings had taken place.
Reyes Zuniga allegedly ran the virtual kidnapping scheme between 2015 and 2018 while he was incarcerated at the Santa Martha Acatitla Prison near Mexico City (pictured)
Reyes Zuniga and his accomplices would demand the ransom payments in the form of cash, wire transfers, or the purchase of electronics such as iPads or iPhones, according to court papers.
The Los Angeles Times reports that if a victim elected to pay in cash, one of the co-conspirators would collect it from an agreed-upon location in California before taking it south of the border and personally delivering it to Reyes Zuniga or another of the accomplices.
At least 30 victims in Southern California each paid thousands of dollars on average, investigators claim.
The case is being prosecuted by the office of United States Attorney Nick Hanna.
‘No one is physically kidnapped in these schemes, but they are often traumatic for everyone involved,’ Ciaran McEvoy, a spokesman for Hanna’s office, told Mercury News on Thursday.
‘On average, the family sends thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement.’
If a victim elected to pay cash, one of the co-conspirators would collect it from an agreed-upon location in California before taking it south of the border and personally delivering it to Reyes Zuniga or another of the three accomplices in Mexico. The US- Mexico border station is pictured
The case is being prosecuted by the office of United States Attorney Nick Hanna (pictured)
If convicted of all charges, Reyes Zuniga could face 20 years in federal prison for each count in the indictment. That would add up to a maximum sentence of 620 years.
Reyes Zuniga’s attorney, Anthony Solis, insists his client is innocent.
‘Everything is in dispute.T hey [the US Attorney’s Office] say all kinds of things… Some things are true, some things are not,’ Solis told the LA Times.
Reyes Zuniga had been locked up in the Mexican prison system since 1996, after being convicted of two murders. He previously resided in San Pedro, California.
Reyes Zuniga previously lived in the coastal community of San Pedro, south of Los Angeles (pictured)