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San Pedro man faces charges for virtual kidnapping, extortion while in Mexican prison

A San Pedro man, who served more than two decades in prison in Mexico for two murder convictions, was extradited to Los Angeles to face federal charges that he perpetrated a virtual kidnapping scam while incarcerated, authorities said Thursday, Nov. 12.

Over a period of more than three years while in prison, 48-year-old Julio Manuel Reyes Zuniga and four co-conspirators would allegedly call victims claiming a loved one had been kidnapped, said Ciaran McEvoy, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. They would then demand a ransom in the form of wire transfers, cash or electronics.

The victims’ family members had not been kidnapped at all, but at least 30 victims were duped into paying thousands of dollars in ransom to free their family members. In some cases, Reyes Zuniga would send co-conspirators to pick up cash drop-offs. In others, he demanded the purchase of iPads and iPhones, McEvoy said.

The victims in the case were from Los Angeles, Orange and Santa Barbara counties, according to the indictment.

Reyes Zuniga, identified as a reputable member of the Rancho San Pedro street gang, faces one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, 27 counts of extortion, two counts of foreign communication of threats with intent to extort money and one count of conspiracy to launder monetary instruments, McEvoy said.

Reyes Zuniga was convicted of the two murders and had been serving time in prison since 1996, McEvoy said. His sentence ended last year, but he was being held for extradition after he was indicted on the extortion charges in September 2019.

He was expected to make an appearance in federal court Thursday.

If convicted as charged, he could face more than 600 years in federal prison for each count in the indictment, McEvoy said.

Virtual kidnappings occur when an unsuspecting victim is told over the phone that his or her family member has been kidnapped must pay a ransom in order for the family member to be freed. The caller sometimes makes threats to harm the family member unless the victim pays a ransom, he said.

Reyes Zuniga and his co-conspirators twice sent victims messages threatening to harm a loved one, according to the indictment.

“No one is physically kidnapped in these schemes, but they are often traumatic for everyone involved,” McEvoy said. “On average, the family sends thousands of dollars to the scammers before contacting law enforcement.”

How much Reyes Zuniga and his co-conspirators stole during the scheme, which occurred from September 2015 to June 2018, was not disclosed in the indictment.

In all cases, the proceeds went to Reyes Zuniga, McEvoy said.

Investigators said they believe these schemes occur through cell phones smuggled into Mexican prisons.


Source: Orange County Register

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