(SAN DIEGO) — When Jorge Garcia Vasquez, 58, joined a 24 Hour Fitness gym in San Diego, an attractive 19-year-old woman took quite a liking to him, so much that she convinced him to become her personal trainer.
But he likely didn’t expect the interest from the much younger woman to turn into a struggle for his life, allegedly part of a set up in a high-dollar kidnapping scheme by the young “femme fatale” and her gang-affiliated accomplices.
That’s what happened to Vasquez and to two other men in 2007, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office says, and the young woman, Nancy Michelle Mendoza Moreno, is standing trial for her alleged role in the elaborate “honey trap,” facing up to life in prison, according a report by the Los Angeles Times. Mendoza’s attorney doesn’t dispute the tale the prosecutors tell but says they picked up the wrong girl and Mendoza, now 24, is the victim of a case of mistaken identity.
Originally from Tijuana, Mendoza’s alleged short but lucrative criminal career began in late 2006 when she became involved with a gang in the San Diego suburbs. Called “Los Palillos,” or the Toothpicks, the gang had split from the then-powerful Arellano Felix drug cartel after infighting. Los Palillos uprooted from Tijuana and set up operations across the border in California, local media reports said.
Once in San Diego County, Los Palillos reigned over a series of violent kidnappings and murders between 2004 and 2007, trafficking drugs and systematically killing rivals, according to the FBI. “Bodies turned up in cars, on jogging paths, and inside houses in quiet, residential neighborhoods,” the FBI said.
Their alleged method of operation: kidnap wealthy, cartel-associated men and hold them for hefty ransoms — knowing that many of their victims’ shifty legal histories would ensure that the police were never called. Their secret weapon, according to San Diego prosecutors: the young, attractive Mendoza, who would allegedly woo the men into ready-made traps with her coy flirtations.
“She was used as a lure successfully, repeatedly,” said Deputy District Attorney James Fontaine in his opening statement last month. Images of Mendoza clad in revealing lingerie have been entered into trial evidence. Not all the operations were the same, but Mendoza was allegedly influential in bringing some victims who were not easily accessible to the gang members.
In one case, Mendoza allegedly tipped off the Los Palillos kidnappers about the whereabouts of the 25-year-old son of notorious drug trafficker Jose Manuel Nunez as the two were partying together, the L.A. Times reported. In another set-up, she joined the 24 Hour Fitness Gym to get acquainted with Jorge Garcia Vasquez, 58, the relative of a well-known cartel financier. She befriended Garcia, convinced him to be her personal trainer, and “then began to reel in her prey,” prosecutors said in court documents. When Mendoza and Garcia ran an errand together, the kidnappers snagged him at a traffic stop. The two captives alone reportedly brought in almost $1 million in ransom money for Los Palillos.
In the third incident — the one that finally landed Los Palillos in the authorities’ crosshairs — prosecutors say Mendoza chatted up wealthy businessman Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado at a local Starbucks and later invited him to visit her at her aunt’s home. Upon entering the house with a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of cognac, he was accosted by the Los Palillos men. Gonzalez was beaten, blindfolded, handcuffed and held in a pantry for eight days for a ransom of $2 million.
But instead of receiving the $2 million, the men from Los Palillos were caught by a SWAT team after a family member of Gonzalez’s managed to give the gang a suitcase with some of the money as well as a hidden tracking device, according to a report by ABC News’ San Diego affiliate 10 News.
By that time, however, Moreno had long since fled the scene. Gonzalez said he recalled her asking the kidnappers, “Can I go home?” and “What car should I take?” directly following his capture.
She disappeared to Tijuana and was not found for three years, prosecutors said. But in August 2010, she was arrested by Mexican authorities based on information given by U.S. officials, who had discovered her working in a Tijuana law office.
Mendoza was extradited to the U.S. and she is now on trial for the original charges leveled at her in 2007: kidnapping for ransom with bodily injury and conspiracy to commit kidnapping for ransom. If convicted, she faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. Mendoza’s lawyer, Sandy Resnick, maintains that it is all a case of mistaken identity and the men had been taken in by another woman.
Two other members of Los Palillos — the kidnappers — are currently serving life imprisonment sentences. Five more remain at large, although authorities believe they are likely in Mexico, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The San Diego District Attorney’s office declined to comment on the case and Resnick did not respond to a request for comment for this report.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN
Matt McFarland, CNN
KJ Kwon and Ben Westcott, CNN
Seth Fiegerman, CNN