America's 'femme fatale' trial: did she lure rich men for ransom?

 

She is alluring, but the story being told about her now in a San Diego courtroom is not. When the trial of Nancy Mendoza Moreno, 24, is over it will be for the jury to decide. Is she the woman who honey-trapped wealthy businessmen so they could be kidnapped for ransom or was it someone else?

The defence's case is that the authorities simply have the wrong woman. Ms Mendoza was arrested in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2010, extradited to the US and charged with kidnapping and conspiracy.

She has pleaded not guilty. But prosecutors insist she is the femme fatale who ensnared victims for a drugs gang known as Los Palillos, or "toothpicks", that stalked San Diego until it was broken up in 2007.

"She was used as a lure successfully, repeatedly," Deputy District Attorney James Fontaine said at the start of a trial that is expected to last about another week. One alleged victim who has been among a parade of prosecution witnesses on the stand is Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado, 31, a local businessman who has car-racing trophies, his own dealerships in the city and a restaurant.

The details of what happened to Mr Gonzalez are not in dispute. It's a predictable he-should-have-known-better story, until the moment it isn't. Pretty girl chats him up in a Starbucks; girl gives him phone number and invites him to a home; man succumbs, turns up with flowers, alcohol and condoms. Then the surprise: men in ski-masks pounce, shackle him and stuff him into a tiny room under the stairs where he remains for eight days until his family delivers a case containing $193,000 (£124,600) in ransom cash.

Mr Gonzalez was lucky, on balance. He had feared being kidnapped for some time and had told his wife to contact the FBI should the worst happen. Agents slipped a tiny transponder into the ransom case and tracked it to the home where Mr Gonzalez was being held. It was the beginning of the end for the toothpick gang. Four of its leaders are now behind bars in the US, others are believed to be in Mexico.

While Mr Gonzalez has taken star billing in the prosecution case, other men dropped their guard with the defendant in the hope of dropping garments. Victims were singled out not just for ransom but as part of a war between the toothpick gang and the Arellano Félix drugs cartel in Tijuana from which it had broken away. Ms Mendoza was paid up to $15,000 per victim, the government says.

Also among her victims, according to prosecutors, was Jorge Garcia Vasquez, a brother-in-law of a leading cartel financier Jesus "Chuy" Labra. They met in a local gym and the Mendoza spell was quickly cast.

"The defendant ... befriended Mr Garcia Vasquez, then began to reel in her prey," prosecutors wrote in documents submitted to the court seen by The Los Angeles Times.

Prosecutors allege that Mr Vasquez was snatched some weeks after Ms Mendoza landed a man who was her first victim – the 25-year-old son of Jose Manuel Nunez, an infamous trafficker better known in the drugs underworld as "Balas" or bullets. The son, Eric (Little Bullets), and Mr Vasquez were eventually freed, but the gang was later accused of murdering nine other victims and dissolving their bodies in barrels of lye.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Experienced Bookkeeper - German Speaking - Part Time

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm of accountants based ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a financial services c...

Ashdown Group: Field Service Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum + car allowance and on call: Ashdown Group: A succes...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Co-Ordinator

£15000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Well established small company ...

Day In a Page

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk
Nepal earthquake: One man's desperate escape from Everest base camp after the disaster

Escape from Everest base camp

Nick Talbot was sitting in his tent when the tsunami of snow and rock hit. He was lucky to live, unlike his climbing partner just feet away...
Adopting high fibre diet could dramatically cut risk of bowel cancer, says study

What happened when 20 Americans swapped diets with 20 Africans?

Innovative study in the US produces remarkable results
Blake Lively and 'The Age of Adaline': Gossip Girl comes
of age

Gossip girl comes of age

Blake Lively is best known for playing an affluent teenager. Her role as a woman who is trapped forever at 29 is a greater challenge
Goat cuisine: Kid meat is coming to Ocado

Goat cuisine

It's loved by chefs, ethical, low in fat and delicious. So, will kid meat give lamb a run for its money?
14 best coat hooks

Hang on: 14 best coat hooks

Set the tone for the rest of your house with a stylish and functional coat rack in the hallway
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?