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.

News
i100
Life and Style
Cooked up: reducing dietary animal fat might not be as healthy as government advice has led millions of people to believe
healthA look at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Sport
Neil Warnock
football'New' manager for Crystal Palace
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Voices
voices
Sport
Roger Federer is greeted by Michael Jordan following his victory over Marinko Matosevic
tennisRoger Federer gets Michael Jordan's applause following tweener shot in win over Marinko Matosevic
News
peopleJustin Bieber accuses paparazzi of acting 'recklessly' after car crash
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Oppressive atmosphere: the cast of 'Tyrant'
tvIntroducing Tyrant, one of the most hotly anticipated dramas of the year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Cover Supervisor

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunities for Cover Sup...

IT Teacher September strt with view to permanent post

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: IT...

Qualified Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Crawley: This independent Nursery is looking fo...

Qualified Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Crawley: This independent Nursery is looking fo...

Day In a Page

Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?
Rachael Lander interview: From strung out to playing strings

From strung out to playing strings

Award-winning cellist Rachael Lander’s career was almost destroyed by the alcohol she drank to fight stage fright. Now she’s playing with Elbow and Ellie Goulding
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?

A big fat surprise about nutrition?

The science linking saturated fats to heart disease and other health issues has never been sound. Nina Teicholz looks at how governments started advising incorrectly on diets
Emmys 2014 review: Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars

Can they genuinely compete with the Oscars?

The recent Emmy Awards are certainly glamorous, but they can't beat their movie cousins
On the road to nowhere: A Routemaster trip to remember

On the road to nowhere

A Routemaster trip to remember
Hotel India: Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind

Hotel India

Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace leaves its darker days behind
10 best pencil cases

Back to school: 10 best pencil cases

Whether it’s their first day at school, uni or a new project, treat the student in your life to some smart stationery
Arsenal vs Besiktas Champions League qualifier: Gunners know battle with Turks is a season-defining fixture

Arsenal know battle with Besiktas is a season-defining fixture

Arsene Wenger admits his below-strength side will have to improve on last week’s show to pass tough test
Pete Jenson: Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought

Pete Jenson: A Different League

Athletic Bilbao’s locals-only transfer policy shows success does not need to be bought
This guitar riff has been voted greatest of all time

The Greatest Guitar Riff of all time

Whole Lotta Votes from Radio 2 listeners
Britain’s superstar ballerina

Britain’s superstar ballerina

Alicia Markova danced... every night of the week and twice on Saturdays
Berlin's Furrie invasion

Berlin's Furrie invasion

2000 fans attended Eurofeurence
‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

‘It was a tidal wave of terror’

Driven to the edge by postpartum psychosis