From a public safety standpoint, it truly doesn’t matter whether you believe Eddy was an innocent victim or a guilty one.
At 3:39 a.m. on January 7, 2007, Columbia Street was almost deserted. Little Italy had been plagued with car burglaries — “It got where you couldn’t drive too many of the streets down there without seeing broken glass in the morning,” said San Diego police officer Joel Schmid, so Schmid parked his patrol car and approached on foot when he noticed a pearl white Escalade stopped in the driveway of a condominium.
Eddy Tostado owned a bar in Ensenada called El Blue Martini Lounge, and a restaurant in Tijuana called Mariscos del Pacífico and two car dealerships in Chula Vista called Premiere I and Motorland Auto Sales.
One door was slightly ajar, triggering the interior lights. Schmid could see shadows moving inside.
Schmid requested assistance from other officers and stepped quietly to the driver’s-side door, where he confronted a Hispanic man in his 30s and two women, one of whom was sitting on the man’s lap.
Rental home on Point Dume Court in Chula Vista. A lot of cars rolled in and out of Point Dume now: a black 2008 Escalade with newly purchased rims, a silver Ranger, a gray Corolla, the red MR2, and a black Lincoln truck.
The man benignly handed Schmid a Mexican passport with what Schmid called a “real blurry photo.” The name on the passport and on the U.S. visa tucked inside was “Rubén Flores.” A search of the Escalade produced a loaded Colt Mustang, seven cell phones, a blue Viagra pill, the business card of a Chula Vista gun store, a permit for the American Shooting Center, and a folded sheet of white paper that resembled a faded receipt.
Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits on Santo Road where FBI agents prepared Ivette and Sergio to carry the ransom money.
“On one side of the paper,” Schmid testified, “was a kiss in lipstick, as if somebody with lipstick had kissed the paper itself and folded it up, and inside of that receipt, underneath the kiss, I found a crystalline controlled substance I believed to be methamphetamine.”
Neiman Marcus Last Call in Las Americas Plaza, where kidnappers spent $400 of ransom money.
The paper sealed with a kiss contained, in fact, .07 grams of crystal meth, but that and the gun weren’t enough to keep the man in the white Escalade for long. Five months later, he was busy in Chula Vista and Paradise Hills, executing plans that involved three assault rifles, six handguns, two Tasers, two duffel bags of Mexican and American police uniforms, five cars, a length of heavy chain, four padlocks, a blindfold, muriatic acid in quantities sufficient to dissolve grown men, and the belief that a rich Mexican family with businesses on both sides of the border would not call the FBI if a family member disappeared.
Corner of Brandywine and Olympic Parkway where SWAT members took down Tio with a flash bang.
He was mistaken.
∗ ∗ ∗
One Friday in May of 2007, a security camera mounted on a house in the gated neighborhood of Belmonte recorded a man in a polo shirt and jeans approaching the front door from a white Volkswagen Beetle. The man was thin and unremarkable except for the sharp point his receding hair made on his forehead and the equally sharp features of his face. He looked more Anglo than Hispanic.
National City swap meet where Sergio left ransom money.
He peered through the glass of the front door and walked away several times, waiting or looking for someone. After 12 minutes, he left a note on the front step.
The $1.5 million house he visited on Mansiones Lane belonged to 32-year-old Eduardo González Tostado, called Eddy by his cousin Sergio and sometimes “Mandilón,” which comes from the Spanish word for apron — el mandil — and means “whipped.”
LOS PALILLOS GANG MEMBERS WHO KIDNAPPED EDDY TOSTADO IN CHULA VISTA
(Los Palillos members previously had ties to the Arellano Félix drug cartel in Mexico)
Jorge Rojas López. “Boss One” of kidnappers. Awaiting trial for 9 murders, attempted murder of a police officer, kidnapping, and robbery.
Juan Estrada González. “Boss Two” of kidnappers. Awaiting trial for 6 murders, kidnapping, and robbery.
Juan Laureano Arvizu. Charged with leaving a warning note on the Tostados’ doorstep. At large and wanted for 5 murders, kidnapping, and robbery. Avid gambler.
José Beritan Olivera. “Asere.” A Cuban indicted in Tostado kidnapping. Provided a daily bucket for Tostado’s toilet. Awaiting trial on murder charges.
David Valencia. Used young woman to lure Tostado to hostage house. Serving 15 years in state prison. Faces multiple life sentences and death sentence for murder charges.
Eduardo Monroy. “The Architect.” Charged with giving Tostado’s gate code to co-conspirators. Still at large.
Carlos Peña García. “Morro.” Said kidnapping wasn’t a good job but needed money as his girlfriend was pregnant. Indicted for kidnapping and awaiting trial on murder charges.
Eddy found the note when he returned with his wife Ivette and their six-year-old daughter from their regular weekend trip to Mexico, where he owned a house, a bar in Ensenada called El Blue Martini Lounge, and a restaurant in Tijuana called Mariscos del Pacífico. On the American side, Eddy owned a company that rented out trucks that carried goods from maquiladoras into the United States and two car dealerships in Chula Vista called Premiere I and Motorland Auto Sales.
Eddy’s father-in-law was a neurologist in Tijuana, and Eddy, who had once been the starting quarterback on the only American-style football team in Ensenada, had earned a law degree from a Tijuana college called Centro de Estudios Superiores. He was famous in his hometown of Ensenada for being the first Mexican ever to win a 216-mile cross-country race through the Mexican desert called the Baja 250. Off-road cars like the one Eddy owned cost upward of $100,000, and year after year, the races were won by foreigners.
Eddy picked up the note on his front step. “Urgent to call Robert” it said in Spanish, and it listed a phone number. Eddy went to look at the surveillance video, and he paused the tape to show the man with the pointed hairline leaving his front door. He took some pictures of the screen. Then he drove to a nearby shopping mall and used a public phone — not his cell or house phone — to call the driver of the white Volkswagen.
According to Eddy, the conversation went like this.
“Is this Robert?” Eddy asked.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“You left me a note on my house,” Eddy said.
The person calling himself Robert then told Eddy that he’d been sitting in a bar when he overheard some people planning to kidnap Eduardo González Tostado. These men in the bar had talked about where Eddy’s businesses were and where his house was and what number you had to punch into the keypad at the gate to get to Eddy’s house. For $30,000 (which was what, Robert said, those guys owed him), he would tell Eddy who these men were. For free, he told Eddy that the person who’d passed along the gate code was “El Arquitecto.”
The architect was a friend of Eddy’s named Eduardo Monroy, someone Eddy knew from vacations in Puerto Vallarta. Eddy had helped Monroy find an apartment and then had given Monroy work remodeling the patio at the Mansiones house, for which Eddy had given Monroy the gate code.
With this knowledge of a former friend plotting against him, Eddy drove back home, punched in the gate code that was now circulating among people who meant him harm, and went back to his wife and child. When his cousin Sergio arrived from Ensenada, Eddy showed him the note. Sergio would remember the note differently. “Mandil, call me,” Sergio recalled it saying, not “Urgent to call Robert.” In Sergio’s memory, the note referred to Eddy by his nickname.
In any case, Sergio looked at the security video, studied the pale-skinned man with the pointed hairline, and told Eddy he’d once given that man a ride in La Jolla. The man in the video was the Tijuana boyfriend of someone Sergio knew, and his real name was Juan, not Robert.
So Eddy decided to look for the man in Tijuana. He took the photographs he’d made from the surveillance video across the border to his restaurant, Mariscos del Pacífico, and asked his staff if they’d ever seen this guy Juan. Eddy told the manager to call him if the man in the video showed up.
Eddy also took the step of calling his lawyer to ask that he get a private investigator to find out who, exactly, Juan was and where he lived.
After that, Eddy and Juan spoke by telephone one more time. This time, Eddy told Juan that he knew his real name and did not intend to pay him anything.
Juan promptly lowered his informant fee to $6000.
Eddy still wanted to know if the kidnapping threat was serious, so he suggested that Juan meet him at Mariscos del Pacífico, but Juan refused, saying he didn’t have papers and therefore couldn’t go to Mexico, but he could meet Eddy at a shopping mall in the U.S.
Eddy didn’t agree. They decided to talk again by telephone, but Eddy never spoke to Juan again. The exchange did, however, initiate a crucial conversation between Eddy and his wife Ivette.
“I told her if I ever were kidnapped, go to FBI,” Eddy said.
∗ ∗ ∗
At about this time, two things happened. A For Rent sign went up in front of a plain brown house in a tight cul-de-sac at 1539 Point Dume Court in Chula Vista. Fifteen-year-old Derek and his friend Freddy watched from their garages as the house that had been occupied by a family with a teenaged daughter was visited first by prospective renters and then by the new tenants, who were not a family but a pair of guys. They were Hispanic, in their 20s or early 30s, Derek guessed, and they spent an awful lot of time driving to and from the house. One guy in particular would drive to the house, carry in some grocery or duffel bags, then get back in his red MR2 and drive away. A couple of hours later, he’d be back and do the same thing. A lot of cars, in fact, rolled in and out of Point Dume now: a black 2008 Escalade with newly purchased rims (not stock, Derek noticed), a silver Ranger, a gray Corolla, the red MR2, and a black Lincoln truck.
Meanwhile, an old friend of Eddy’s got in touch to apologize. Three years earlier, Eddy Tostado and his friend David Valencia had sometimes gone out to clubs with Monroy, the architect, and their respective wives and girlfriends, but then one night the women were dancing for Eddy, David, and the architect, and David started punching and kicking his girlfriend. Eddy tried to stop David, so David grabbed a bottle of whiskey and hit Eddy on the head with it.
Eddy nearly passed out, blood gushing from an inch-long cut. The architect tried to calm David down, as Eddy remembered it, but security took David out, and Eddy went to his father-in-law’s clinic to have the gash on his head swabbed and sealed with butterfly bandages.
That was the last time Eddy saw David Valencia until May of 2007, when Juan showed up on Eddy’s front step with his kidnapping story and David Valencia started telling Eddy’s car detailer (who came to Eddy’s house every Friday) how sorry he was about hitting Eddy with that whiskey bottle and how much he wanted to talk to Eddy and make it right. The car detailer even tried to use his own phone to call David so that apologies could be made and friendship restored. They didn’t reconcile, though, until Eddy heard that his former friend David had been in the hospital. Okay, Eddy decided, and he called.
David and Eddy met at a coffee shop, where David said he was sober now, living in the U.S. with his wife and family. David’s son was playing soccer, his daughter was riding horses — he was doing family things now — and maybe Eddy’s daughter would like to come ride horses sometime. By the time Eddy and David parted that day, Eddy had promised to buy some cars for David at an upcoming auction, just like he used to do.
∗ ∗ ∗
On Thursday, June 7, Eddy Tostado and David Valencia went to a car auction. David picked out a car and a pickup truck and left. Eddy, because he was the one with the dealer’s license, bid on the cars David wanted, among others, and at around 7:00 that evening met David in a Starbucks in Chula Vista. David was waiting on the patio outside, which was really just two green umbrellas on the sidewalk, hemmed in by the bug-spattered bumpers of trucks. Southwestern College sits across the street, so students flow in and out all day, buying lattes and frappés.
Eddy and David chatted about when and where the cars would be ready, and Eddy had pushed his chair back to go when David said, “Wait, let me buy you a coffee.”
Eddy said he didn’t want any coffee. It was too late at night, he said, and coffee would keep him awake, but David insisted, so Eddy relented, and as he sat there on the strip mall sidewalk, the temperature, which had been 63 degrees, dropped ever so slightly, and the cloudy sky pinkened, as it does even in the gloomiest month of the San Diego year, and another person who was not who she said she was walked into the picture.
“Nancy,” David called her. She was young and thin and pretty and Latina, like lots of girls who go in and out of that Starbucks, but she dressed expensively, decked out in Louis Vuitton. She was about five feet six and very fit, Eddy noticed, as if she worked out. She had short hair and what Eddy called a “little nose.”
No sooner had Nancy left their table to buy something inside Starbucks than David, the reformed family man, began asking Eddy — the man kidded for being under the thumb of his wife — what he thought of this Nancy girl. Did Eddy like her? David pulled out his phone to show Eddy a few pictures of his girlfriend, who was Nancy’s friend. David happened to have a few shots of Nancy too, posing in a bikini.
Eddy admitted she was nice-looking. He thought or didn’t think about his wife. He thought or didn’t think about the child his wife was expecting, the lateness of the hour, the coffee in his hand. After Nancy of the little nose bought whatever it was that she wanted from Starbucks and talked briefly in Spanish to the two men at the table, David assured Eddy that Nancy and her friends were okay. Eddy could go out with Nancy if he wanted, and there would be no problema whatsoever.
Unfortunately, Eddy Tostado believed this. He’d been a football quarterback and a Baja racing champion and maybe he could still turn a girl’s head. He believed — and who hasn’t believed a flattering lie? — that when Nancy called David a few seconds later and asked to speak to Eddy, she was very interested in him, so interested that she wanted Eddy to write down her phone number. Eddy took it down. He had that phone number with him the next afternoon, Friday, June 8, when he was sitting with his good friend Carlos — his daughter’s godfather — at the Butcher Shop Steakhouse. He decided to call up Nancy and ask if she wanted to have dinner with him.
Nancy said Sí. But she didn’t want to have dinner at the Butcher Shop. She suggested they take a little trip across the border to the Cantina de los Remedios, where there would be mariachis and margaritas.
Nancy told Eddy she had to pick up her passport before they could go to the cantina. She wanted to change her clothes too, so she told Eddy to meet her at the Starbucks in Sunbowl and follow her to her aunt’s house in Chula Vista. He did this. He drove his black Range Rover to yet another Starbucks and began to follow Nancy’s silver Jeep Liberty with Mexican plates and the Hank Rhon bumper sticker. He followed as she turned right, left, right, left, right in a maze of streets named for promontories: Point La Jolla Drive to Morro Point to West Point to Barrow to Dume. As Eddy Tostado sat in his Oxford leather seats outside a house far shabbier than the one in which his wife and daughter lived, he received a call from some employees at his dealership, Premiere I, who complained they hadn’t eaten lunch yet even though it was now past 6:30, and they needed some money from him. He was going to have to drive over there and give them some cash.
Nancy said that was okay. She’d just run in and change while Eddy took care of those guys. In fact, maybe he should stop at the liquor store for some Buchanan’s Red Seal whiskey. Her aunt wasn’t home, she said. Eddy could come in, and they could have a drink before they went to Tijuana.
So Eddy drove to his dealership, then to Bobar Liquor, where he bought whiskey, cognac, and condoms, and back into the maze again, to 1539 Point Dume Court, which Derek and Freddy could have told him had recently been rented by a couple of Hispanic guys, not anyone’s aunt.
It was now past 7:00 and cloudy, just like the day before. A gloomy twilight hung over the roof and the evergreen pear tree. In the pop-out window where other neighbors with the same house plan displayed porcelain angels, swans, flowers, and small American flags, there hung a bent venetian blind. Eddy noticed that Nancy’s car, which had been parked in the driveway outside the garage door, was now gone. He watched a blue Chevrolet SUV roll slowly into the cul-de-sac, turn a tight circle around the evergreen pear, and leave. The driver of the car was a man wearing a hat. Uncertain, Eddy called Nancy to ask if she was expecting someone, such as a boyfriend. “No,” she said. She wasn’t. “Come on in.”
He walked to the front door of the house where Nancy waited for him, and when she opened the door, he noticed she had not yet changed her clothes.
Before Nancy had even closed the door they tackled him.
At first there were two men. He felt one grabbing his feet and another grabbing his back. Two men dressed in police vests and hats, their faces covered with ski masks, ran toward him. They were carrying rifles. Eddy tried to shake off the two men who were tackling him, and they began to hit him. One of the masked policemen hit Eddy on the bridge of his nose with the back of a rifle. Then they hit him with the rifle in the back and on the legs. He heard and felt the stun gun after that. With each shock delivered to his spine and the soft tissue of his lower back he heard dak, dak, dak, dak. Ten times in less than a minute.
Eddy started to shake, and he fell facedown on the floor. Everything that had been in his bowels and bladder came out. He was nearly unconscious, and he couldn’t move to get away. They went on hitting and kicking him. On the back of his head, he felt a single hard blow. They handcuffed him behind his back. They taped his ankles together. They put a towel over his head. All he could see were the shoes of the men walking around him and the guns lying on the floor — two handguns and one rifle.
In Spanish, they said, “You’re not so tough anymore.”
“Look at you now,” they said.
They left him like that for a few minutes, mocking him for the stink he made, and then they wrapped him with a towel and dragged him to the back of the house, where they blindfolded him and stopped to take roll. Eddy heard them count to seven in Spanish. Seven against one. They didn’t say anything else to him, but they took Eddy’s Rolex and went off to another room. He could hear their voices but not the words.
Then one voice in particular, the one he would come to know well, told Eddy, “You know what this is. We want money from you, and you’re not going until you pay us.”
For a few minutes more, they left him in his soiled clothes on the carpet. Then two of them dragged Eddy to the bathroom and warned him that if he tried to escape or to look at their faces they would kill him. Eddy was allowed to use one hand to strip off his underwear, rub at the filth with a wad of toilet paper, and put the same jeans back on. Then they snapped his handcuffs shut and took him to a closet, where they wrapped a chain around his legs. They threaded the chain through the handrail of the stairs nearby, weaving the links noisily in and out of the iron pickets, a memorable sound to a person wearing a blindfold.
This was his place now: a three-by-five-foot closet in which he could not stand up, a wad of blankets and sheets, an uncased pillow, his dirty pants.
“Call me Jefe Uno,” a voice told him. Boss Number One.
“Call me Jefe Dos,” another said. Boss Two. The third man was Jefe Tres, and the others didn’t get to be jefes at all.
This is when they began to describe their credentials. Boss One told Eddy they’d done this before. They were professionals. Before Eddy, they’d gotten the brother of El Pareja, someone named Junior or Junior Gordo, Balitas, and Quilino. Eddy knew who El Pareja was — a guy from Tijuana who’d been arrested a year or two back. The brother of El Pareja, they told Eddy, had not behaved. They killed him. Balitas, on the other hand, got the money real fast and in only a day was free again. A million dollars, Balitas had paid.
Boss Three told Eddy — and this made all the jefes laugh — that Nancy had done the same thing to Quilino that she did to Eddy. She lured Quilino right to the jefes. Quilino had not been as fast as Balitas, though, and he had to stay for a whole month before his family paid enough to get him free.
Boss One wanted Eddy to know, if it wasn’t clear enough already, that they were up here from Mexico doing whatever they wanted. He told Eddy he had the balls to do it right here in the United States, where he’d moved after those guys in Tijuana killed his brother. “I saw you at the races in Laughlin,” Boss One told Eddy.
Boss One even told Eddy who his dead brother was. His brother was Palillo — Little Stick, or Toothpick. Eddy knew the name. Six or eight years before, Eddy had seen Palillo racing motorcycles in Baja. They had a mutual friend from high school.
What did it matter if he was blindfolded? He’d seen Nancy. He’d seen David Valencia. And now he knew quite a bit about Boss One. Surely this meant they would have to kill him.
“Give us a million,” Boss Two told Eddy as he sat in his soiled jeans, unable to touch or examine the open sores on his back made by the Taser shocks. “Give us a million and you can go the next day like Balitas.”
Eddy said he didn’t have a million. “Maybe $100,000,” Eddy told them, “$200,000.”
“No, no,” Boss One said. “You can do better than that.”
They left him inside the closet and went to have some drinks in another room. Later, they put a sleeping pill in his mouth.
∗ ∗ ∗
On the first morning of his imprisonment, Eddy awoke to the sound of a sliding-glass door, then water splashing in the backyard. A voice asked if he needed something. He said he needed to go to the bathroom, so they brought him a bucket.
The guy in charge of the bucket had a Cuban accent, and the Cuban said his name was Asere. The other two who weren’t jefes also told Eddy their names. Morro was just a kid, and Tío had middle-aged hands. Tío told Eddy, “If you want something, let us know and I will cook whatever you need.”
So there was the bucket and the chain and the closet with the wad of sheets, the bruise on his nose where the rifle butt had struck him, and there was the weird kindness of food cooked to order. In the background, day and night, the TV was on, tuned to the Copa Oro, soccer’s gold cup. The night before, when they were shocking and beating him and tying him up, Mexico was beating Cuba 2–1.
Tío told Eddy, “Don’t do anything stupid, and you won’t be killed.”
It was three or four hours before the jefes showed up. Boss One told Eddy it was time to call his wife and ask for money.
Eddy and his family used phones that function more like walkie-talkies than regular phones — push-to-talk phones, as they’re known, offer a cheaper way to talk across the border. Boss One searched Eddy’s phone for the list of contacts, found Eddy’s wife, and pushed the button.
Somewhere far from the closet, in a place where the closet could not even be imagined, Ivette’s phone started beeping. She was in the car with her daughter and her sister, and she was in no mood to take a call from a husband who hadn’t come home the night before.
Boss One held Eddy’s phone near his blindfolded face, and Eddy heard his daughter, not his wife, say, “Hey, Papi, where are you?”
Eddy didn’t answer that. “How are you, darling?” Eddy said. “What are you doing?”
She said they were driving in the car.
“Hey, I want to speak with Mami,” Eddy said. “Can you put her on the phone?”
“No, she doesn’t want to talk to you because you got drunk and you went — you didn’t come to sleep in the house.” When his daughter held the button down, Eddy could hear his wife refusing to talk.
Eddy’s daughter handed the phone to her mother anyway, and Ivette took it — or at least it sounded as if she did — but she didn’t say anything to Eddy.
Boss One pushed the button and Eddy tried to talk. “I have problems,” he said. “I need you to hear me good because I’m trying to—”
“No,” Ivette said. “You have no problems. You just went and had some beers and you didn’t come home.”
Then his wife hung up.
Boss One and Two were incredulous. “What?” they told Eddy. “Don’t you have the balls to tell her to shut up and listen?” They laughed.
Eddy sat with his legs shackled. His blindfold cut into the sore on his bashed nose while Boss One pushed the button to call Ivette again.
“If you do or say something stupid,” he told Eddy’s blindfold, “I will kill you.” This time Boss One held the phone to his own face.
“¿Tu querer?” Ivette said, thinking it was once again her husband on the line. What do you want?
“Hey, stupid bitch,” said a voice she hadn’t heard before. “If you want to see your husband again, you have to listen. You want me to send him in pieces by mail to your house?”
At first she was silent. She came from a city where this happens, where angry people who are never found or punished deliver bodies in Igloo coolers with handwritten diatribes on the outside, a city where headless bodies are left in the dirt near elementary schools and the heads are wrapped in duct tape.
“No, no, no,” she said. “What do you want?”
Boss One held the phone to Eddy’s blindfolded face. Eddy could see a little bit down his nose: shoes, hands, the cuffs of pants.
“Hey, round up some money,” Eddy told his wife. “Try to sell the house. Call my uncle. He has the papers for the house in Tijuana. Try to sell the bar.” He told her whom to call — her mother, her father, her grandmother. See if they would help. He told her to sell all the cars at the dealership, the motorcycle, and the race car. “Sell the restaurant.” Everything.
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
On the same day, Eddy told Boss One it would be better for him to negotiate in the future with his cousin, not Ivette, who was pregnant. That was when Eddy gave his cousin an alias that was also a clue. “Talk to my cousin ‘Brenan,’ ” Eddy told Boss One.
There was only one person who called Eddy’s cousin Sergio that: Eduardo Monroy, the architect, the former friend who’d given out Eddy’s gate code to kidnappers. Monroy liked that kind of joke. Monroy called Eddy “Mandilón” because he thought that was funny, and he called Sergio “Brenan” after a Mexican talk show host who, like Sergio, dressed up all the time. Eddy was hoping that Sergio would somehow make the connection.
Boss One agreed to negotiate with “Brenan.” When Boss One added Eddy’s cousin to his own cell phone directory, that’s how he listed him: BRENAN. He didn’t know that his conversations with Eddy’s cousin would all, from this point on, be listened to and recorded either by the FBI or by Ivette and Sergio, who used little pocket tape recorders they were told to carry everywhere they went. Boss One had, after all, kidnapped Balitas and Junior Gordo and El Pareja’s brother and Quilino, and he didn’t expect Ivette to disobey him when he said not to call the police.
But Ivette remembered what Eddy said when they got the first hint that someone was after him. “Call the FBI,” he told her, and that’s exactly what she did.
According to the FBI, many kidnappings investigated in San Diego involve Hispanic residents who have ties to Tijuana or Ensenada. Some of the family members who report abductions say, “We were hesitant to come, but there’ve been three kidnappings in our neighborhood alone, and they never got their family members back, so we’re coming to you for this one.” By “neighborhood,” the FBI agent said, the callers really meant their circle of friends.
Sometimes the abduction is discovered because the police find a body, track down the family, and are told, “Yes, there were ransom calls, but we didn’t call the police.”
In Paradise Hills, above a flat, barren park, a green slope rises steeply to the 6500 block of Garber Street. The houses on Garber Street have been there a long time, and they’re showing their age, but they mostly have the pitched roofs and boxy shape of houses in a child’s picture book. In the backyard of one of those houses, the remains of two bodies dissolved in acid waited for someone to discover them.
Days and nights passed inside the house at Point Dume to the televised shouts of the Copa Oro. The house held almost nothing but the TV, a mattress, the duffel bags of police uniforms, and three containers of muriatic acid such as you might have if you were keeping down bacteria levels in your pool, though the house on Point Dume had no swimming pool. By adjusting his blindfold, Eddy made enough of a gap that he could see Tío’s Timberland boots, Morro’s Air Jordans, and Boss One’s Prada shoes. He could see Boss One’s Cartier watch and guess ages by the skin on their hands. Boss One was young and thin. Boss Two was young and thin. In time, he saw Tío had a goatee and was in his 40s.
They told Eddy to keep his mouth shut and stay over there because they didn’t know if he was gonna make it or not. They compared him unfavorably to another hostage, Jorge, who was an old man but was always calm and did push-ups. Jorge, they kept for 28 days.
When Eddy broke down, they said what was he, a girl?
“I’m a— I’m a human being,” he said. He said he missed his daughter and he missed his family, and he wasn’t going to go with other women anymore. He wasn’t going to be like that again.
They said, nah, men needed girls on the side, but Eddy said, “No, no, no. No more,” in Spanish. Nunca jamás.
Asere was the one who stayed all night at Point Dume, so he talked more. “The last time they pay me, like, $5000,” Asere told Eddy, “but I was coming and going. This time I’m gonna only stay here because I want to get more money.”
He told Eddy about coming to the U.S. on a boat from Cuba, about how his wife and daughters were still there.
∗ ∗ ∗
On Sunday, June 10, the FBI recorded and translated a conversation among Eddy, his wife, and Sergio. As Eddy spoke, Boss One was listening. As Ivette spoke from a room in her sister’s house, a device she couldn’t see was transmitting her voice to agents she’d been warned by Boss One not to contact. She had moved out of the Mansiones house and her daughter was staying with relatives, but she was afraid that somehow the kidnappers were watching or listening to her too.
Eddy asked Ivette how she was doing, and she tried to answer.
“I’m fine, sweetie,” she said in Spanish. “I’m hanging in because these people are going to let you out alive. I want you back alive, and I’m going to do everything possible — everything — to come up with everything they want because I know that, that, that, that they’re going to respect you and, and, and, and, you know, I want you back alive, alive and in one piece, I want you alive. I love you.”
“Yes, honey,” Eddy told her while Boss One listened and watched. “I love you very much. Uh, do it, do…make sure…be smart about what you’re going to do and, uh, try and figure out what you can do about the house.”
It wasn’t a good time to be selling a house. A six-month wait, Sergio told Eddy. That’s what the real estate agent predicted.
Eddy listed again all the things Ivette should sell: the race car, motorcycles, every car on the lot at Premiere I and Motorland. Talk to “our buddies,” he told her. “Maybe they can do us a favor there. Talk to, to your girlfriend and everything, tell her, uh, her dad, and we’ll see what happens. Let’s see if he can help us out.”
She said she would.
In the living room on Point Dume Court, the TV was tuned to Univision, and Honduras beat Mexico 2–1.
∗ ∗ ∗
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, Eddy wore the same dirty clothes and the same blindfold. He had been allowed to keep one possession: a photograph of his daughter. He slept in the closet, and Morro, the young one with very short hair and Air Jordans, said this wasn’t a good job but his girlfriend was pregnant. Mexico beat Panama in the Copa Oro. The money was not coming together the way Boss One expected. Sergio and Ivette had put the Mansiones house on the market at a low price, completely furnished, for a quick sale, but it hadn’t sold, and they had come up with only a fraction of a million so far, most of it from a relative who had agreed to purchase Eddy’s mother’s house in Ensenada for $150,000.
∗ ∗ ∗
In the movies, ransom money always looks so clean and powerful. Bricks of hundred-dollar bills lined up like paper bullion.
On Friday, June 15, FBI agents drove with a SWAT escort to the Premiere I car lot owned by Eddy Tostado to pick up the ransom money gathered by Ivette and Sergio. Then the agents drove back to the FBI office on Aero Drive.
The money was in a Georgia-Pacific paper box, not a briefcase: $193,900 in used, wrinkled $20 bills that Ivette and Sergio had gathered and counted and subdivided into stacks of $2000 within stacks of $10,000 using the kind of multicolored rubber bands you find at the back of the junk drawer in your kitchen.
The four agents faced with $193,900 in this form had a problem: they couldn’t possibly write down almost 10,000 serial numbers. The ransom drop was too soon.
Instead, they took pictures of the front bill and the back bill of each $2000 stack, photographed each $50 and $100 bill, and those became the “bait bills,” the ones they could identify later. Then they put all the money back in the box and drove with the SWAT escort back to Premiere I cars and returned the money to Ivette.
“The plan after that,” the agent in charge testified, “was to get with our technicians to secure a ransom bag.” That way, “We would be able to surveil the drop with the money because there would be a tracking device in the bag.”
∗ ∗ ∗
At 10:29 that night, Boss One called Sergio (whom he knew by Eddy’s code name Brenan) to talk over the terms of a ransom drop.
“What’s up, Brenan?” Boss One said, speaking in Spanish except when he used the word okay. “Hey…I was thinking, man. Look, I don’t have problems with your friend…with your cousin, man. Okay? I have problems with those fuckers out there. You know who. Those who think they’re killers. Okay? You must know. Look…I don’t have any problems, man. Let’s make… Do you want to go ahead and make a deal or what? So we can work it out tomorrow?”
“Yes, well, I really do,” Sergio said. “We just want him to be okay.”
The deal was that Sergio would give Boss One the nearly $200,000 he had so far, and Sergio would keep trying to sell Eddy’s race car for another $100,000, and Boss One, because he was such a nice guy, would drop the total ransom from $2 million to $700,000.
“I’m asking if you want to make a deal, man. Tomorrow,” Boss One repeated. “Because I don’t have problems with him, man.”
“I don’t have problems with him” is something Boss One said several times to Sergio, as if this were a very critical distinction: the impersonal kidnapping versus the personal one, the thing you do for money versus the thing you do out of hatred or revenge.
“If it were up to me,” Boss One went on, “I’m— I’m very comfortable over here, man. The guy is there. If it were up to me, he can stay there for months, okay? But I’m not an asshole, and I don’t have problems with him, man. It’s— it’s just that they brought him to me. And the people that he was with — you know who he hangs around with, man, with those fuckers from out there — he’s working with them, and I have problems with them. We’re at war, man. I think you must have heard, right?”
In his rambling, Boss One changed arguments ever so slightly, from “I don’t have problems with him” to “I have problems with the people he’s with.” It’s personal but it’s indirect. The associates of Eddy Tostado are on the other side of what Boss One calls a “war,” the logic goes, and they must be punished, so Eddy’s going to pay.
Sergio didn’t seem to know what Boss One was talking about. Sergio and Eddy grew up together in Ensenada, and then Sergio went into the army for seven years. Eddy had a lot more money than he used to have, but he had married Ivette, the daughter of a neurologist.
“No,” Sergio told Boss One, “I really don’t know what the problem is, but — uh — but that’s fine. That’s fine. Yes, we just want him to be okay, you know. We’re his family, you know, and…we want the guy to be okay.”
Boss One didn’t explain what he meant by a war or which guys Eddy Tostado was supposedly hanging around with. Instead, he became more conciliatory — conspiratorial, even. The deal Boss One was offering to Sergio had to be a secret from those other ones, the shadows that were making all this unpleasantness happen, the ones that had brought Eddy to Boss One in the first place.
“Okay,” Boss One said. “Well, try hard so you won’t worry so much about it, man. I’ll leave it at seven for you, man. What do you think? At seven. Go ahead and tell his wife right now, man. Look, tomorrow I’m going to call you during the day, man. I’m going to call you during the day tomorrow…no — uh — and I’m going to ask you, ‘So what’s up? Do you have those? How much do you have?’ And you tell me, ‘The two hundred.’ Okay? I’m going to do you the favor, and you’re going to listen to what I’m telling you, man. Okay? Don’t talk too much. I mean, listen to what I’m telling you. Because if you talk too much, man, he’s going to stay there for months, man. People are leeches, you know. I’m the good guy over here, man, and I’m going to let him go, just like that fucking young man left. But he’s not going to leave like that, in payments, man. You know what I mean? You give me those two hundred tomorrow, and if you have the other hundred — when you have them, man. You know what I mean? On Sunday, I mean, I’m not in a rush, man. You know what I mean? You call me, you tell me, and we’ll work it out. People come to an understanding when they talk things over. You know what I mean? And so that — so that we can see something and believe you…and you just try hard and get the rest together. What do you think?”
Sergio heard this speech late at night after a week spent trying to sell things to people who knew it was a desperation sale and so offered the lowest possible price. He had spent the week trying to calm down Eddy’s pregnant wife, who could hardly talk without crying, she was so terrified, and he’d been staying in the United States every night and carrying a tape recorder with him everywhere he went and talking to federal agents in a country not his own.
I’m going to do you the favor.
I’m the good guy here.
Don’t talk too much.
If you talk too much, he’s going to stay there for months.
We’re at war, man. You must have heard.
“No,” Sergio said, and then, because it was kind of hard to know what the question was, he said, “Well, yes, that’s very good, that’s very good. Just, uh, well — just keep putting him on so that we can talk to him. But, uh, we, yes, we want him to be okay, and, uh, we’re going to try to…to get it all together soon, as much as we can.”
Boss One kept talking in that scary, circular way.
“Don’t think that it’s just me,” Boss One said. “There are a lot of us, you know, and people, well, they — they have delusions that your buddy has money. I know how things are. I know what is going on with those guys. They’re treating him well because I tell them to. Okay? I want— when I call you tomorrow I’m going to ask you, ‘Hey, man, how’s it going? How much?’ ”
The conspiracy thing again. The importance of keeping Boss One’s deal a secret while somehow appeasing the shadow men, the ones with delusions about how much money Sergio should be coughing up.
“Later on at night around this time,” Boss One continued, “I’m going to call you to see if you got the hundred, man, or if not, then on Sunday when they give it to you. Right after that, you’re going to keep scraping around, man, so you can gather the seven. And if you don’t gather them, call me. We’ll call each other and we’ll come to an understanding, man. You know what I mean? Like I said, I’m not an asshole. My word is good, man. Uh, and then at night, if you have the other hundred, the one that you’re trying to get, you put them in a little bag with the jewelry that this guy says he is going to give to a friend of mine — to me, and you’re going to talk to him, man.”
Talk to whom? To Eddy? To Boss One’s friend? At least Sergio knew what jewelry Boss One was talking about. While Eddy was passing the hours in his closet, thinking and thinking and thinking about who had done this to him and how he could possibly get himself free, he’d hit upon the fondness his kidnappers had for expensive watches. That was, after all, one of the first things the jefes did after they tackled and shocked Eddy — they stole his Rolex. And by peeking underneath his blindfold, Eddy had seen Boss One’s Cartier watch. “I have more watches,” Eddy told Boss One and Boss Two. “Six more,” each one worth between $6000 and $10,000. Ivette had already gathered these watches up as an offering.
“I want this guy to go home, man,” Boss One went on in his crazy way. “And to keep working, man, because the guy is a worker and we’re going to work. Okay? There’s no problem, man. And I don’t have any problems with him. I know that he’s not a killer or anything, man. But those guys did it to me with, with — the guys who bring work to your cousin, and, well, I have problems with those guys, man. Well, you already know, man. That’s another issue.”
There it is again: Boss One thinks Eddy is just a worker, not a killer, but those who bring work to Eddy are people Boss One hates.
“Tell me that you already sold everything,” the Boss told Sergio. “Tell me, ‘You know what, man? We’re screwed. I gathered — I’m selling everything. We’re screwed. I already sold jewelry and everything. Here are the two hundred, give me a chance.’ ”
These are Sergio’s lines, the script he’s supposed to follow, and Boss One says that his own lines, when prompted by Sergio, will be, “Okay, man, give me that. My people are going to go pick it up.”
“And that’s it,” Boss One said. “I’m going to call you at night to see if you got the hundred, and you’re going to put them separately with the jewelry. I’m going to do you the favor, man. You know what I mean? I’m going to do this favor, you…and your…this guy…Eduardo.”
“Okay,” Sergio said. “Got it. Thank you.” The signing off seemed to take forever, to be as uncertain as the life of the man Boss One called “this guy Eduardo.”
“All right, then,” Boss One repeated. “I’ll give you a call early tomorrow, man.”
“All right. Got it.”
“All right then. You understood me, didn’t you, man?”
“Yes, I understood you. Okay. Got it.”
“All right, man. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
“All right,” Sergio said again. “Thank you.”
No sooner was Sergio free than the phone beeped again. It was Boss One. “Oh, I was going to ask you, man, uh…are you going to deliver the papers or…?” Papeles, Boss One said. In Spanish, “paper” is slang for “money.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Sergio said. “Just the way you told me…tomorrow.”
∗ ∗ ∗
The FBI’s plan was to do a controlled ransom drop. They would watch it happen and go “wherever it led us.”
Up to a point. The FBI has no authorization in Mexico, so if Boss One picked up the $193,900 and drove south on I-5 until he came to San Ysidro and the signs that say “Last U.S. Exit” and kept going, Ivette had a choice. Did she want the agents to pull over Boss One’s car and arrest him, even though no one knew where Eduardo was? Or did she want to let the money cross over that line and disappear, maintaining the trust of the kidnappers who might still, in the future, lead them to her husband?
Ivette decided not to risk Eddy’s life. If the car went over the border, she said, let it go.
∗ ∗ ∗
Saturday, June 16, was the eighth day that Eddy Tostado woke up in the same clothes. It was the eighth day that someone brought him a bucket to use as a toilet. But that afternoon, Asere and Morro let him come out of the closet, go into the living room, and listen, blindfolded and handcuffed, to the Copa Oro. At 1:00 p.m., Canada was scheduled to play Guatemala, and at 4:00, the U.S. would face Panama.
There’s a Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits half a mile from the FBI office, a suitably obscure place for Ivette and Sergio to drive with a box full of money. Three agents met them in the back parking lot while other agents waited at the FBI building, and the SWAT team prepared its gear, and two pilots waited on the runway of Montgomery Field, all of them together weaving a large invisible net.
It was two o’clock in the afternoon, moist and warm. The usual clouds had burned off, intensifying the scent of fried chicken. Diners sat outside under striped red-and-yellow umbrellas and knew nothing. Ivette’s role was to stay in the parking lot and wait, while Sergio’s was to drive his red Dodge Ram truck wherever Boss One told him to drive.
An agent fitted Sergio with a body wire, a device like a pager that attached to his belt. Wires circled him beneath his clothes. There was a small microphone.
Ivette was frantic and distraught. Sergio was scared but trying not to look it. The agents transferred “bricks” — bundles of wrinkled $20 bills — from the Georgia-Pacific box to a briefcase provided by the FBI. The surveillance units would be listening, an agent told Sergio. She told him to keep his conversations to a minimum — talk only to the kidnappers — and then she gave him a phrase to use in the event that he felt something bad was happening. He was supposed to say, “Don’t shoot.”
As soon as all the money was in the briefcase, Sergio’s phone beeped. It was 2:20 p.m.
“Go,” the agent told Sergio, and he went.
The recording made using Sergio’s body wire is 53 minutes long. It’s mostly silence and the exterior swish of cars as he drove, and although the FBI was supposed to be able to hear the whole thing live, something failed. A recording was made, but no transmission went out. Sergio was completely and totally alone, though he didn’t know it at the time.
“I’m on my way, man,” Sergio told Boss One. “The thing is, I had to drop off the lady here” — meaning Ivette — “because she was with me, you know. I’m on my way over there, all right? I have everything with me.”
“All right,” Boss One said. “Just make sure no one follows you, all right, man? Do things right. Listen to what I tell you, man, okay? Don’t let anyone follow you or anything.”
“No, don’t worry,” Sergio said. “We want this guy to be fine. Don’t think that.”
“All right, then. Uh, where are you? Which— what street? Are you still at Lowe’s or what?”
Sergio said where he was, and Boss One began to give him directions. Take 805 south. Exit Plaza Boulevard. Wait at the Thrifty gas station.
From the gas station, someone appeared to begin following him.
Take 54 west. Exit National City Boulevard.
The FBI had already photographed the Rolex watches from every possible angle because Ivette had been afraid to find a jeweler to open them up and write down the serial numbers. These and the $100,000 Sergio had yet to get were the assurance that the kidnappers would want Sergio to go on living. He was not bringing the watches today, just the money.
Sergio drove down the ramp from Highway 54 into National City, then turned right into the drive-in movie theater that became, twice a week, a popular swap meet. Guaranteed Vehicles – Yes, the sign said. Discount Prices – Yes.
Boss One asked Sergio if he saw the broken tree and the fence with the gap in it. Sergio did. Boss One told Sergio to drive up to that broken tree and park his truck and leave the door open and walk into the swap meet through the gap in the fence and go inside the bathroom and not look back until they called him.
Sergio did all this without knowing that the wire had failed. The recorder on his body was collecting every sound he made, but no one was listening as he stepped out of his truck. No sniper in an unmarked car could actually hear him right then if he shouted, “Don’t shoot.”
The asphalt at the swap meet is bumpy. The old humps where cars would park on a slight rise for a better view of the drive-in movie screen still curve in half moons like crop circles. Rusty poles that held speakers stand pointlessly askew. Huge potholes crater the ground, and the ancient trailers of the Keystone Trailer Park stick up over the ragged chain-link fence just high enough to make you feel observed. Sergio walked over the asphalt humps to the white cinder-block bathrooms. He did not look back.
Before he even entered the bathrooms, Boss One called Sergio and told him he could go back to his truck, and when Sergio stood once more before the open door, the briefcase and all the money were gone. The first ransom had been paid.
“Does my cousin need any clothes?” Sergio asked Boss One.
“No,” Boss One told him.
There was nothing else for Sergio to do but call the FBI, say it was done. It was only then, at 2:50 p.m., that the agent in charge realized that the reason she had not heard anything for the last 30 minutes was the wire had gone down and they had not surveilled the ransom drop.
She got on the radio and told everyone the last known location — the swap meet. She told the 10 agents in the surveillance unit (8 of them in separate cars, 2 in a plane), the 16 members of the SWAT unit, and her own squad of 3 others to go to the swap meet, turn their radios to the frequency of the “beacon” transmitter that was inside the ransom briefcase, fan out, and listen.
Thirty people now began to search.
A half hour later, at 3:20 p.m., one of those agents waited in his car near 28 Las Flores Drive, a Chula Vista house rented to Jorge Rojas López and identified as “pertaining to the subjects of the case.” There in the driveway was a gold Mitsubishi Lancer with Baja plates. He made a note of that. He parked a short distance away and adjusted his rearview mirror to show him anyone coming or going from that house. He thought, mistakenly, that the briefcase held a tracking device, not a beacon. That was the original plan. (A tracking device sends out data to a computer, which would show the location of the device on a GPS map, and a beacon transmits an audio signal.)
As it became clear that he should be listening for a beacon, the agent turned his radio to the right channel. He heard a beep. Thirty seconds passed before he heard it again. Then, as the signal became more regular and stronger, a gold Mitsubishi Lancer driven by a lone Hispanic male approached and passed his car.
He let it turn the corner, and then he began to follow it, simultaneously calling for the plane to come to his location. Soon the Lancer had an entourage, which followed it first to a Comfort Inn in National City, where it stopped for ten minutes, and then to the Tropical Oasis All Natural Juice Bar on Telegraph Canyon Road. Somewhere in this time period, $180,000 disappeared.
Click. A photograph was made at 4:38 p.m. Two young Hispanic men in white shirts — not just the one who drove the car from Las Flores Drive — left the juice bar and got back in the Lancer.
It could not have seemed good that the Lancer headed south. And still farther south. Straight down I-5 toward Mexico.
But then the Lancer took the very last exit. The men who had picked up the ransom were going shopping at the Las Americas mall, from which you can see, but not touch, Mexico. More precisely, they were going to Neiman Marcus Last Call, which has a very extensive video security system. Every dull, ordinary thing the men did — every shirt held up to the light, every sole examined in the shoe department, every smile exchanged with the young female clerk — was recorded. For a few very odd minutes, a woman left her toddler asleep in a stroller near a man who was buying clothes for a hostage.
They spent nearly $400 in cash.
Outside in the parking lot, agents who had followed waited in their cars. A single-engine Cessna droned overhead. Everyone noted the time in surveillance logs: at 4:50 p.m., the two men who’d been photographed at the juice bar came out of the mall with shopping bags.
Their destination was 1539 Point Dume Court.
∗ ∗ ∗
These are the things that happened in the next two hours.
Sergio and Ivette went to the house on Mansiones Lane. They were still trying to sell it and gather more money.
Agents began to park near the house at Point Dume.
Eddy Tostado was allowed, for the first time in eight days, to shower. Boss One and Boss Two gave him the designer clothes they’d picked out at Neiman Marcus Last Call: shoes, socks, boxers, Chip and Pepper jeans (too long), and a $90 dress shirt (too tight across the chest). This gave him hope. Of course, it was a mediated hope. Boss One told Eddy he was going to get a break. He was going to let Eddy go free while Eddy tried to sell his house. “But,” Boss One also told him, “we know where your mother lives and we’ll kill them all” if Eddy didn’t pay up.
Eddy Tostado was then allowed to make what’s called a “proof-of-life” call. Sergio and Ivette were relieved and happy. Eddy was buoyant. “My love,” Eddy called his wife. “Te quiero,” he said. I love you. He said there was no price he could put on being with her and his daughter again.
At 6:17 p.m., the gold Mitsubishi Lancer left Point Dume Court.
At 6:29 p.m., the red MR2 that Derek and Freddy had seen so many times also left Point Dume Court.
At the intersection of Brandywine and Olympic Parkway, two separate groups of three SWAT team cars were waiting with rifles and noise grenades that are called “flash bangs” because they make an explosive noise when detonated but don’t throw off shrapnel. As people in cars on their way to movies and restaurants and gas stations and their own houses waited for the light to change, a flash bang was thrown onto the hood of a gold Mitsubishi Lancer. A flash bang was thrown onto the hood of the MR2. Traffic stopped. The man who stepped out of the MR2 was five feet six and weighed approximately 140 pounds. He had a goatee and hands that Eddy had seen from beneath his blindfold. His name was Raúl Rojas Gámez, otherwise known as Tío. Among the $6963.52 in cash that he carried were four $20 bait bills. All four serial numbers matched those written down by the FBI.
When the driver of the Lancer was ordered to step out of the car with his hands up, turn around, and face away from the officers, he instead lay facedown on Olympic Parkway.
“Get up,” the agents shouted at him.
But Jorge Rojas López stayed, as the agent put it, “proned out on the ground.”
He stayed there like that for two to five minutes, as agents ordered the passenger of the Lancer to exit the vehicle and walk slowly toward them. The passenger was Juan Francisco Estrada González, whose voice Eddy would soon identify as Boss Two’s.
Inside the Lancer, agents found the receipt for Eddy’s new clothes, the brown leather briefcase Sergio took to the swap meet, a shoebox from Neiman Marcus Last Call, and two cell phones containing, among other contact numbers, one for someone identified as BRENAN who had the same phone number as Sergio. That phone also contained the number provided to police by David Valencia during an arrest earlier in 2007, one for Juan Laureano Arvizu (the man videotaped leaving a note at Eddy Tostado’s house), and, under the letters MANDI, the gate code needed to enter Eddy’s neighborhood.
From Rojas himself, police seized $3206 in cash and found another bait bill. In his pocket was the key to the pearl white Escalade he’d been sitting in when arrested five months earlier. In the Las Flores house a few hours later, agents would find, among other evidence, four handguns and a photograph of Rojas with people presumed to be his wife and children.
∗ ∗ ∗
Back on Point Dume, residents who tried to go home were stopped outside the cul-de-sac. Besides all the SWAT cars, neighbors could see Chula Vista police cars and news vans. Fifteen-year-old Derek, who was already home at the time, tried to run out onto the lawn to watch. A SWAT agent pointed a rifle at him and ordered him back into the house. He complied, of course, but he held his father’s cell phone to an upstairs window and took the photograph that would appear first on his MySpace page and then as an exhibit in the trial.
In Spanish and English, an FBI agent spoke into a PA system. All over Point Dume, in the houses and yards, you could hear her voice repeating, “This is the FBI. We have you surrounded. Please come out of the house with your hands up.”
SWAT agents holding submachine guns and body bunkers — bulletproof shields — moved in pairs toward the house. When no one responded to the agent’s amplified voice, a designated team approached the front door with a “breacher,” or police battering ram. They had just reached the door with it when the first SWAT agent in line shouted that the handle of the door was turning.
In the next moment, Eddy Tostado stepped out into the intoxicating summer twilight and was saved.
∗ ∗ ∗
He was saved, but he was also interrogated. In the police station later that night, at five minutes to midnight, one detective and two FBI agents, including the one who helped Ivette and Sergio prepare the ransom money, asked Eddy to identify himself and describe his ordeal. He told them, in halting English, about Monroy and Nancy and the stun gun and the bucket that was his toilet and the chain and the rifles, the Copa Oro, the Cuban, Boss One, and Boss Two.
“Did you ever think of escaping?” asked the detective.
“Did you try?”
“Why do you think they came after you?” the detective wanted to know.
“Because I’m from Ensenada,” Eddy said. “That I have money from Mexico. I know, I know, from Mexico,” he stammered, and the transcriber of the tape wrote that the rest of what he said was unintelligible, or “(UI).” Many things in the conversation were “(UI).”
“(UI) We know,” the detective said. “We’ve done a lot of checking and stuff, and why do you think specifically [that] afternoon?”
“Because the uh, the other guy told me and uh, uh, (UI) we never found out (UI) my— my (UI) people are friends…”
“They’re a nice and they do their own thing. But I know people from— from one of them (UI).”
“We know that too,” said the detective.
“I’m a (UI).”
“You’re, like, independent?”
“(UI) know them.”
Mumbling can be a sign, obviously, of evasion. It can also be a sign of someone talking too softly in his second language well after midnight directly following a harrowing SWAT team rescue and eight days of imprisonment in a closet.
“So let me just — let me just be honest,” the detective said. “You have friends and possibly some family in Arellanos?”
A member of the Arellano Félix cartel of Tijuana killed Jorge Rojas López’s brother, Palillo.
“No, no family.”
“No family? Just friends?”
“Yeah. No family.”
“No family whatsoever.”
“How do you know those people?”
“(UI) from the, uh, places.” From Ensenada, Eddy said. A shop associated with off-road race cars.
I don’t have problems with him, man, Boss One told Sergio the night before the ransom drop. It’s— it’s just that they brought him to me. And the people that he was with — you know who he hangs around with, man, with those fuckers from out there — he’s working with them, and I have problems with them.
The detective wanted to know if Eddy’s captors knew that Eddy was friends with “those guys.”
Eddy said he thought so. He told the detective that Boss One (Rojas) said his brother Palillo got killed by those guys.
Eventually, the detective said, “You know we got these guys, right?” referring, this time, not to the cartel but to Boss One, Boss Two, Tío, Morro, and Asere, the five men who had been arrested leaving the Point Dume house.
“Yeah,” Eddy said.
“And you know they’re gonna come to court…and they’re gonna say, ‘Well, this guy, you’re the bad guy.’ What are they gonna say about you?”
“I don’t care,” Eddy said, all three words perfectly intelligible.
The conversation was not over. The detective would ask if Eddy ever told Rojas he could get money from the Arellanos.
“No,” Eddy said.
“Why didn’t he kill you?” the detective asked.
“Was waiting, I think maybe, for the money and then after kill me,” Eddy said.
After that, Eddy was shown a group of photographs and he identified the man who left a note at his house: Juan Laureano Arvizu. He listened to recordings and correctly identified the voices of Boss One and Boss Two. He said things that made sense and things that didn’t make much sense. It got later and later — the interview continued until 2:00 a.m. Finally, toward the very end, Eduardo González Tostado said something clear. He said he was reborn.
∗ ∗ ∗
The trial took place nearly a year and a half later, in October and November of 2008. Jorge Rojas López, Boss One, and Juan Francisco Estrada González, Boss Two, were charged with kidnapping for ransom and bodily harm. Eddy Tostado testified, and the defense attorneys for Rojas and Estrada did exactly what the detective told Eddy they would do. They said Eddy was the bad guy. They said that “one of the superiors at the top of this organization” — the Arellano Félix cartel — “goes by the moniker of El Mandil” and that workers of the cartel have told Mexican authorities that El Mandil had been heard on two-way radios giving all kinds of orders, including kidnapping orders.
“And guess who the authorities believe that El Mandil is — the Mexican authorities? The Mexican authorities believe that El Mandil is none other than Eduardo González Tostado.”
Defense attorneys were given permission to cross-examine Tostado in an order dated October 21, 2008, and signed by Judge Charles Rogers that states:
“1. Witnesses have told the FBI and the Government of Mexico that Mr. Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado uses the nickname ‘El Mandil.’
“2. Credible evidence exists that Mr. Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado is a prominent member of the Arellano Felix Organization (AFO).
“3. The AFO is a criminal organization involved in drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, and murders.”
But an order signed by Judge Rogers on September 3, 2008, creates a different impression about the witnesses and the evidence against Tostado. “With respect to the material itself [information the prosecution team had regarding possible criminal activities of Eduardo and Sergio Tostado], the court discovered no material that was based on personal knowledge and not based on hearsay [italics mine] regarding Mr. Eduardo Gonzalez Tostado and Mr. Sergio Tostado. None of the material consisted of eyewitness or first-hand information of the participation by either of them in the AFO or any of its activities or in criminal activities in general.”
None of the material consisted of eyewitness or first-hand information. It was all hearsay. In Mexico, that hearsay resulted in an arrest warrant. Eduardo González Tostado was wanted there in September of 2008 for organized crime. During the trial, as a consequence, jurors heard FBI testimony about the Arellano Félix cartel, and they also heard what Jorge Rojas López said to Sergio when he didn’t know he was being recorded: “I don’t have any problems with him.” Although Rojas repeatedly vowed to take revenge on the Arellano Félix cartel, he said he didn’t have any problems with Eddy.
Eddy testified that Rojas checked Eddy’s reputation in Mexico after Eddy became a hostage. “They like done some investigation during the week,” Eddy said, “and let me know that I won’t have any problems.”
“Who told you that they had done investigations on you?”
“Boss No. 1.”
“Did he tell you what type of investigations had been done?”
“Yes. Ask some people from Ensenada also that they knew and that I knew, and they asked the word around Mexico and find out.”
“Find out what?”
“That I just work and have my business, that’s how I make a living, and that I didn’t have nothing to do with his brother.”
When the trial ended on November 21, 2008, Jorge Rojas López and Juan Francisco Estrada González were convicted of kidnap for ransom with bodily harm and sentenced to life without parole. Rojas is considered the leader of a gang named Los Palillos, in honor of his murdered brother. The gang has 17 members, including the 5 who were arrested that night at Point Dume. Rojas awaits trial for the kidnapping, torture, and murder of Teódulo Espinoza Andrade, Jaime Gómez Coronado, Guadalupe Becerra Herrera, Francisco Olguín Verdugo, Ricardo Escobar Luna, Mario Baylón García Jr., Ivan Lozano Váldez (aka Junior), César Uribe, and Marc Anthony Leon Jr. — nine killings in all — making him eligible for the death penalty. Rojas is further charged with robbery, attempted robbery, attempted kidnapping, shooting at an inhabited house, and attempting to murder a peace officer.
Raúl Rojas Gámez, or Tío, pled guilty to kidnapping and awaits sentencing. The men Eddy knew as Morro (Carlos Peña García) and Asere (José Beritan Olivera) were indicted in the kidnapping of Tostado and are in custody. They await trial for the murder of Ivan Lozano Váldez (aka Junior), César Uribe, and Marc Anthony Leon Jr.
Juan Laureano Arvizu, the man who left a note on the Tostados’ doorstep, is still wanted by the FBI, which describes him as an avid gambler who likes to bet on professional sporting events and go to nightclubs. A Mexican national with no legal American papers, Laureano, or “Chaquetin,” is charged with robbery, attempted kidnapping, shooting at an inhabited house, attempted murder of a peace officer, the kidnapping and murder of Ricardo Escobar Luna, Mario Baylón García Jr., Ivan Lozano Váldez (aka Junior), César Uribe, and Marc Anthony Leon Jr.
David Valencia, the man who introduced Eddy to Nancy, pled guilty to the kidnapping of Eduardo Tostado, admitted a gang allegation, and is serving 15 years in state prison. He is charged with three of the above murders and faces multiple life sentences with the potential of the death penalty.
Eduardo Monroy, the architect who gave out Eddy’s gate code, is still at large.
The woman known as Nancy has not been found.
Ernesto Ayón, a Los Palillos member charged with kidnapping, killing, and dissolving in muriatic acid César Uribe and Marc Anthony Leon Jr. at a rented house on Garber Street in Paradise Hills, is also at large.
Mark Amador, lead prosecutor in the murder and kidnapping cases associated with all 17 members of Los Palillos, writes that Mr. Tostado continues to be appreciative of his rescue and “continues to cooperate with the prosecution(s) even though there have been attempts on his life and the lives of family members over the past two and a half years. Mr. Tostado has not been charged with any crimes in the U.S. relating to alleged cartel activities or drug trafficking. At the time of the first trial, there was an arrest warrant in Mexico but no arrest warrant in the United States. Since that time, the Mexican arrest warrant has been rescinded by the Mexican government. Our understanding from Mr. Tostado and his attorney is that the arrest warrant was quashed by legitimate legal means, using what’s known in Mexico as the amparo process. Therefore, to our knowledge, there are no charges pending against Mr. Tostado in the United States or Mexico.”
In October of 2008, Eddy Tostado closed his Tijuana restaurant, Mariscos del Pacífico. When asked during the trial why he closed it, he said a waiter and a bartender had been shot and killed there and that two barrels of acid found to contain human remains had been left outside.
On January 12 of this year, federal police in Mexico arrested an alleged drug trafficker, kidnapper, and extortionist known as “El Teo.” Teodoro García Simental was known for disposing of his enemies in gruesome ways, especially for beheading them and dissolving bodies in acid. Last year, authorities arrested an employee of his known as “El Pozolero,” or the stew-maker, who admitted to dissolving at least 300 bodies. Families of people who have disappeared in Tijuana are hoping that El Teo’s arrest will lead to information about where their loved ones have gone.
When asked if other cartel associates like Jorge Rojas López continue to cross the border and dare, as Rojas bragged, to bring cartel methods to the U.S., Mark Amador said that these types of kidnappings have increased in San Diego County over the past few years and there are similar kidnapping crews that remain active since the takedown of Los Palillos in 2007. “These groups band together in criminal conspiracies to rob, kidnap, extort, and kill.”
In light of these continuing threats, Mark Amador’s statement to the jury during his closing arguments still rings true. Amador asked the jury to consider the massive pile of evidence against Boss One and Boss Two — the photographs, the video surveillance, the cell phones, the bait bills, the receipts, the recorded phone conversations — and say, “We know you did this. Doesn’t matter who you picked out.”
From a public safety standpoint, it truly doesn’t matter whether you believe Eddy was an innocent victim or a guilty one. If he had not been saved and had not testified, it’s easy to imagine a different ending to this story, in which a man with ID that says he’s Rubén Flores is driving through your neighborhood right now with a friend. They have a nice car and nice watches. They know where to buy pool-cleaning supplies, and they own a large collection of guns. They’re pulling into the driveway of a rental house with an attached garage, and when they knock, they are welcomed into its empty rooms. They open the back door and walk casually into a well-fenced backyard where, as it happens, there is no pool. They say they’ll take it. They pay cash.