Cartel-Connected Kidnappers Found Guilty on All Counts
COLUMBIA, SC—United States Attorney Bill Nettles stated today that a federal jury in Columbia South Carolina needed only 45 minutes on Friday, October 23, 2015, to convict Juan Fuentes-Morales and Ruben Ceja-Rangel on 8 charges related to the armed abduction of a St. Mathews man that occurred in July of 2014. Evidence presented during the trial established that Ruben Ceja-Rangel (age 58) traveled from his home in Groveland, Florida in early June or July of 2014, for the purpose of conspiring with Juan Fuentes-Morales (age 27) to kidnap the victim from St. Mathews, South Carolina. During the trial evidence was presented that the victim was forcibly taken from his truck in the early morning hours of July 14, 2014 at gunpoint by Ceja-Rangel. Ceja-Rangel and another co-defendant then blindfolded and transported the victim to a residence near Garland, NC, where the victim was held for several hours at gunpoint. The victim testified that at one point, he attempted to escape and Juan Fuentes-Morales struck him and pointed a .25 caliber gun at the victim’s head. Evidence presented proved that around 8:00 p.m., the victim was moved from Garland to a residence located near Rosoboro, NC on Highway 210.
While held at the second location, the victim was blindfolded and chained to a workout bench, where he was made to lay on the floor from July 9, 2015, until his rescue by the FBI on July 15, 2014. In the early morning hours of July 15, 2014, a compliment of the Charlotte, NC FBI SWAT Team executed a search warrant at the Highway 210 residence near Roseboro. When the SWAT team made entry, they located the victim chained up and blindfolded on the floor. Ruben Ceja-Rangel attempted to run out of the back of the residence but he was quickly detained by FBI Charlotte SWAT operators.
Prior to locating the victim, Operators with the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT) executed a search warrant at 5363 Old Fayetteville Road, Garland NC. During the execution of this search warrant, agents located a cellular phone that Juan Fuentes-Morales used during the kidnapping to communicate with individuals in Mexico who were demanding a ransom for the victim’s return. Agents also located a .25 caliber pistol that Fuentes-Morales had used to hold the victim during his initial abduction on July 9, 2014.
Evidence presented at trial proved that the victim’s father owed a drug debt to members of a Mexican Drug Trafficking organization, or cartel, related to the father’s inability to sell over 200 pounds of marijuana. Jurors heard multiple phone calls that were recorded by FBI hostage negotiators, wherein the Mexican drug traffickers threatened to gouge out the victim’s eyes and ultimately kill him if the father did not pay the ransom.
Ceja-Rangel and Fuentes-Morales were convicted of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, kidnapping, hostage taking, brandishing firearms in furtherance of crimes of violence and lying to the FBI. Ceja-Rangel was also convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. The defendants face a statutory mandatory minimum 32 years on the firearms charges alone, and could face potential life sentences on the kidnapping and hostage taking charges. A sentencing hearing will be held after a presentencing report is prepared by the United States Probation Office. Judge Michelle Childs of Columbia presided over the trial and will sentence the defendants.
Mr. Nettles stated that drug trafficking begets violent crime, and the conduct of the two convicted defendants exemplifies the violence associated with international drug trafficking organizations that are operating here in the United States. Mr. Nettles added that the FBI did extraordinary work in executing a difficult operational plan to ensure that lives were not lost as a result of the kidnapping that grew out of drug trafficking here in South Carolina.
FBI Special Agent in Charge Dave Thomas added, “The jury’s verdict in this matter validates the work of the dedicated professionals who worked quickly and tirelessly to recover the victim, bring justice to the accused and ultimately make South Carolina a safer place.”
The case was initiated by the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department and was investigated by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from Columbia Field Division and the Charlotte Field Division. Assistant United States Attorneys JD Rowell and Kelly Wilson Hall of the Columbia are prosecuting the case.