Three men accused in a bizarre Mexican-linked drug kidnapping plot that involved both South and North Carolina were given taxpayer-supported defense lawyers Friday morning.
“Each of them qualifies for a court-appointed lawyer,” said Magistrate Judge Paige Gossett in a brief hearing at the U.S. courthouse in Columbia.
The three men, described earlier by the FBI as U.S. citizens, did not speak English fluently and were given a Spanish-speaking court interpreter who translated Gossett’s English for them.
Federal public defender Allen Burnside will represent Juan Manuel Fuentes-Morales, 26; Aimee Zmroczek of Columbia will represent Ruben Ceja-Rangel, 57; and Michael Chesser of Aiken will represent Luis Castro-Villeda, 22. Zmroczek and Chesser speak Spanish.
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Last month, their case drew widespread attention not only because of the brazen nature of the kidnapping but because court documents filed by the FBI revealed the existence of a major Mexican drug trafficking organization that had an established marijuana pipeline into South and North Carolina.
Law officers said that the three men, on orders from the Mexican drug trafficking group, kidnapped the St. Matthews man at gunpoint July 9 because he had either lost or stolen a $200,000 shipment of marijuana weighing about 200 pounds. The Mexican group wanted its $200,000, and the kidnapped man said he could not give it to them.
The three men last month were arrested and the kidnapped man, rescued, after a massive effort by the FBI and numerous state and local law enforcement agencies in both Carolinas.
The break in the case came when ransom demands of up to $400,000 were repeatedly made over a cellphone to the victim’s father in St. Matthews in Calhoun County. Not only were FBI agents listening in on the calls but the FBI had a court order that allowed them to tap the alleged kidnappers’ cellphone and pinpoint its location.
On July 15, aided by information generated by the cellphone taps, the FBI raided a house in Roseboro, N.C., freed the victim and took two of the alleged kidnappers into custody.
The third suspect had been arrested earlier in another town.
Each of the three has been charged with conspiracy to kidnap and hold a person for ransom. They are in federal custody and being held without bail.