How police rescued a woman from a ritual killing amid massive Mexican trafficking network (2024)

The kidnapper's murder tools were ready. Tarp, knife, candles and statue honoring the patron saint of death. Georgia police rushed to intervene.

Beth WarrenUSA TODAY NETWORK

How police rescued a woman from a ritual killing amid massive Mexican trafficking network (1)

How police rescued a woman from a ritual killing amid massive Mexican trafficking network (2)

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BRUNSWICK, Ga. —A masked man snatched a woman from a day care in coastal Georgia and drove her north to a small cemetery.

Near ivory marbled tombstones and stone angel statutes, Javier Sanchez Mendoza Jr. beat his victim. He planned to stab her and dump her body in the grass under towering oak trees and swaying gray ribbons of Spanish moss.

However, the day care worker fought back, wrestling the knife from Mendoza's grip. It landed between his truck's console and seat, out of reach. As the Brunswick area day care notified police, Mendoza changed his plan and drove the woman further north toward his home in Jesup, Georgia, 66 miles southwest of Savannah.

Ronnie Cooper, a veteran officer with the Glynn County Police Department in Brunswick was on his way home after a long shift when he heard the crackle of his police radio: Day care worker kidnapped. Suspect armed with a knife. Northbound. Silver truck.

Cooper rushed north as his lieutenant relayed location information, or "ping" data, tracking the woman's cell phone. Cooper called his partner, Jeremy Stagner. Both sped along U.S. 341, unaware Mendoza had already spread a large tarp on the floor in preparation for a prolonged ritual killing.

In May, Cooper talked about the 2019 incident, one of the most haunting in his 19-year career, with The Louisville Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, at the cemetery where Mendoza first tried to kill his victim. Cooper described the tense search for the woman and the improbable rescue — amid a murder in progress.

"This is the cemetery where the offender in this case brought the victim to kill her," the veteran lawman said, standing in the shade at the tiny cemetery in the Wayne County community of Gardi, 38 miles northwest of Brunswick. "She was able to fight and get the knife away from him."

"He was going to kill and leave her here."

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'She came here looking for happiness and found pure hell'

Police arrested Mendoza as part of an expansive trafficking network with an estimated 71,000 victims from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, according to U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, the lead agency that toppled the criminal ring through a three-year investigation.

The men and women were recruited under the guise of working on farms as part of the H-2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. The scam operated from at least 2015 through 2021, prosecutors alleged in court records, with the criminal organization, likely tied to Mexican cartels, profiting more than $200 million.

Others who were supposed to be program participants paid larger fees and were allowed to abscond, he said, leaving the program and relocating in the U.S. without permission.

The case illustrates how Mexican cartels not only profit by blanketing the U.S. with drugs, but by smuggling humans and forcing them into modern-day slavery. Even in rural coastal Georgia, thousands of victims were hidden in plain sight, scared to seek help after they or their families in Mexico were threatened.

Experts say human trafficking is a growing problem, much larger in scope than many Americans realize.

"I think it's going on all over the U.S.," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Gilluly, who worked on the case. "It's mind-blowing."

Julio Lopez, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, testified during Mendoza's sentence hearing that he spoke to more than 200 victims of the labor scam. Many didn't speak English, were poor and intimidated by the scammers, he said.

This visa scam centered on southern Georgia but also expanded to other parts of the U.S., Lopez told the judge.

Mendoza worked as a farm labor contractor for the U.S. program even though he wasn't in the country legally. He sneaked into the U.S. and used aliases to become a crew leader for the criminal network, later claiming he netted $27,000 a month, though prosecutors suspect he made much more.

Mendoza recruited the kidnapping victim and 564 other women and men as guest farm workers.

Many of the victims were exploited by being forced to pay fees that weren't legal. Others, were forced to live in deplorable conditions and weren't paid what they were promised.

The Savannah Morning News, part of the USA TODAY Network, reported this as one of the largest human trafficking cases ever prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Mendoza made trips to Mexico to recruit program participants, bringing 565 workers from Mexico to the U.S. Many were charged illegal visa processing fees, often totaling $1,000. They were forced to work for free to pay off those fees, a criminal scheme known as "debt bondage," or "debt servitude," Gilluly said.

Mendoza had the power to decide where the workers lived and where they worked.

When Mendoza's kidnapping victim and 37 others arrived on a packed bus from Mexico in September 2018, Mendoza took their passports, then pointed at her and told her she would be his wife. To force compliance, he threatened her and her family in Mexico, including her young son.

The woman, whose name has been withheld because she is the victim of a sexual crime, envisioned a brief stint in the U.S. harvesting food for a farmer so she could take her earnings back to her family in Mexico. Instead, Mendoza forced her to live with him and follow his orders.

"It was all about power and control," Gilluly said. "If she didn't do what he wanted, she was punished."

Mendoza took the woman to a Georgia courthouse and forced her to sign papers in English, claiming they were married. Prosecutors said they found no legal documentation of a marriage and it would be illegal anyway because the woman was under duress.

But in Mendoza's mind, he owned her.

"Shackles aren't always visible," Gilluly said. "She came here looking for happiness and found pure hell."

The woman testified during Mendoza's sentence hearing that she eventually worked up the courage to call police in 2019 when Mendoza tried to rape and strangle her. She borrowed a phone from one of the two men who lived in Mendoza's trailer and called 911. The men tried to protect her as they ran down the street, while Mendoza chased after her with a knife. Mendoza remained in jail for two months, giving the men time to help relocate the woman.

While he was locked up, the men helped the woman escape. She relocated to Brunswick and was enjoying a sunny day on Nov. 9, 2019, watching children at play outdoors at the day care when Mendoza, whose face was covered with a purple bandana, rushed in and dragged her to his truck with the blade of his knife pressed against her throat.

A teen-age girl called 911 as younger children relayed what had happened, according to a recording of the call.

"He just came really fast," the teen told a female dispatcher. "We saw him grabbing her and putting her inside his truck. He had a knife.

"She was screaming."

During the drive to his home in Jesup, Mendoza called his contact in Mexico, believed to be a cartel associate, and put the call on speaker, so the woman could listen as he and another man discussed whether she should be killed in Mexico or in the U.S. The men decided she should die on this day in Georgia.

It's unclear who gave the orders from Mexico, but Gilluly, the veteran prosecutor, said: "Sinaloa tends to have a large presence in our district," referring to the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, once headed by notorious drug lord El Chapo.

Once they arrived at Mendoza's trailer, he placed his knife to the woman's cheek and sliced her skin, then dripped her blood on the statue of the death saint's scythe, a large agricultural hand tool historically used for cutting grass or hay, Cooper said.

Cartel members believe the saint can protect their business and keep them from getting caught by police.

With candles flickering near the statue, Mendoza offered up grapes, liquor and other sacrifices. The name of the victim and her birthday were scrawled on paper and left on the altar, along with her photo. Her face was scratched off, and the photo was placed upside down.

The victim, who recognized the patron saint of death, later told the judge she knew she was about to die.

Meanwhile, Cooper and Stagner, task force officers with the FBI Safe Streets Task Force, drove out of their county and into Wayne County, heading to the small town of Jesup. As members of the federal task force, both had the authorization to cross into other jurisdictions, preventing possible delays in handing the case over to another department.

They drove around and spotted the suspect's truck, parked outside his trailer.

Police in Jesup called in their SWAT team but assembling the specially trained unit would take time.

Cooper and Stagner decided they couldn't wait. They hid behind large oak trees and watched the trailer, and when Mendoza walked outside during a phone call, they tackled him to the ground.

"If they waited for the SWAT team, it would have been too late," Gilluly said.

Mendoza continued to threaten the victim's life and her family, shouting in Spanish in front of the lawmen. Cooper used a translation app to decipher the suspect's rants.

Mendoza pleaded guilty in 2021 in federal court in Brunswick, just five miles from the kidnapping site, to conspiracy to engage in forced labor. At the time of his arrest, about 300 more men and women in Mexico were in the process of coming to work for him and had already paid illegal fees, prosecutors said.

Standing in front of a judge, Mendoza dropped to his knees during his sentence hearing and begged for mercy. Prosecutors sought to keep him behind bars for the rest of his life.

The judge sentenced him to serve 30 years in federal prison, where parole is not an option.

Mendoza's former attorney, Steven Blackerby, didn't return calls in May and June seeking comment on the case.

Gilluly said Mendoza's crimes were perpetrated by a "monster." He now trains police on watching for red flags that could indicate human trafficking, and he recounts the kidnapping victim's case, always while fighting back tears.

"It rips my heart out every time," the prosecutor said. "She was on the edge of death.

"The horror of what she went through will always stay in my mind."

The U.S. State Department offers tips on possible signs of human trafficking at www.state.gov/identify-and-assist-a-trafficking-victim/.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline,1-888-373-7888, is a toll-free and 24-hour resource with multilingual operators. It's accessible to everyone, from victims to police and concern citizens.

How police rescued a woman from a ritual killing amid massive Mexican trafficking network (2024)
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