PHOENIX - A woman leaving an eyeglass store is grabbed in the parking lot by four men who force her, kicking and screaming, into a pickup truck. The kidnappers demand a $900,000 ransom.
But police soon realize her family is holding something back and isn't fully cooperating with them. Later, investigators find out that relatives have arranged the woman's release on their own. And they discover that members of the family are heavy into marijuana trafficking.
The case illustrates how a terrifyingly common crime in Latin America has moved across the border into the United States: Criminals and their family members are being kidnapped by fellow criminals and held for six-figure ransoms.
The abductions are occurring in the Phoenix area at the rate of practically one per day, and police suspect they have led to killings in which bound and bullet-riddled bodies have been found dumped in the desert.
The kidnap victims are typically drug- or immigrant-smugglers, who are seen as inviting targets because they have a lot of money, they can raise large sums of cash on short notice, and they are unlikely to go to the police, for fear their own shady dealings will come to light.
"We have never had a victim that we have investigated that has been as clean as the new driven snow," said Sgt. Phil Roberts, who investigates the kidnappings. "There has always been some type of criminal element to it. Either they are criminals, drug dealers or human smugglers — or a close family member is."
The kidnappers themselves are fellow traffickers who are doing it for the money or to punish their rivals.
Phoenix had more than 340 reported such kidnappings last year, but police said the real number is much higher because many cases go unreported.
In a recent Mesa case, two armed men burst into a salon near Alma School Road and Eighth Avenue and forced the business owner into a car. The woman was released in Phoenix four days later.
She told Mesa investigators she was not harmed or abused by her kidnappers, who remain at large. Many details of the December incident, including the identification of the suspects, are still under investigation.
Mesa detective Steve Berry said the victim in that case did not have criminal connections that he was aware of.
Other border regions have also seen a rise in kidnappings over the past year. The San Diego area has reported two or three kidnappings during busy weeks, and some victims were mixed up in drug smuggling.
But the hostage-taking appears to be most prevalent in Phoenix, the nation's biggest base of operations for immigrant smugglers.
Kidnappings are common in Mexico, and the victims often include criminals as well as legitimate businessmen, such as bankers. Phoenix police said they believe the kidnappers here are not going after legitimate businessmen for fear their families will go to the police.
The kidnappings first came to light in Phoenix three years ago but are rising as overall violence associated with immigrant smuggling intensifies in Arizona.
Immigrant smuggling is a lucrative line of work: A ring that moves a load of 30 illegal immigrants through Arizona can gross $45,000 to $75,000.
And smugglers can quickly get their hands on large sums of money — sometimes in the middle of the night. In one case, someone who turned to authorities about a kidnapping brought more than $300,000 in ransom money to the police department in cereal boxes.
Many of the abductions begin in "drop houses" — homes where immigrant smugglers hold customers until they pay up. Typically, the kidnappers storm drop houses or relatives' homes at gunpoint, smack the victims around, tie them up and speed off to a hiding place.
Hostages are often tortured as the kidnappers try to force families to meet their demands. A victim's finger might be cut off. A man might get a phone call in which he is forced to listen to his wife getting raped. Two smugglers were blindfolded and forced to stand in buckets of water while captors zapped them with an electrical cord.
The families often go to the police only as a last resort. Even then, people may later cut investigators out of the picture and try to resolve things themselves.
Sometimes hostages are found dead in the desert, often with gunshot wounds to the head and torso, their hands bound behind them.
"It's usually because they don't get paid. These people are ruthless, serious criminals," said police spokesman Sgt. Joel Tranter.
Police know few details of the release of the 44-year-old woman kidnapped outside the eyeglass store in Phoenix in May.
Initially, the woman's husband told police that he didn't know why his wife was seized and that his family wasn't involved in anything illegal.
Investigators suspected her husband and son were holding back. Her son had recognized the voice of a kidnapper who called him but was evasive when pressed for details.
Eventually, investigators learned the family's produce and meat-processing business had been investigated in 2003 as a possible drug-trafficking front.
Confronted with that information, the husband said that two sons had about 150 pounds of marijuana stolen from them and that they owed money to the people who sold them the drugs. They eventually made good on their debt, but the sellers were demanding an additional $50,000.
Police said the family, through their attorney, refused to answer investigators' questions or help them find the kidnappers. The family declined a request for an interview.
The Police Department said it does not pursue drug or immigration charges against witnesses or victims in kidnapping cases, because investigators need their cooperation.
Police said nearly all cases where families cooperated fully have resulted in the safe return of the victims, usually after a SWAT team knocked down doors to rescue the kidnapped.
In other cases, police learn of the kidnappings only after neighbors call about suspicious activity or a bystander witnesses an abduction. In one case, a motorist waiting at a red light saw a man with plastic ties on his feet and hands roll out of the trunk of a vehicle.