COLUMBIA, S.C. - Three men affiliated with a Mexican drug cartel kidnapped a South Carolina man and held him for ransom for nearly a week in a dispute over $200,000 in marijuana, authorities said Wednesday.
The man was blindfolded and bound at a North Carolina home before FBI agents traced phone calls from his abductors and stormed the residence, rescuing him mostly unharmed, authorities said. His identity was being withheld for his safety.
The kidnapping began early July 9 when the three men, posing as police officers, pulled the man over as he was going to work in his hometown of St. Matthews, about 30 miles southeast of Columbia. His truck, still running, was left on the side of the road with its door open.
Ransom demands were sent to the man's family within hours of his disappearance and continued for several days.
The man was involved in delivering cocaine, marijuana and money throughout South Carolina and North Carolina, according to a complaint filed in federal court. He is currently not in custody and does not face any charges.
"Right now he's a victim, and we will have to look at that very carefully," said FBI agent David Thomas, who is in charge of the Columbia office.
Several months ago, the man received about $200,000 worth of marijuana from the cartel and delivered it to another dealer, but he could not repay the cartel, according to court papers. Authorities are not sure whether he stole the marijuana or was ripped off by the dealer.
In court papers, authorities said they got that information from interviews with the man's father, who also worked for the drug traffickers. He also has not been charged. Authorities said the case is still developing.
The night he disappeared, the man's fiancee began receiving calls demanding up to $400,000 for his return. Agents traced the calls to Mexico and then to North Carolina. Early Tuesday morning, agents raided a home in Roseboro, about 160 miles northeast of the man's hometown, and found him bound and in chains, being guarded by two men.
According to court documents unsealed Wednesday, the man later told agents he tried to cut off his restraints with a knife, but a kidnapper discovered his attempt and hit him in the jaw and pointed a gun at him.
Authorities said the suspects - Juan Manuel Fuentes-Morales, 26; Ruben Ceja-Rangel, 57; and Luis Castro Villeda, 22 - appeared in federal court in Raleigh on Wednesday on charges of conspiracy to kidnap. Court documents did not say with which cartel they are associated or indicate their nationality. Their home addresses were also withheld.
The three men were held without bond pending a detention hearing before a federal magistrate judge scheduled for next week. The Federal Public Defender's Office in Raleigh has been assigned to represent them. A message seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Officials said the U.S. attorney's office in Columbia will be handling the prosecution and that the three defendants will likely face extradition to South Carolina.
Biesecker reported from Raleigh.