Thanks to a blunder by the federal government, instead of facing life in prison, Luis Gerardo Betancourt has taken flight. The attorney representing Betancourt, Richard R. Alamia of Edinburg, Texas, said of his client, “They released him by mistake because they thought the case had been dismissed.”
It was back in November 2015, when a Mexican woman paid smugglers to bring her eight-year-old daughter and a friend across the border and into Florida. Once the girl and the friend reached Reynosa, Mexico, the smugglers demanded $24,000 in ransom and asked the mother of the girl if “she wanted to hear her daughter scream,” according to the criminal complaint against Betancourt.
The mother testified that Betancourt and associates had threatened to chop off the girl’s ears and fingers. After asking for help from friends and relatives, the mother wired approximately $17,500 to the abductors. However, the abductors did not release the girl. It was then that the mother got in touch with the sheriff’s office of Orange County, Florida. The FBI was able to track the abductors by using cell phone data.
Information provided by the Metro PCS cell phone service allowed the FBI to locate the 20-year-old Betancourt of Pharr, Texas. He was arrested, along with Jonathan Carlos Valdez-Harris and Luis Enrique Perez-Talavera. They pleaded guilty to hostage-taking in 2016.
The U.S. Marshals Service transferred Betancourt to the Starr County jail to await trial. Prosecutors dropped five of seven charges against him, filing a motion on March 6, on the day before jury selection was scheduled.
On March 9, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane granted the motion to dismiss two drug charges and three charges of lying to FBI agents. However, the charges of hostage taking and conspiracy to transport aliens within the United States remained against Betancourt.
How Betancourt was given liberty remains unclear. Authorities apparently believed that all of the charges against Betancourt had been dismissed. Therefore, the U.S. Marshals Service sent a standard “Prisoner Remand or Order to Deliver and Receipt for U.S. Prisoners” to the Starr County jail. Jailers there released Betancourt on March 10.
Betancourt believed that federal prosecutors had dropped their case against him. When Betancourt thanked attorney Alamia for his success, Alamia informed him that there remained two outstanding charges. Betancourt did not attend another court hearing, and remains at large.
According to FBI Special Agent Lynette Linn and Deputy U.S. Marshal Juan Lara, it is likely that Betancourt is now in Mexico. It is believed that he is affiliated with the murderous Gulf Cartel. Alamia said that no even Betancourt’s mother knows his present whereabouts.
On March 24, the case proceeded against Betancourt in absentia. Over five day, federal prosecutors called on testimony from 19 witnesses over five days. It took the jury but three hours to convict Betancourt on all charges. Sentence is expected in June. Anyone with information about Betancourt’s whereabouts is asked to call the U.S. Marshals Service at (956) 618-8025.