SAN JOSE, Calif. (KRON) — Baby Brandon Cuellar has been targeted by kidnappers in three separate incidents, prosecutors in California said Thursday.
Jose Ramon Portillo and Yesenia Guadalupe Ramirez staged multiple kidnapping attempts in San Jose, including one when Portillo posed as a fake child protective services worker who demanded to take custody of the baby, according to investigators.
The fake CPS worker said the 3-month-old boy needed to be removed from his family due to safety concerns, a prosecutor said. The baby’s family was suspicious of the man and refused to hand Brandon over.
“There are few things more terrifying than someone stealing a child — as if they’re a car or wallet. The more we investigate this case … the more troubling it gets,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said Thursday.
Portillo, 28, and Ramirez, 43, appeared in court Thursday to face charges, including kidnapping, conspiracy, and first-degree burglary. Prosecutors filed additional charges against the duo in light of newly uncovered evidence.
Jose Portillo talks with his defense attorney in court. (Pool photo / Bay Area News Group)
A motive behind the kidnapping and attempted kidnappings has not yet been released by investigators.
Portillo and Ramirez thought they pulled off their kidnapping scheme on April 25, investigators said. In broad daylight, a mysterious man walked into Brandon’s grandmother’s apartment while she was busy unloading groceries from her car with Ramirez.
The grandmother was babysitting Brandon while his mother was at work, and Ramirez was a “family friend,” police said.
When the grandmother returned to her apartment, the baby was gone.
Surveillance cameras recorded the mysterious man carrying the infant away in a car seat covered with a baby blanket. The grandmother had no idea who the man was and alerted police.
Yesenia Ramirez listens in the courtroom on April 28, 2022. (Pool photo / Bay Area News Group)
The April 25 kidnapping sparked a frantic search across San Jose.
“The kidnapping of Baby Brandon sent a shudder through our whole community,” Rosen said.
Police Chief Anthony Mata said the incident was “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
The baby’s father was immediately ruled out as a suspect because he was incarcerated.
Investigators with the San Jose Police Department and FBI discovered that Ramirez had gone shopping with the grandmother at Walmart just before the baby was snatched. A search of Ramirez’s cellphone showed she had been communicating with Portillo.
Police said they became suspicious of Ramirez when she gave inconsistent statements and changed her story several times.
Baby Brandon was found unharmed 20 hours later inside Portillo’s house in San Jose.
Police found a baby rocker, diapers and formula for making bottles in his house. Neither Portillo nor Ramirez have any children of their own, according to court documents.
Investigators said the baby care items were evidence that the duo planned to keep the baby.
“This was not the first time they tried to kidnap the baby boy,” prosecutors wrote. “About a month-and-a-half before the kidnapping, a man showed up at the child’s home and identified himself as a CPS worker. The family decided to call CPS who stated that they had not sent anyone to take Brandon. Ramirez was present at the victim’s home when this happened.”
Baby Brandon was missing for 20 hours before he was found unharmed. (Photo courtesy SJPD)
Failed kidnapping attempts at Walmart
New evidence also revealed that Ramirez and Portillo plotted to kidnap Brandon at a Walmart store twice, once on March 28 and again on April 25, according to prosecutors.
“Between March 28 and April 25, text messages, phone records and location data indicate the suspects Portillo and Ramirez continued to plan victim Brandon’s kidnapping,” San Jose Police Department Det. Van Brande wrote.
The Walmart store’s security cameras recorded the duo’s failed kidnapping attempts.
“In the first attempt, they were unable to switch shopping carts in an effort for Portillo to leave the store with Brandon. On the second occasion, were unable to distract Brandon’s grandmother,” prosecutors wrote.
Shortly after her baby was found safe, Brandon’s mother told KRON that she was overjoyed to have him back.
“Thank God for reuniting me with my son and the authorities that made this possible. I can’t even put into words how my heart feels. As a family, we are devout Christians. We leave everything up to God. God answered our prayers. God is always with us, God is good,” the mother said in Spanish.
“My life is full of uncertainty. I feel like I learned a huge lesson as a mother to not trust people. Because you can never truly know someone,” she said.
The baby’s grandmother and Ramirez reportedly became friends through their church. It’s still unclear how Portillo and Ramirez knew each other.
Their church was swarmed by police officers during the 20 hours that Brandon was missing.
Church connected to exorcism homicide case
The same church was the site of a torture killing last year. A 3-year-old girl, Arely Proctor Hernandez, was tortured to death inside the church on Sept. 24, according to court documents.
Arely’s family and the church’s pastor performed an exorcism ritual casting out a demon because they believed the child was “possessed,” deputy district attorney Rebekah Wise wrote in court documents. The girl was allegedly strangled by her mother, uncle and grandfather.
Arely’s mother, Claudia Elisa Hernandez, 25, of Mountain View, California, was arrested and charged with felony assault.
“The girl’s grandfather was identified as the leader of the Church and claimed he was a certified pastor,” Wise wrote.
During a police interrogation, Hernandez told officers that on Sept. 23 she began to believe that Arely was “possessed” because the child would periodically wake up in the middle of the night crying or screaming.
On Sept. 24 at 6:30 a.m., Arely’s mother and uncle drove her to the church. The girl’s mother, uncle, and grandfather held Arely down by her neck, torso, and legs for several hours, and they attempted to make her vomit by sticking fingers and hands down her throat, according to court documents.
Arely died around 6:30 p.m. after 12 hours of torture, court documents state.
Police officer was drunk at kidnapping scene, chief says
A San Jose Police Department officer was allegedly intoxicated while he was at the crime scene investigating baby Brandon’s kidnapping, the police chief said.
“I apologize to the family of 3-month-old Brandon Cuellar. When any officer … tarnishes the badge, we all suffer the consequences,” Police Chief Anthony Mata said at a May 3 press conference.
The officer raised the suspicions of an FBI agent who was also at the crime scene. The FBI agent reported his suspicions to the officer’s department.
The officer was allegedly drunk while he was assigned to canvass the neighborhood to find witnesses of the baby kidnapping and evidence.
The police chief said he was “disappointed and dismayed” by the officer’s conduct.
Sean Pritchard, president of the San Jose Police Officers Association, wrote, “On behalf of the honorable and hard working men and women who comprise the SJPD, we apologize to 3-month old kidnapping victim Brandon Cuellar, his mother, grandmother and Brandon’s entire family for the breach of trust caused by one of our officers being accused of being under the influence of alcohol while participating in the search for Brandon.”
The SJPD launched an internal affairs investigation on April 26 and the officer was placed on administrative leave. The officer’s name has not yet been released.