SAN JOSE, Calif. (KRON) — A man who committed a shocking crime — kidnapping a stranger’s 3-month-old infant right out of the baby’s home — is facing as little as five years in prison when he is sentenced this fall.
The bizarre kidnapping involved a love triangle, four kidnapping attempts against the same baby, a church with a history of performing exorcisms, and a woman who tricked men into believing they impregnated her.
The April 25 kidnapping of Baby Brandon set off a frantic 20-hour search across San Jose by police, the FBI, the media, and the public. KRON4 and other Bay Area television stations aired photographs of the adorable infant, as well as surveillance video showing a mysterious man walking away with him.
Brandon’s grandmother, Victoria Mejia, described the terrifying moment she discovered that her grandson disappeared from their Elm Street apartment. “I was yelling and yelling and yelling, ‘the baby! The baby is not here!’” Mejia said. Brandon’s mother was busy at work when a friend called and said, your baby is gone.
Police Chief Anthony Mata described the kidnapping as “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
When police arrived at the distraught grandmother’s apartment, she was being comforted by her friend from church, Yesenia Guadalupe Ramirez. Police discovered that the grandmother, Ramirez, and the baby had just returned home from shopping before the kidnapping.
Detectives quickly became suspicious of Ramirez because of inconsistencies in her story.
On April 26, a tip from the public helped police identify the mysterious man in the surveillance video as 27-year-old Jose Portillo. Officers found Brandon unharmed inside Portillo’s bedroom at 3365 Mather Drive in San Jose. Police arrested Ramirez, Portillo, and Ramirez’s estranged husband, Baldomeo Sandoval.
Bizarre love triangle
A love triangle surfaced when another man, Francisco Marquez, called police to ask why news reporters were claiming that his baby had been kidnapped and his girlfriend was arrested. He told police that baby photos shown on TV were the same photos Ramirez had sent him of their new baby, who they named “Angel.”
“He was very frustrated and confused (when) he contacted police believing he was the father of this child,” San Jose police Det. Catherine Van Brande testified for a preliminary hearing.
Ramirez, Marquez, and Portillo were tangled in a love triangle, detectives discovered. Marquez told police that he caught his 43-year-old girlfriend cheating on him with Portillo, but he stayed with her because he loved her.
When detectives seized cellphones from Ramirez and Portillo, they found a flurry of text messages coordinating the best way to kidnap Baby Brandon. Investigators said the text messages show that Ramirez was the plot’s mastermind.
Ramirez first began plotting to kidnap Baby Brandon in March to cover up a lie she told to Marquez, San Jose Police Officer Eduardo Reyes testified. She faked a pregnancy and duped Marquez into believing that he was the fake baby’s father, Reyes said.
Ramirez told Marquez that she gave birth to their son on March 3. Two days later, she convinced Portillo to help her kidnap Brandon, according to text messages shown in court.
On March 5, Ramirez texted to Portillo, “Do you want to help me?” Portillo replied, “Of course I want to help you because you are special to me.”
Ramirez met the baby’s grandmother and mother through their small church, Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas, and Ramirez’s estranged husband was one of the church’s pastors.
While Baby Brandon was still missing, police looked into the church’s disturbing history of performing exorcisms on children. “It was discovered there was correlation to this church. We wanted to rule out that this would be the same fate for the baby,” Det. Van Brande testified.
A 3-year-old girl, Arley, was tortured to death at the church’s alter last year. The girl’s mother, uncle, and pastor attempted to cast “demons” out of her body by performing a 14-hour exorcism, according to prosecutors.
Arley’s mother, 25-year-old Claudia Hernandez-Santos, told police that she believed Arely was “possessed” by demons because her daughter would wake up at night crying or screaming in their Mountain View home. The pastor, along with Arley’s mother and uncle, were later arrested and charged with homicide.
Brandon’s mother, Jessica Ayala, testified that Ramirez claimed God wanted her to take care of Brandon. “She told me she was required to help me because I was going through a hard time since my husband was in prison,” Ayala testified through a Spanish interpreter.
One of the four attempted kidnappings happened at the church, prosecutors said. On April 2, Portillo waited outside of the church while Ramirez, baby Brandon, and the baby’s family were inside attending a service.
“I am here. How do you want me to do it?” Portillo texted to Ramirez. “When I tell you, take the baby carrier,” Ramirez replied.
Marquez moved into Ramirez’s home on April 23 and asked why their baby was not home. Ramirez lied, claiming that their baby was still in the hospital and she would pick him up on April 25, Reyes testified. Marquez was one of many men who Ramirez convinced had impregnated her.
“Numerous and various men believed they had birthed numerous children with defendant Ramirez,” Police Det. Catherine Van Brande testified.
On April 25, Portillo kidnapped Baby Brandon and brought the infant to his house. Investigators said Ramirez had planned to pick up Brandon and bring him to her house to show Marquez “their baby.”
Ramirez’s estranged husband, Baldomeo Sandoval, was one of the church’s pastors. Police determined that he had nothing to do with Baby Brandon’s kidnapping.
Prosecutors unhappy with prison time
In exchange for lighter prison sentences, Portillo and Ramirez pleaded no contest on August 2 to felony kidnapping and four counts of attempted kidnapping. The unexpected pleas happened in the middle of a preliminary hearing where prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence against the duo.
Baby Brandon showed up to court for the hearing, and he appeared happy and healthy with his mother and grandmother.
Portillo and Ramirez accepted a plea offer from Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Nona Klippen. Judge Klippen promised Portillo that she would sentence him to no more than five years in prison, and promised Ramirez a sentence of 14 years or less.
Tears streamed down Ramirez’s face as she pleaded no contest. Defense attorney Cody Salfen said Ramirez feels deep remorse.
“In the courtroom … there was a lot of emotion. Obviously the gravity of the situation is huge for anyone that was involved. It was emotional. It was intense. I’m glad for everyone’s sake that there will be some finality to this situation so that everyone involved can close this chapter and move on,” Salfen said.
In stark contrast to Ramirez, Portillo’s face was stoic as he pleaded no contest to all charges.
The District Attorney’s Office said Portillo and Ramirez both deserve the maximum possible sentence, which would have been 16 years without the judge’s plea deal. “Kidnapping a child is heart-wrenching, terrifying, and extremely serious,” Chief Assistant District Attorney Jay Boyarsky said.
“The District Attorney’s Office objected to the judge’s decision, arguing that the defendants should have a sentencing hearing where they both faced the maximum sentence. The DA’s position is that a five-year maximum is too short for the kidnapping and multiple failed attempts to kidnap a child,” prosecutors wrote.
Portillo and Ramirez are slated to be sentenced on October 28 in the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice.