LAS VEGAS – A lawyer for a man accused of kidnapping a Nevada boy as a way to recover $4.5 million in stolen drug money told a federal jury Wednesday the child's mother and grandmother staged the abduction then steered investigators toward the defendants.
Jose Lopez-Buelna didn't kidnap 6-year-old Cole Puffinburger in 2008 and wasn't the leader of an operation that smuggled cocaine from Mexico and distributed it in the U.S. and Canada, defense attorney Robert Draskovich said in his opening statement at the trial.
"Cole was not abducted," Draskovich said. "It was a ruse to get dad."
The boy was found alive and unharmed by a bus driver in a Las Vegas neighborhood three days after the kidnapping.
Telephone messages left by The Associated Press for Puffinburger's mother, Julie Puffinburger, her one-time lawyer Dennis Leavitt, and Diane Tinnemeyer, the grandmother, were not immediately returned.
Prosecutors said Lopez-Buelna, 50, kidnapped the boy as he went after money stolen by the boy's grandfather, Clemens Fred Tinnemeyer.
Lopez-Buelna had pursued Clemens Tinnemeyer, his former courier, for months, asking friends about him and sending Julie Puffinburger a threatening note reading, "We don't play no games," federal prosecutor Margaret Honrath said.
Cole's kidnapping was driven by drugs, money and greed, Honrath said in her opening statement.
"It was time to get Tinnemeyer's attention," Honrath said. "It was their way to extort Tinnemeyer to come back to Las Vegas with their money."
Honrath said Puffinburger, his mother and her boyfriend were held at gunpoint on the floor of their home while men searched the residence for money. She said Julie Puffinburger and her boyfriend were restrained with zip ties around their wrists and ankles, and duct tape around their heads. When the men couldn't find any money, they took the boy, she said.
At the time, police characterized the incident as a message from drug traffickers to Tinnemeyer.
Draskovich countered that Cole Puffinburger's story about his abduction changed over four interviews with investigators. The lawyer accused the boy's mother of coaching him to back up her story by changing descriptions about his kidnappers and where he was held.
The mother was calm as police interviewed her in the moments after the abduction was reported, Draskovich added, even though she told authorities she was in hysterics when she received the threatening note months earlier.
"She's like Hindu-cow calm when her son has supposedly been ripped from her," Draskovich said.
Draskovich said he intended to show at trial that the mother and grandmother weren't surprised by the kidnapping because they had set it up to reveal Tinnemeyer and to chase away the men looking for him. They knew the boy was never in any real danger, he said.
Tinnemeyer was expected to testify during the trial, Honrath said.
The grandfather was arrested shortly after the kidnapping in Riverside, Calif. He and his girlfriend, Terri Lynn Leavy, were later charged with interstate and foreign travel or transportation in aid of racketeering enterprises, according to a criminal complaint. The case was closed in February 2009 with a declaration that it was being folded into a sealed criminal case.
Draskovich told U.S. District Judge Gloria Navarro he planned to call the boy to testify.
Lopez-Buelna has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, conspiracy to launder money, money laundering, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, kidnapping, conspiracy to commit hostage taking and hostage taking.
Three other men are accused in the case. Attorneys for Roberto Lopez, Luis Vega-Rubio and Erik Dushawn Webster said their clients were not guilty.
Charges vary among those defendants and include kidnapping and hostage-taking, along with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and launder money.
Another defendant, Adolph Vargas, pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and money laundering. His sentencing is set for April 29.
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