Eight people have been charged with federal crimes in connection with the March kidnapping of a group of migrants that began with a highway gunbattle and ended days later with FBI agents fatally shooting a suspect at a Houston hotel, officials announced Tuesday.
The abductions began as a human smuggling effort in a South Texas border city but morphed into a kidnapping during a shootout on a rural stretch of interstate west of Houston, federal officials said. Three migrants were wounded by gunfire and three others were taken captive, beaten and held for days for ransom, the officials said.
Six of the eight people charged in connection with the smuggling and kidnapping have been taken into custody but two remain at large and are considered dangerous, said U.S. Attorney Alamdar Hamdani. He said the FBI is offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of Santiago Hernandez Jr., 26, and Lorie Lin Flowers, 25, who are charged with aiding and abetting kidnapping and believed to be in Eagle Pass, Texas, or in a nearby area of Mexico.
The federal indictments follow state authorities’ earlier arrests of two teenagers for their alleged roles in the kidnappings. At a news conference Tuesday, federal officials also clarified and provided more details on the scheme that led two families to pay ransoms for the release of their loved ones.
“Do not put your hands in the life of a human smuggler,” Hamdani said. “Your family will lose all their money, or worse, they will lose you.”
On March 18, the smugglers were driving with six migrants through Waller County to Houston when several vehicles began chasing and shooting at their truck, Hamdani said. He said three wounded victims were left at the scene, with one in “severe condition.”
In the following days, FBI agents searched for the three others as their captors held them at two Houston-area hotels, beat them and sent videos of the violence to their families, according to officials. Hamdani said two of the people were released after their families paid “significant” ransoms.
On March 23, FBI agents found the hotel where the remaining hostage was being held and freed the man during a confrontation that led agents to shoot one of the alleged hostage-takers, 20-year-old Alberto Montes II. Montes’ parents said in April that they’d struggled to get answers from the FBI about why their son was shot. FBI agent Jim Smith said Tuesday that agents opened fire after Montes walked out of the hotel room holding a gun.
State and federal officials had previously offered competing counts of how many hostages were found during the rescue, but Hamdani said Tuesday that it was one man.
Officials had not acknowledged before Tuesday that three other migrants were shot and wounded before the kidnapping. Hamdani said they are all now recovering.