Police find women bound for at least two years during drug raid www.privateofficer.com
State Police say they have recovered evidence from the room that suggests the 44-year-old woman had been held there for at least two years and possibly much longer. And although they would not divulge the evidence, authorities are treating the woman as a victim — not a co-conspirator — in the case.
Instead of being taken into custody, she was sent to St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson for a medical evaluation and was later released, authorities said.
Arrested during the raid last Thursday was Michael Mendez, 42, an alleged member of the Latin Kings gang, who has been charged with kidnapping, two counts of criminal restraint, eight counts of drug possession, two counts of drug distribution and one count of false imprisonment and is being held in the Passaic County Jail in lieu of $1 million bail, Sheriff Richard H. Berdnik said.
Mendez’s neighbors at the shabby, three-story walkup had different recollections of the woman, some saying they saw her sitting in front of the apartment or walking down the street — sometimes with Mendez and sometimes without him — and others barely recalling seeing her but over the course of several years.
Reginaye Clyburn, 20, said she saw the woman regularly, about two or three times a month. Sometimes, she would sit on the stoop with Mendez. Other times, she would walk alone down the street, she said.
“I used to see her around,” Clyburn said. “They sit here in front of the building or on the stoop. Sometimes, she looked like she was walking to the mailbox.”
Another resident, Dennis Fitzpatrick, said his wife used to visit the woman in the apartment. Fitzpatrick said his wife never told him about any padlock on the bedroom door, and the woman appeared healthy and never complained about being held against her will, he said.
“I can’t see how he held this lady,” Fitzpatrick said. But hearing the news of Mendez’s arrest made him reconsider.
“I thought it was strange that she didn’t come outside,” he said.
Another neighbor, Louise Stancil, said she’s lived in the building since 1997 and had only seen the woman twice in 15 years. She saw her a third time on Saturday, two days after the raid; the woman was smiling.
“I thought she was the type who didn’t socialize with anyone,” she said.
Lt. Stephen Jones, a State Police spokesman, said the padlock on the door is proof that the woman was being held against her will.
Jones added that investigators recovered other pieces of evidence that suggests the woman had been locked up in the apartment off and on for years — but he wouldn’t describe the evidence because he said it might harm the state’s case.
Jones said the evidence of kidnapping and criminal restraint against Mendez would come out “at some later point” in the case.
Mendez arrived at the apartment Thursday just as members of the State Police combed the third-floor apartment and found — aside from the woman believed to be his girlfriend behind the padlocked bedroom door — 4,200 prescription pills, 190 grams of marijuana and $22,567 in cash.
To neighbors, Mendez seemed friendly enough. Clyburn said he helped her when her car broke down. Another resident of the building, Wakina Benjamin, said she frequently chatted with Mendez, making small talk. She knew he had a girlfriend, but something was a bit off, she said.
“Never once did I see her,” she said. “I just know he had a girlfriend because he mentioned her a few times.” Benjamin said she was “shocked” to hear police had charged Mendez with holding his girlfriend against her will.
“I wouldn’t expect him to do anything like that,” she said. “He seemed like such a nice guy.”
Experts on domestic violence say that seemingly nice guys can do horrible things behind closed doors. And experts on gang violence say that women are often treated as property in a culture that glorifies power and exploitation.
“Leaving is not that easy in this kind of situation,” said Elaine Meyerson, executive director of Shelter Our Sisters, the largest domestic violence agency in Bergen County, N.J. “How do you get away from the Latin Kings? And when someone is padlocked in a house, it sends a message that says ‘You can’t go anywhere and I am in charge.’”
The Latin Kings have blown up buildings, burned down others with foes tied up inside and committed countless other heinous acts, which places Mendez’s alleged kidnapping well within the realm of possibilities for one of its members, said Lou Savelli, a former New York Police Department detective who specialized in gangs.
Savelli raised the prospect that Mendez kept the victim as a slave and that she identified herself as Mendez’s girlfriend to protect him from further prosecution — and to protect herself from reprisals by other gang members. The victim might have been instructed to identify herself as Mendez’s girlfriend, he said.
“I don’t think he locked her in there to keep her safe from the cops,” Savelli said. “She’s definitely the victim of a crime. She’s also a battered woman. You don’t lock someone in a room that you don’t beat up.”
Mendez has been in trouble before. In April 2009, he was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to three years’ probation, according to state records.
Prior to that, in January 2000, he was convicted of aggravated assault resulting in bodily injury, and was sentenced to three months in jail and three years’ probation. No other details about these cases were available Monday.
The apartment is located inside Riverview Terrace, a complex run by the Paterson Housing Authority, said Councilman William McKoy, who is chairman of the Public Safety committee.
McKoy said there have been two shootings in the complex this year, which has raised questions about the effectiveness of off-duty police officers hired by the housing authority to patrol the grounds. There’s been a push to get the officers to provide more details on incident reports and to get a handle on the drug trade there, he said.
“If everything was working as it should, we should have some intelligence on the activity,” he said. “He’s (Mendez) a major player. How he didn’t come up on the radar is very concerning.”
The Paterson Housing Authority is thinking of installing an electronic device at the Riverview complex that can detect the sound of gunfire.