Robert Nunez hadn't been seen for three days when his mother got an alarming text message, saying her son was dead, police said.
The frightened woman went to the Santa Ana Police Department on April 16 and filed a missing person report, said police Cpl. Anthony Bertagna. Nunez, who had been homeless, was struggling with substance abuse issues, the corporal said, and his mother had tried to help him.
But little did she know her son had created a bogus kidnapping story in attempt to extort $300 from her, Bertagna said.
Prosecutors charged Nunez, 31, this week with one felony count of attempted extortion by threat, according to an Orange County Superior Court criminal complaint.
Nunez's suspected scheme was discovered April 17, when his mother received more text messages demanding a ransom, Bertagna said. The messages appeared to coming from Nunez's cellphone, he said.
The notes indicated that her son was still alive but would be killed if she didn't pay the ransom, he said. She received a photograph showing a set of tools, including a knife and coping saw, as well as a message instructing her to tape the money to the tire of her daughter's vehicle.
Soon after, Bertagna said, detectives began investigating Nunez's disappearance as a kidnapping.
After investigators got information that Nunez was possibly in Anaheim, they spotted him and another man inside a car, he said.
When detectives pulled the car over, they discovered Nunez had faked his kidnapping, he said. The other man told investigators that he knew nothing about Nunez's plan, Bertagna said.
"Turns out he made it up," the corporal said.
Nunez was taken into custody and is being held in lieu of $50,000 bail.