Jury Finds Man Guilty in Kidnaping of 2 : Defendant Faces Life Terms in Abduction of Market Owner's Family

Times Staff Writer

A jury has convicted a 28-year-old Los Angeles man of kidnaping the wife and daughter of a Long Beach market owner last March.

Juan Carlos Pena was found guilty last Friday in Norwalk Superior Court of two counts of kidnaping for ransom and one count of robbery for the abduction of Maria del Refugio Sanchez, 33, and her daughter, Yesenia, 5.

Two other defendants, Eliazar Romero Cuaei, 26, and Martin Galvan Ceja, 26, each pleaded guilty to two counts of kidnaping for ransom and one count of robbery during jury selection for the trial, which started on Aug. 21, Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles A. Lawhorn said. They were to have been tried with Pena.

The three men each face two life prison terms for the kidnapings and a five-year term for robbery when they are sentenced later this month, Lawhorn said. The men were convicted of robbery for taking $50 from Sanchez' purse, Lawhorn said.

Pena testified that he was not involved in the kidnaping but was merely present when Sheriff's deputies raided the small Los Angeles home where the victims were rescued after four days. Pena said he was homeless and looking for work in downtown Los Angeles when he ran across Cuaei, who told him to go to the house and search for work.

But Maria Sanchez testified that Pena was in the van that was used in the kidnaping. The jury deliberated for two hours before returning the guilty verdict. Yesenia Sanchez, the daughter, did not testify.

"It was an issue of credibility as to whether they believed his alibi that he was a homeless person looking for work," Lawhorn said.

Froilan Sanchez, 39, was at his La Michoacana Market on Paramount Boulevard in Long Beach on March 6 when he received a call telling him that his wife and daughter had been abducted that morning from their La Mirada home, sheriff's officials said after the arrests. The caller demanded A$100,000 for their safe return.

Maria Sanchez testified during the trial that she was warming up her car to take her daughter to preschool when Ceja approached and said her husband had been seriously injured in an accident at work. She and her daughter voluntarily climbed into a van with Ceja, she testified. She was later blindfolded.

Froilan Sanchez, who had called the Sheriff's Department, received six more calls from the abductors during the next four days. The ransom was eventually raised to $150,000.

Sanchez raised the ransom money from his business, his bank, relatives and friends, and agreed to drop the money at a phone booth in a Los Angeles parking lot, authorities said. Detectives had him under surveillance.

Cuaei picked up the money and drove off. He was arrested a short time later and led lawmen to the 121st Street home, where they arrested Pena, Ceja, Juan Manuel Cordova, 21, and Jose Luis Estrada, 43.

Maria Sanchez and her daughter were found unharmed in a rear bedroom of the house.

The cases against Cordova and Estrada were dismissed last May because of insufficient evidence, Lawhorn said

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