July 26, 2021

Houston man arrested after alleged night club abduction admits to detaining immigrants at stash house

Victor Martinez, a Mexican national, appeared before U.S. District Judge Charles Eskridge via Zoom in a bright orange jail shirt and blue face mask. The 27-year-old with a short buzz cut raised a cuffed hand and swore to tell the truth.

After first rebuffing the government’s account of what happened, Martinez reconsidered. He then agreed to a statement read by prosecutor Richard W. Bennett that pegged him as the man some hostages identified as the boss of the operation. He was the man who had held eight people from four countries for days in a ramshackle north Houston, who showed off his loaded gun and rarely gave the detainees anything to eat as he hustled their relatives for additional funds.

Martinez pleaded guilty to two of the five counts against him — that he’d conspired with others to harbor undocumented immigrants and was himself an undocumented immigrant illegally in possession of firearm. Eskridge set his sentencing hearing for Sept. 17. Harris County prosecutors dismissed state charges against Martinez when the feds took the case. He has previous convictions on state charges.

An associate in the scheme, Eneas Ramos, 20, pleaded guilty in June to conspiring to harbor undocumented immigrants at the same location in the 1700 block of Warwick. He will be sentenced Aug. 18.

A third defendant, Demetrio Martinez-Bucio, remains at large.

Local police happened upon the operation after a woman reported she had been abducted at gunpoint March 16, 2020, at an after-hours club and driven by her kidnapper to the house in a black Dodge Charger. The woman, Liliana Romero, told officials she refused go to inside the house. The man drove on, she said, and she escaped and managed to get a cellphone image of his license plate.

Martinez was walking out of the house as police arrived. Inside the Charger officers found a loaded Ruger .40 caliber pistol. They then checked the house.

Department of Homeland Security officials got involved after it became clear to police that strongmen had been holding several immigrants hostage, depriving them of food, water and bathroom breaks. Their captives had traveled thousands of miles and invested thousands of dollars to make it to the U.S. Three had traveled from Sri Lanka, two from Mexico and one from Honduras.

The house had minimal furniture and one visible air mattress, according to authorities. Two armed guards kept them locked in a room and routinely threatened to kill them if they didn’t hand over additional money. All told agents they’d endured many travails before arriving at the stash house.

A Sri Lankan couple and a third man had traveled by plane to South America. The woman told a Homeland Security official she’d flown to Ecuador, took a bus to Colombia, walked to Panama and then handlers guided her through Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala. She floated across to Mexico on inner tubes and then came to a halt. She was held for 25 days at a camp in Chiapas, Mexico. Smugglers moved her to an armed stash house and said she needed another $10,000 to continue north.

An aunt sold some properties to bail her out. Then she spent a month captive in a stash house in Reynosa until she could come up with $4,000. In McAllen, smugglers extorted her for more money over 15 days until she’d made the journey to Houston and her fourth hostage situation. The man who took her was driving a black Dodge Charger.

A compatriot said he’d been imprisoned, beaten and harassed by government officials in Sri Lanka. His cellphone and money were stolen in Panama. Armed bandits threatened to kill him on a mountain trail if he didn’t give them cash. He had spent more than eight months traveling when officials found him at the Warwick house.

Federal officials said immigrants held in the stash house were allowed to remain in the U.S. under deferred action due to circumstances they endured.

gabrielle.banks@chron.com