SAN JOSE, Calif. (KRON) — One of the accused kidnappers who snatched a baby from his grandmother’s home allegedly planned to keep the baby as her own, a police officer testified for a preliminary hearing Monday.
The hearing revealed a motive for the first time behind a brazen and disturbing kidnapping on April 25, 2022. Brandon Cuellar’s disappearance set off a frantic 20-hour search across San Jose before good Samaritans helped police find the 3-month-old infant. Police Chief Anthony Mata described the kidnapping as “every parent’s worst nightmare.”
Yesenia Guadalupe Ramirez, 43, and Jose Ramon Portillo, 28, are charged with staging multiple kidnapping attempts while Baby Brandon’s mother was at work and grandmother was distracted.
San Jose Police Dept. Officer Eduardo Reyes testified in court Monday that Ramirez, her boyfriend Francisco Marquez, and her second boyfriend Portillo, were involved in a love triangle involving elaborate lies and cheating.
Reyes interrogated Marquez at the police station on April 27, one day after Baby Brandon was found hidden and unharmed inside Portillo’s home at 3365 Mather Drive in San Jose. According to Marquez, Ramirez told him she was pregnant with his child and gave birth in March.
Marquez said he moved into Ramirez’s home on April 23. When he asked his girlfriend why their baby wasn’t anywhere to be found, she replied that the baby was still in the hospital. Ramirez showed Marquez photographs of Baby Brandon on her cellphone and claimed he was their baby, who they named Angel.
“She said the baby was at the hospital receiving medical treatment, and that she was going to pick him up later two days later, on the 25th,” Reyes testified.
Ramirez and Marquez had been dating for four years in an “on-again, off-again” relationship, according to defense attorneys. Marquez told police that he knew his girlfriend often lied to him, but stayed with her because he was in love with her.
On one occasion, Marquez returned to San Jose from a work-related trip in Los Angeles early. When he arrived at Ramirez’s front door, Portillo slammed the door shut in his face. “He caught her cheating, essentially?” a defense attorney asked Reyes. “Correct,” Reyes replied.
Reyes said Ramirez also lied to Marquez about other fake pregnancies and fake children before the kidnapping incident.
“He believed he had three children with Ms. Ramirez. He believed he had twins with Ms. Ramirez, but he never saw the twins or met the twins,” Reyes testified.
When he confronted his girlfriend about the twins’ whereabouts, Ramirez told him a story claiming she was deported by immigration officials before she gave birth, Reyes testified. Ramirez explained that when she attempted to return to the U.S., she was injured in a vehicle accident and fell into a coma. Ramirez said CPS officials took custody of the children while she was in a coma, and the twins were adopted by another family, Reyes testified.
Reyes said he found photographs of a baby in Ramirez’s phone. When defense attorneys asked the officer if he could confirm that the baby was in fact Baby Brandon, Reyes replied, “To be honest, I don’t have any children. All children look alike to me.”
Reyes testified that he showed the photographs to Brandon’s mother, Jessica Ayala, and Ayala confirmed that she was the infant’s real mother.
Marquez had no idea that his girlfriend had kidnapped the infant — and wasn’t the infant’s mother at all — until he saw widespread media news headlines reporting the missing baby, Reyes testified.
“He was in shock. It was an awakening for him,” Reyes said of Marquez.
Defense attorney Cody Salfen told Judge Nona Klippen that Marquez lacks credibility as a witness. Salfen stated that Marquez was also cheating with other women, including one woman who accused him of domestic violence.
Ramirez and Portillo both appeared in the Santa Clara County Hall of Justice for Monday’s hearing wearing jail inmate clothing and listened to testimony through a Spanish language interpreter. Based on testimony from this week’s preliminary hearing, Judge Klippen will decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to move forward with a criminal trial.
“There are few things more terrifying than someone stealing a child, as if they’re a car or wallet. The more we investigate this case … the more troubling it gets,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said.
Shortly after her baby was found safe, Jessica Ayala told KRON4 that she was overjoyed to have her baby back. “My life is full of uncertainty. I feel like I learned a huge lesson as a mother to not trust people. Because you can never truly know someone,” Ayala told KRON4.
Brandon was kidnapped from his grandmother’s Elm Street apartment on April 25 while his grandmother was busy unloading shopping bags from her car. The grandmother alerted police.
A neighbor’s security camera showed a mysterious man entering the apartment with an infant car seat and carrying the baby away. San Jose police immediately released the surveillance video to the public and media hoping that someone could identify the man.
San Jose Police Det. Catherine Van Brande testified Monday that when she arrived at the grandmother’s apartment, the grandmother was “visibly in distress.” Ramirez was sitting next to the grandmother “consoling” her, Brande said. Ramirez reportedly befriended Brandon’s mother and grandmother because they were members of the same church.
Detectives learned that Ramirez had gone shopping with Brandon’s grandmother and Brandon just before the kidnapping. While the two women were shopping, Ramirez exchanged WhatsApp text messages with Portillo notifying him of their activities and whereabouts, prosecutors said. Brande said when she searched Ramirez’s “sparkly-cased iPhone,” she found a contact for Portillo labeled “Mi Amor.”
Brande said “Mi Amor” sent text messages to Ramirez on the same day as the kidnapping, and previous text messages appeared to have been deleted.
Baby Brandon was missing for 20 hours before a tip from witnesses helped police find the tiny infant inside Portillo’s home.
The April 25 kidnapping was the duo’s third attempt at kidnapping the infant, according to prosecutors.
During one of the failed attempts, Portillo posed as a fake Child Protective Services worker who demanded to take custody of the baby, according to investigators. Brandon’s family was suspicious of the man and refused to hand Brandon over.
San Jose police initially arrested Ramirez, Portillo, and Ramirez’s husband, 37-year-old Baldomeo Sandoval, in connecting to Brandon’s kidnapping. Defense attorneys told KRON4 that Sandoval and Ramirez are legally married and estranged. Prosecutors declined to file any charges against Sandoval after concluding that he was not involved in the conspiracy.
Ramirez and Portillo have pleaded not guilty to three counts of attempted kidnapping, one count of kidnapping, conspiracy, and robbery. Prosecutors filed a fourth attempted kidnapping charge against the duo on Monday because newly-uncovered evidence showed they also allegedly tried to take Baby Brandon while his family was attending a church service.
Key witnesses slated to testify
Francisco Marquez – Ramirez’s boyfriend who believed they shared three children together, including Baby Brandon.
Jessica Ayala – Baby Brandon’s real mother.
Victoria Mejia – Baby Brandon’s grandmother who reported the infant missing to police.
San Jose Police Dept. Officer Eduardo Reyes – Unraveled the love triangle between Ramirez, Marquez, and Portillo.
San Jose Police Det. Catherine Van Brande – Combed through cellphone text messages exchanged between the two accused kidnappers that allegedly revealed their conspiracy.