SAN JOSE, Calif. (KRON) — Jose Portillo fell in love and began dating his first girlfriend when she asked him to commit an unthinkable crime: kidnap a stranger’s 3-month-old baby, his defense attorney said Monday.
Portillo, 28, met and fell in love with a manipulative older woman, Yesenia Ramirez, not long after he moved to San Jose. Ramirez, 43, already had an estranged husband and a boyfriend, but she convinced Portillo that she loved him too, and he should help her kidnap Baby Brandon from his grandmother’s home.
On Monday, a Santa Clara County judge sentenced Portillo to serve five years in prison for snatching the baby on April 25, 2022, and Ramirez to serve more than 13 years for masterminding the bizarre plot.
A love triangle between Portillo, Ramirez, and Ramirez’s boyfriend was detailed as the motives behind a crime that shocked their community and set off a frantic search for the baby. Ramirez befriended Brandon’s mother, Jessica Ayala, at their church after she found out Ayala was pregnant.
Police and the FBI later found Brandon unharmed inside Portillo’s bedroom. “Thank goodness there was no injury inflicted on the child. This was an extremely dangerous situation,” Judge Nona Klippen said.
Ramirez lied to her boyfriend, Francisco Marquez, when she claimed she gave birth to his son. Ramirez used the pregnancy ruse to ensure Marquez didn’t leave their relationship, prosecutors said. She needed Baby Brandon to make her lie believable, and she planned to keep the baby as her own, prosecutors said.
After Ramirez pleaded no contest last year, she was recorded in a jail call with Marquez. During the jail call, she lied again, saying her estranged husband forced her to kidnap the baby and held a gun to her head.
Ramirez publicly confessed to her crimes and apologized in court for the first time moments before she was sentenced. She sobbed for 40 minutes while reading her confession letter in Spanish to the judge. A court interpreter translated.
Ramirez said, “Last year, I did a series of stuff that was horrible. I planned the kidnapping of a child, a baby. The name of that baby is Brandon. A baby that I loved and took care of. A baby that belongs to a family that I loved and I worried for, a baby that wasn’t and will never be mine. A baby that doesn’t belong to me. I’m sorry for this baby, his mother, father, and all of his loved ones that I have hurt. I am sorry for others that I have manipulated, traumatized, due to my crimes and my actions. I am sorry truly. I kidnapped a baby and I know his family feared that they wouldn’t see their child again. I have spent every night of the past year without sleeping in jail. My thoughts have included profound emotions and genuine embarrassment and guilt. For the first time in my life, I looked deep inside to understand myself.”
Ramirez was still apologizing when Deputy District Attorney Rebekah Wise objected, asserting that Ramirez is a liar, and, “we are way past apologies.” The judge said, “let’s wrap it up,” and cut Ramirez off.
Portillo also made an apology. He told the judge, “I made bad decisions that hurt the people around me. I am very sorry for all the damage that I caused. I ask for forgiveness from the court and the parents of the baby. All this time I have been in jail, I have reflected about my life, I have learned more about Jesus Christ. By being in the cells of this jail, I’ve been crying every night asking God for an opportunity, that the court gives me the opportunity, to be released from jail.”
A defense attorney described Portillo as a “simple man” who grew up in a small agricultural town in El Salvador. He left the country to escape pressure from El Salvadorian gangs. He has a low IQ and was vulnerable to being manipulated and exploited by people like Ramirez, the defense said.
“Mr. Portillo is a much younger man, which created a perfect storm for these crimes to occur. Mr. Portillo was induced by Ms. Ramirez,” his defense attorney said.
Ramirez’s defense attorney, Cody Salfen, said his client was the victim of childhood physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. She was raped by her stepfather when she was 6 years old and her mother did nothing to stop it, according to the defense.
“Ms. Ramirez grew up in a broken home. She never had a home that she felt safe in. Repeated violence, sexual assault, abuse, by people that her DNA told her to trust for safety — her parents,” Salfen said.
Abuse and trauma results in children lying and manipulating later in life as a means of coping, and regaining control, Salfen said.
“Parents have an innate sense of duty to protect their children. When that threat has a face or name, the innate instinct is to eliminate that threat — eliminate Yesenia Ramirez,” Salfen said.
Salfen said, “Is Ms. Ramirez evil? No. She’s not a psychopath. She is a broken person, but she is not broken beyond repair. She’s worth fixing and she’s worth saving. It’s easy to dismiss a broken Yesania as ‘evil.’ But she is worthy and deserving of redemption. This is not a life case, she will be free someday. Tacking on additional nights and years in a prison cell is ineffective. It’s not a cure, it’s not a method of healing. Prolonged incarceration … further breaks an already-broken Yesenia. It’s counter-productive to justice.”
Judge Klippen said Portillo may have been following along with Ramirez’s plot, but he deserved prison time because he actively participated in several attempted kidnappings and the kidnapping itself. The judge noted that Portillo was the person who physically picked up Baby Brandon and carried the infant out of the grandmother’s house.
The judge also noted that Portillo bought his own disguise when he posed as a CPS worker at the baby’s home during one of the attempted kidnappings.
The baby’s mother, Jessica Ayala, did not attend Monday’s sentencing hearing. Ayala gave the judge a letter urging prison time for Ramirez. Ayala’s letter stated, “We live in fear that she will be free and can try to retaliate against myself and my family. I want my children to be safe in school and at home. I don’t want to live in fear that she will try to do that again. I understand we all deserve a second chance, but my children deserve to live in peace.”
The judge ordered both kidnappers to be taken into custody immediately and report to prison.
Last year Portillo and Ramirez pleaded no contest to all counts as part of a plea deal with the judge. The pleas were made after prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence against the duo at a preliminary hearing. Evidence included text messages exposing how they plotted and carried out the kidnapping. Portillo was also recorded on home surveillance cameras carrying Brandon in an infant car seat.