SAN JOSE, Calif. (KRON) — The two defendants in the kidnapping case of baby Brandon Cuellar pleaded no contest to all the counts facing them. Yesenia Guadalupe Ramirez and Jose Ramon Portillo pleaded no contest to eight counts against them including kidnapping, attempted kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping.
Ramirez faces up to 14 years in prison. Portillo faces up to five years. Sentencing fort the duo is set for Oct. 28 at 9 a.m.
The April attempt was one of several attempted kidnappings targeting a 3-month-old infant unfolded at a San Jose church where a young girl was killed in an exorcism, according to new charges filed by prosecutors this week.
A preliminary hearing is underway for Yesenia Guadalupe Ramirez and Jose Ramon Portillo who are charged with four failed attempts to kidnap Baby Brandon before they ultimately snatched him from his grandmother’s apartment on April 25, 2022, according to prosecutors.
The baby’s mother, Jessica Ayala, testified on Tuesday and brought her baby to court in a stroller. Baby Brandon, who is now 6-months-old, appeared happy and healthy.
Ayala testified that she met 43-year-old Ramirez through members of their small church, Iglesia Apostoles y Profetas. It’s the same church where, according to investigators, a 3-year-old girl was tortured to death when the pastor and girl’s mother attempted to cast “demons” out of her body through an exorcism last year.
So far, investigators have not found any connections between the murder of 3-year-old Arley and the kidnapping of Baby Brandon, other than their families attended the same church. Ramirez’s estranged husband, Baldomeo Sandoval, was also one of the pastors at the church and friends with Ayala.
Ramirez began showing up at Ayala’s home to be with Baby Brandon in March, around the same time that the baby’s father was sent off to prison.
Ramirez claimed that God told her to take care for the baby, Ayala testified. “She told me she was required to help me because I was going through a hard time since my husband was in prison,” Ayala testified through a Spanish interpreter.
Ramirez plotted to kidnap Baby Brandon after lying to her boyfriend, Francisco Marquez, that she had recently given birth and he was the father, San Jose Police Dept. Officer Eduardo Reyes testified.
When Marquez moved into Ramirez’s home on April 23 and asked why their baby was not home, she told her boyfriend that the baby was still in the hospital and she would pick him up on April 25, Reyes testified. Marquez was one of many men who Ramirez convinced had impregnated her.
“Numerous and various men believed they had birthed numerous children with defendant Ramirez,” Police Det. Catherine Van Brande testified Tuesday.
The April 25 kidnapping set off a frantic 20-hour search across San Jose by police, the FBI, the media, and the public.
Marquez was very confused when he called police on April 25 to ask why TV news reporters were reporting that “his” baby had been kidnapped and that his girlfriend was arrested. He told police that photos of Baby Brandon shown on the news were the same photos that Ramirez had sent him of their new baby, who they named Angel.
“He was very frustrated and confused (when) he contacted police believing he was the father of this child,” Van Brande testified.
‘Love Triangle’ or ‘Love Hexagon’?
Ramirez, Marquez, and Portillo were tangled in a love triangle, Reyes testified.
Marquez caught his girlfriend cheating on him with Portillo, but stayed with her because he loved her, according to police. Prosecutors illuminated the love triangle as an alleged motive for why Ramirez would want to steal someone else’s baby and why Portillo would join her conspiracy.
Like Marquez, 28-year-old Portillo was also in love with Ramirez, according to text messages displayed by prosecutors. Ramirez told Marquez that she gave birth to their son on March 3. Two days later, she convinced Portillo to help her kidnap a baby, according to text messages.
On March 5, Ramirez texted to Portillo, “Do you want to help me?” Portillo replied by texting, “Of course I want to help you because you are special to me.”
Portillo posed as a Child Protective Services employee on March 14, prosecutors said. He told Brandon’s mother that her baby needed to be taken away because he was in danger living with her, the mother testified. “I immediately called (CPS) to find out if that was true,” the mother testified, and she refused to hand her infant over.
Defense attorney Cody Salfen told KRON4 that the “love triangle” would more accurately be described as a “love hexagon.”
Ramirez is legally married and estranged from her husband, 37-year-old Baldomeo Sandoval. Marquez, meanwhile, had romantic relations with multiple other women in addition to Ramirez, a defense attorney said.
Salfen pointed out that when Baby Brandon was still missing, San Jose police looked into the church’s disturbing history of performing exorcisms as a possible motive for why a baby would suddenly vanish.
“It was discovered there was correlation to this church. We wanted to rule out that this would be the same fate for the baby,” Det. Van Brande testified.
Portillo and Ramirez were charged on Monday with a fourth count of attempted kidnapping because prosecutors say they uncovered evidence that the duo even tried to kidnap the baby while he was at church with his family.
Portillo waited outside of the church on April 2 while Ramirez, baby Brandon, and the baby’s family were inside attending a service.
“I am here. How do you want me to do it?” Portillo texted to Ramirez.
“When I tell you, take the baby carrier,” Ramirez allegedly replied.
Prosecutors did not say why or how the April 2 kidnapping attempt failed.
Two weeks later, Ramirez told the baby’s mother that she was going to take Brandon shopping for one hour, but she didn’t return with the infant until the next day.
“She took him and didn’t return. I was calling her, she didn’t answer,” Ayala testified.
Ayala called Ramirez’s estranged husband because she knew him through their church as well. The husband told Ayala that Ramirez told him she was in Sacramento and couldn’t bring the baby back until the following morning.
Ayala said she was very upset that her baby was gone for so long.
When Ramirez finally returned, “I told her … don’t come by and look for my baby,” Ayala testified.
A terrifying moment
On April 25, Portillo sneaked into the infant’s grandmother’s home while his grandmother was unloading shopping bags from her car with Ramirez, and his mother was away at work, according to police. Baby Brandon was hidden inside Portillo’s home for 20 hours before he was found unharmed by police.
The grandmother, Victoria Mejia, testified Tuesday afternoon about the terrifying moment she discovered that her grandson had disappeared from her Elm Street apartment.
“The child was no longer there. Just like that, they took him. I was yelling and yelling and yelling, ‘the baby, the baby is not here!'” Mejia said through a Spanish language interpreter.
Ramirez was attempting to drive away from the apartment building when Mejia yelled at her to stop and help look for the baby, according to Mejia.
The grandmother then ran and found the apartment building manager. “I ran downstairs. I said ‘Mora, the child! They stole the baby, they stole the baby from me.’ Mora called the police,” Mejia testified.
Deputy District Attorney Rebekah Wise asked, “Is it fair to say you were in a very frantic state?”
“Yes,” Mejia replied.
Mejia wiped tears from her eyes after she was allowed to step down from the witness stand.
Based on testimony and evidence presented at this week’s hearing, Judge Nona Klippen will decide whether prosecutors have enough evidence to move forward with a criminal trial.