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Xavier Magazine | September 26, 2017

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Vince Presutti and Juan Jose Zuniga

Many of the cases Vince Presutti worked during his 25 years as an FBI agent involved split-second decisions. One such decision, which would determine the fate of an 11-month old baby, had to be made in the time it took to fill a tank of gas.

The case began when Presutti’s field office in New York received a call from a mother claiming that her child had been kidnapped. The house wasn’t far away, so Presutti and some other agents went over to investigate. The mother said some men had broken into her house, tied up her and her husband and taken their baby, Cruz Mendez, for a ransom of half a million dollars. They left in a taxi.

Presutti set up a command post in the house, with the equipment to record and trace incoming phone calls from the kidnappers. Multiple FBI divisions mobilized for the case, which would eventually involve about 200 agents. Agents called every taxi company in the area, before they found one that had taken a fare from the woman’s house. The driver was able to give them an address. When agents interviewed neighbors, one of them said he had seen men leave the house with baggage. Flight manifests revealed that some men and a baby had boarded a plane in Newark bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico, on the same day. Presutti took down their names and flew down to San Juan himself.

“It was a lot of old fashioned police work—following leads and doing interviews,” Presutti says. “It’s a tedious process, to run an investigation like that. But things happen so fast, and so many people are involved that you have to keep a timeline so that you can walk into a room and look up on the wall and see all the things that have happened in the last two hours, and see the things that need to be done.”

Presutti says the log from that case is filled with entries—about one every 15 minutes. “It’s daunting, really,” he says. “In a case like that there’s so much going on at one time, it’s a challenge to follow all the leads.”

In San Juan, Presutti and the agents under his command were able to stall the kidnappers long enough to trace their phone calls. “It took several days,” he said. “It took a lot of psychology, it took a lot of conversations to keep the guy on the hook. He said he was going to kill the baby several times.”

By the 11th day of the kidnapping, agents determined the phone calls were coming from one of three houses in San Juan. Surveillance teams monitored the activity in all three. Finally, undercover operatives saw a car leave one of the houses with several women and a baby inside. Agents followed the car to a gas station, where the women stopped to fill up their tank. A closer look determined that the kidnapped baby was in the vehicle.

When the agents radioed the information back to headquarters, Presutti says, it was time for a crucial decision: “Do we take the baby, or do we follow the car with the baby in it to see if it would lead us to the kidnappers?”

Several people in the San Juan bureau wanted to keep following the baby. Presutti and the agents at the station wanted to take it while they had the chance to do so safely. Before the tank was full, Presutti ordered the field agents to take the baby and arrest the women. “It was absolutely the right thing to do,” Presutti says. The baby was taken to a hospital, where it was treated for head lice and dehydration before reuniting with his parents, 11 days after he had been kidnapped. “Those were a lot of hours in those 11 days,” Presutti says.

It was a good day for the family of Cruz Mendez, but the kidnapper was still at large. At that point, the FBI had determined the chief suspect behind the kidnapping was Puerto Rico’s top fugitive, Juan Jose Zuniga, who had been on the lam for a decade.

“Now it was my job to find him, knowing that San Juan wasn’t able to find him for 10 years,” Presutti says. “I was intent on finding him.”

He cut a deal with one of the arrested women. Five months later, she was able to get close enough to Zuniga to know where he would be at a certain place and time. The FBI was there to arrest him.

During interrogation, Zuniga coughed up information on 66 murders, 22 of which he committed himself—his first when he was only 17. Zuniga was the co-leader of the Solano Gang, a group that Presutti describes as “probably the most violent, notorious, dangerous gang in all of Puerto Rico.”

Thanks to Presutti, Zuniga is now in prison. “He’s away for the rest of his life,” Presutti says. “He’ll never get out.”

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