This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
For Claudia Gómez, of Logan, the phone call rekindled hope after seven frustrating years of searching for her daughter, Brenda. Gómez says Brenda was kidnapped by her father.
On the phone was Ángela Cedeño-Jiménez, director of Missing Angels. She had seen a post by Gómez about her daughter on Missing Angels' Facebook page, and assured her that the nonprofit organization had helped find other victims of parental kidnapping. She gave Gómez the name of an investigator who she said could help her.
She contacted him Alfonso Álvarez Russi, of the Human Rights Eye Watch Agency. The agency advertised that it is an "international agency created and dedicated to defend human and civil rights" employing volunteers "without receiving any remuneration."
But over the next few months, Álvarez Russi would accept $5,000 from Gómez while accomplishing little toward locating Brenda.
"I feel defrauded," Gómez says now in hindsight while looking at the few pictures she keeps of her daugther in her modest mobile home.
Was she the victim of a scam exploiting distraught parents of missing children? The agencies involved in the case insist they are aboveboard and that payments were only enough to cover legitimate expenses. But one warned Gómez not to talk to the media, and the other won't explain why it stopped talking to Gómez once her money ran out.
Beginnings • In 2004, Gómez, an immigrant from El Salvador who is in the United States legally under a temporary protection status, sent her 3-year-old daughter for what was intended to be a weekend in Logan with her ex-husband. He disappeared with the girl instead. The mother's research showed he probably went to his native city of La Huacana, in the state of Michoacán, west of Mexico City.
Then in May, after seven years of fruitless searching, Gómez decided to post information about her daughter on a Facebook page she had found for Missing Angels.
That group is supposedly based in Florida, but the Better Business Bureau said it is not registered there, and Cedeño-Jiménez said she is located in California. The Internal Revenue Service has not assigned it an identification number typically provided to such nonprofits.
Wendy Jolley-Kabi, executive director of the Association of Missing and Exploited Children's Organizations (AMECO), has never heard of Missing Angels.org or Human Rights Eye Watch Agency, neither of which are members of AMECO.
Like Missing Angels, the Human Rights Eye Watch Agency has no IRS ID number and its only presence online is a Facebook page.
That page said it does volunteer work without expectation of pay contrary to the actions of Álvarez Russi, who asked Gómez to pay $1,063 for a consultation, among other expenses.
Gómez showed The Salt Lake Tribune receipts documenting that she paid for his airfare from Washington, D.C., to Utah, plus his costs for in-state travel, lodging and food.
Once he was in Utah, Álvarez Russi supposedly discovered that the kidnapping case had been closed by the Logan Police Department. He asked that it be reopened, and sought an arrest warrant for Gómez's ex-husband, Mariano Madrigal Becerril.
On Oct. 21, 1st District Judge Kevin K. Allen issued a warrant for Becerril on charges of custodial interference.
More and more money • Álvarez Russi told Gómez in a July 25 email that he had to travel to Mexico immediately to locate her daughter and begin "the rescue operation." For that, he said he needed a $1,000 deposit because rules of the Human Rights Eye Watch Agency "do not permit using donated money to cover travel costs."
With hope of seeing her daughter rekindled, Gómez said she blindly trusted Álvarez Russi and kept giving him more and more money depositing a total $4,000 in three transactions into the account of Human Rights Eye Watch Agency in Chase Bank, according to her receipts.
Gómez said Álvarez Russi called her in August supposedly from Mexico and said he had located her daughter. But he said he needed more money because what she had sent him was not enough.
That's when she told him she had no more money to give him. Then Álvarez Russi cut off all communication.
"I have called him many times to see what happened with the investigation of my daughter, but he doesn't respond, nor has he returned my messages," she said.
Jolley-Kabi, of AMECO, said there are many credible, ethical and effective nonprofits assisting families searching for missing children. They often depend on the generosity of donors to support their work and do not charge fees. "It is a tragedy that other groups take advantage of vulnerable families who simply want to find their missing loved ones," she said.
Marcia Slacke, executive director of Child Quest International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention and recovery of missing, abused and exploited children for 22 years in San Jose, Calif., called it "disgusting" that a group claiming to provide free assistance would ask for large amounts of money.
Excuses • The Tribune contacted Álvarez Russi by telephone. Initially, he denied receiving money from Gómez but when he was told the newspaper had copies of bank deposits to prove it, he argued that "these payments were only for travel expenses."
He refused to give details about his organization or even where it is located. He said he went to Mexico in search of the girl and that his job was only to locate her and give that information to Mexican authorities.
However, he said he never went to La Huacana where it is believed the girl resides because, according to him, it is a dangerous area controlled by drug cartels.
"I have no obligation to communicate with Mrs. Gómez because I have no more details about her case," he said in Spanish when asked why he had not returned her calls.
Missing Angels • Cedeño-Jiménez, director of Missing Angels, communicated with The Tribune by email. She said her group has done volunteer work for 16 years to search for missing children and educate Latinos about the trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. But she gave no details proving Missing Angels is legally recognized as a nonprofit organization.
"We work as a group with the Association of Argentine Investigators from the [Patagonia], through me on the border of Mexico," she wrote in Spanish. "If a judge asked me, I'd have to give that [additional information on where I work], but otherwise, I won't do that for [my own] safety."
She also said she was unaware of the payments Gómez made to Álvarez Russi for a "supposed rescue operation."
"It's been months since I recommended that Mrs. Gómez talk with Mr. [Álvarez] Russi, whom I know from when he worked [as an investigator] with Telemundo," a TV network, she wrote. He "helped us rescue two children in Mexico and one in the United States. … I recommended that Mrs. Gómez talk to him, but never to pay that kind of money."
In a second email, Cedeño-Jiménez wrote, "The reason that I recommended [Álvarez] Russi was because [Gómez] felt she was being cheated by someone else. I felt she needed to talk to someone with experience in this area, not to have her seek someone to rescue Brenda."
Cedeño-Jiménez did not respond to a question whether she urged Gómez not to talk to the press because it could endanger the case and her daughter. In her Facebook account, Cedeño-Jiménez wrote, "Mrs. Gómez: I demand that you tell the truth that I never asked a penny for my help. You, with all the troubling behavior by Mr.[Álvarez] Russi, decided behind my back to negotiate or were ordered by Mr.[Álvarez] Russi without communicating any details to me."
Gómez, meanwhile, is devastated because she is no closer to getting her daughter back and is out thousands of dollars.
"I feel deceived with the promise of finding my daughter," she says, "and they only took my money."
If your child is abducted
• File a missing person report with your local police and request an investigation.
• Request your child be entered into the FBI's National Crime Information Center computer. (NCIC)
• If you suspect the child has been taken out of the country, call the U.S. Department of State.
• Contact the state Missing Children's Clearinghouse.
• Contact the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST.
• Consider asking the police or prosecutor to file criminal charges against the abductor.
• Obtain a court order for custody of your child if you do not already have legal custody.
• Contact your state vital statistics bureau to have the child's birth certificate flagged.
Source: Utah Department of Public Safety, Bureau of Criminal Identification