URBANA, Ill. (WCIA) — The feeling of missing a loved one is a hard emotion to cope with, whether you’re separated by time or space. But when it’s a physical, heavily-secured border forcing you apart, it can add a whole other level of hopelessness.
It was a high-risk situation. Both undercover and uniformed officers staked out the Circle K for hours until pinpointing a suspicious van.
Inside it? The son, 6 other people, plus the suspect: 27-year-old Felipe De Jesus Guevara Sanchez.
“When it was decided the victim was going to come find his family, that’s when I think things took turn for the worst,” says UIPD Lt. Joe McCullough.
It was a risk they were willing to take.
In the fall, a couple made their way from Chicago to Urbana in desperate need of help. They did a quick Google search of the nearest police station. That lead them to the U of I Department.
“They hadn’t seen their son in over 10 years. He had lived in Mexico. They had lived here,” says Lt. McCullough. “They had found out he wanted to come to the United States. They had arranged a payment plan to get him here via another group. The group who was bringing the individual to this area demanded more money or the parents would never see their son again.”
Over $7,000 wired over a span of just a few weeks, but the nightmare of threats, demands, and extortion continued.
After a translator helped bridge the language barrier, U of I officers knew immediately that this wasn’t the average walk-in complaint.
The parents told police that the people keeping their 25-year-old son captive arranged for them to meet at a gas station on Cunningham Avenue.
“Probably within an hour, we were on scene conducting different surveillance techniques,” says UIPD Detective Ty Ledbetter.
They made an arrest and began the questioning before Guevera Sanchez was taken to the Champaign County Jail.
They also got stories from all victims.
Police reports say the son told officers he was brought over the border by Los Zetas, a notorious drug cartel — something he was scared to admit for fear of retaliation.
He and others swam across the Rio Grande at night, walked through the desert, and slept outside before reaching Texas, eventually making their way to Illinois.
Those reports also detail a recorded phone call Guevara Sanchez made while detained. He and another person talk about telling his lawyer the truth, including who gave him the job to transport people in the van. Guevara Sanchez says he’ll be physically hurt if he does that.
“The individuals in the car who were victims of this, who may have been victims of this, and that we identified as victims of this, are staying willingly with the person transporting them because that’s the only hope to find their family,” says Lt. McCullough. “They’re not going to report this type of activity to police unless something gets out of hand.”
And it did. So, what happens next when you fall victim to this kind of crime?
WCIA spoke with the Chicago-based immigration lawyer representing the 25-year-old son.
Christine Contreras wouldn’t comment on the specifics of this family’s case to avoid putting them at risk, but she breaks down the possibilities.
The first one she says comes to mind is what’s called a ‘U visa.’ It’s for undocumented victims of crimes that happen within the United States, and theres a number of qualifying crimes.
“In a situation such as the one you’re speaking about, it would be like extortion, false imprisonment, trafficking, being held hostage, involuntary servitude, [or] kidnapping,” says Contreras.
The list goes on. To get a U visa, you have to give reliable info of the criminal activity and be likely to be helpful to law enforcement agencies carrying out the investigation.
There’s also a ‘T visa.’
“Here, you have to show that you’ve been subject to severe trafficking. How that’s defined is the use of force, fraud…[or] coercion for sex trafficking…involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, [or] slavery,” explains Contreras.
Proving that you have suffered extreme mental or physical harm, and would be in danger if removed from the U.S. also play a big factor here.
Both types of visas allow you to eventually apply for residency, but both are in short supply with only a limited number of each type granted per year.
“You want to find justice and you want to figure out the best and safest way to do that,” says Lt. McCullough.
We reached out to the FBI office in Springfield to get more information on the other victims and suspects. They said because this case is still active, they cannot comment on it.
UIPD did say that besides the 25-year-old son, authorities are still sorting out who exactly were the victims in the van.