A group of drug dealers intent on recovering 50 kilograms of cocaine kidnapped an associate's grandparents from their home in northern New York, ferried them across the Canadian border through a tribal reservation, and held them hostage for two nights until police staged a rescue, U.S. authorities said.
Four men from Quebec and one from Plattsburgh, New York, face charges of kidnapping, forcible confinement and extortion for the abduction of James and Sandra Helm of Moira, a town of 3,000 residents about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the Canadian border, officials said.
In the criminal complaint against Graigory Brown, 50, of Plattsburgh, an FBI agent describes a harrowing series of events aimed at recovering a drug cache that, it turns out, had already been seized by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Brown's public defender didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The abduction came to light when James Helm, 76, failed to show up for work as town highway superintendent on Sept. 28. One of the couple’s sons went to their house to check on them, found the front door jimmied open and called state police. Troopers noted the bed was unmade, a jar of dog treats had been overturned in the master bedroom and the Helms were gone.
Surveillance video near the home showed a pickup truck, later identified as Brown’s, arriving there late Sunday. A trace of Helm’s cellphone showed it in a neighboring town around 11 p.m., then on the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation straddling the border, then out of the country.
The son who reported the couple missing got a phone call later Monday morning from a man police call “Co-Conspirator A,” who said he and his associates had the Helms and wanted to exchange them for 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of cocaine they believed “Individual-1” had stolen. As an alternative, they would accept $3.5 million, the cocaine’s value.
The court document doesn't identify “Individual-1” or specify his relationship to the Helms. But the couple's grandson, Macenzie Helm, 28, and his mother, Michelle Helm, had been arrested by DEA agents in South Burlington, Vermont, a week earlier. Court documents say they were transporting a duffle bag of cocaine for a larger organization. The bust wasn't publicized, so the traffickers didn't know the DEA had seized the cocaine.
Michelle Helm's lawyer, Richard Bothfeld, said she pleaded not guilty and was released pending trial. It's unclear whether Macenzie Helm has a lawyer to speak for him.
The couple's son received a series of additional calls and text messages, as well as a photo of his mother sitting in a chair with her husband standing beside her, authorities said.
By tracing the location of cellphones involved in the kidnapping, the Quebec provincial police found the house in Magog where the Helms were being held and arrested four Canadian men Sept. 29. At the house, investigators recognized the chair and some trees seen in the “proof of life” photo.
Sandra Helm, 70, told FBI agents she and her husband had been taken over roads and water with pillowcases or hoods over their heads.
“According to the complaint, Brown and his co-conspirators put an elderly couple through a terrifying ordeal,” Acting U.S. Attorney Antoinette T. Bacon said in announcing Brown's arrest Friday.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Brown, 50, on Oct. 15 in U.S. District Court in Plattsburgh. The four Canadian men were being held for a bail hearing Tuesday in provincial court in Montreal.
Reached by phone Tuesday, James Helm said he has been advised not to talk about the case. “We're doing all right,” he added.
“They seem to be doing fairly well,” Moira Town Supervisor Justus Martin said. “They're just trying to lay low and recover.”