Suspect Nicholas Chase Cunningham is married to a “relative” of the victim’s brother and was using his girlfriend‘s house to stash the captive.
“The system failed,” admits Philip Dupuis, Conroe’s chief of police. “We do this job to help people and it doesn’t always go our way. Whether it was accidental or not, the man is not going home to his family.”
Neighbor Monique McKnight awoke to an explosion. “It sounded like an explosion and that was about 3 or 4 o’clock this morning.” Another Trinity Gardens resident added, “we just heard gunshots. It was like four, pop, pop, pops.” One heck of a way to be introduced to the neighbors that had just recently moved in.
Nobody is giving a reason for the gunfire. An FBI news conference Thursday did reveal that “Valladares’ hands had still been bound in duct-tape when agents arrived” and shot him. “He later died at the hospital.”
They seemed like a normal family. “A father, mother and two school-aged children.” The most unusual thing the neighbors noticed was the girl attended school but the boy didn’t. “When the little girl would catch the bus, he would still be there, so he wasn’t at school,” McKnight reports. Both children reportedly witnessed the killing.
They didn’t have the slightest clue the “family” also had a hostage bound with gray duct tape.
Flashback to the previous morning. 47-year-old Ulises Valladares was helping his 12-year-old son to get ready for school. The boy “heard a knock at the door,” he told police. When his father answered it, “two men tackled him to the ground.” The men had guns.
Both were then trussed with tape while the men turned the house upside down, looking for valuables. One of the men told the boy’s father that his brother “owed them $8,000.”
After about 20 minutes, the pair “placed a black Nike sweater over the father’s head and escorted him outside.” Along with them went “a PlayStation, an Xbox, a sword, and a hat.”
After ordering the boy not to call the cops, they left. It took him at least 20 minutes to “free himself with scissors.” He ran to the neighbor who did call the police, just as the uncle was returning home.
Over the next three hours, calls came in. The first began, “Is this Ernesto?” in Spanish. “The known male told him to listen and this would be easy,” police reports say. He told Ernesto Valladares that he was with “El Cartel Del Golfo” — the Gulf Cartel in Mexico — and demanded $20,000 ransom for his brother’s safe return.”
They put Ulises on the phone and he said he was okay but “gather up the money and do not call the police.”
The uncle told the man he didn’t have the cash. “Figure it out,” the voice scolded, also telling Ernesto that “the house was being watched and they would kill his brother if they discovered that police were involved.”
The FBI traced the next call using a stingray and tracked the signals to a nearby motel. Cunningham and his accomplice Jimmy Tony Sanchez were soon in custody but there was no sign of Ulises.
After discretely slapping the suspects around as much as the law will allow, Cunningham pointed the feds to his girlfriend’s house. Sophia Perez Heath was keeping him on ice as a favor.
Uncle Ernesto swears up and down he didn’t owe anyone any money. But, he does seem to be a little nervous about a car. He told authorities under questioning that “he recently lent a relative money for house repairs and the relative repaid him with a car that he registered in his name.”
This may be the same “relative” Cunningham is married to. Did Cunningham’s wife give Ernesto her car? Maybe a car still owned by Cunningham? Did she find out about the girlfriend and give Ernesto Cunningham’s car? Stay tuned for next week’s exciting episode.
Cunningham, Sanchez, and Heath were all charged with aggravated kidnapping. The two men were additionally charged with aggravated robbery.
The District Attorney, Brett Ligon, promises to “look into the possibility of murder charges in the case since the suspect’s alleged actions led to the victim’s death.”
The good news is “we’ve got the bad guys,” Ligon points out. “Even though it’s good work on behalf of Conroe Police Department, it’s still a tragedy.”
Cunningham and Sanchez were denied bond at a hearing Friday. Heath’s bond is set at $1 million, and she would be required to wear an ankle bracelet if she makes bail.