It’s a familiar scene in Phoenix, and all over the country: Early in the morning, day laborers congregate in the parking lot outside of a Home Depot, hoping to find work. Landscapers, contractors and construction crews stop by on their way to job sites and grab as many people as they need, offering them a flat fee or a meager hourly wage for a hard day’s labor. The setup is rife with abuse, and the laborers, often immigrants with little knowledge of English, frequently find themselves on the losing end of exploitative arrangements. Wage theft is common, and workers have become targets for robbers because they are famously reluctant to report crimes to the police.
And, as one day laborer from the Mexican state of Sonora learned last week, things can go very wrong after you jump into a stranger’s truck.
Phoenix police say a couple held the man at gunpoint, sexually assaulting him and then blackmailing him with photos. And they say it’s not the first time the pair have done this.
On April 8, the man was looking for work at a Home Depot on the west side of Phoenix when police said Brenda Acuna-Aguero, 39, picked him up, telling him that she and her husband needed help moving some items inside their home. Once they got to the woman’s ordinary-looking ranch house, the situation quickly took a strange turn.
The man, who The Washington Post is not naming because he is a victim of sexual assault, later told police that Acuna-Aguero had started to make sexual comments to him, telling him that “it was her fantasy to have sex with a laborer.” Uncomfortable with the situation, he initially played along. Once he realized that she was serious about wanting to have sex with him, though, he told her straight out that it wasn’t going to happen.
Then, the woman’s husband burst in the room, clutching a black rifle. Jorge Murrieta-Valenzuela, 45, placed the barrel of the gun on the laborer’s chest and told him that he would shoot him if he didn’t have sex with his wife, according to a police affidavit.
The laborer complied, and Murrieta-Valenzuela took photos and filmed them with his cellphone while directing them into different positions, police wrote. Afterward, the couple forced the victim to go through his phone, point out his wife’s number and call her so that they could make sure that it really was his spouse. Then they confiscated his Mexican visa and Sonoran driver’s license, telling him that they were going to hold onto the documents until he came back and had sex with Acuna-Aguero again.
The victim was told to return the next day at 9 a.m., or else the couple would send the photos of him having sex with Acuna-Aguero to his wife in Mexico, the affidavit says. They said they would get Viagra for him, and Murrieta-Valenzuela gave the man a ride back to the Home Depot. Shortly after dropping him off, though, he sent the laborer a message on WhatsApp, saying that he had changed his mind. The man needed to come back to their house right away, he insisted.
When the laborer didn’t reply, Murrieta-Valenzuela allegedly started to threaten him, saying that he needed to come over and have sex with Acuna-Aguero in the next 10 minutes unless he wanted his wife to see the revealing photographs. The man ignored the apparent attempt to blackmail him. Not long afterward, he heard from his wife: Someone had sent her pictures of him having sex with another woman.
A friend eventually gave the man a ride back to the couple’s home. But Murrieta-Valenzuela, angry that the laborer hadn’t come alone, reportedly refused to give back his visa and driver’s license. Finally, the victim called the police.
Investigators quickly determined that the scenario that the victim described hadn’t been an isolated occurrence. After obtaining a search warrant for Murrieta-Valenzuela’s cellphone, they discovered photos and videos indicating that the couple had “participated in a similar incident” in March, with a victim whom detectives were unable to identify. During an interview with police, Murrieta-Valenzuela admitted that the couple had done the same thing on at least four occasions with “other random men,” the affidavit says.
According to the criminal complaint filed in Maricopa County Superior Court on Friday, Murrieta-Valenzuela confirmed all the key details of the most recent victim’s story, telling detectives that he had been “participating in a sexual fantasy scenario” with his wife. Police found photos and videos on his phone that backed up the laborer’s account, including photos that Murrieta-Valenzuela had taken of the man’s visa and driver’s license.
They also noted that Acuna-Aguero had a bruise on her upper left thigh and what appeared to be scars or burn marks on her stomach, which matched with what the victim had told them.
At first, Acuna-Aguero claimed that the encounter with the day laborer had initially been consensual, and that her husband had watched from another room before coming in with a rifle and ordering the victim to have sex with her again, this time at gunpoint. She told police that she had no idea that Murrieta-Valenzuela had planned on confronting the man with a gun.
But when detectives told her that they had video evidence from previous encounters that suggested otherwise, she admitted that she had been in on the plan. The rifle was only intended to scare the men, not to hurt them, she insisted.
Acuna-Aguero and Murrieta-Valenzuela each face felony charges of sexual assault, aggravated assault and unlawful recording of a person, and are being held on $250,000 bond. Both have been assigned court-appointed attorneys, who couldn’t be reached for comment late Wednesday.