LAND O'LAKES — The call came just after 3 p.m. March 7. Heather Jennings doesn't usually pick up her cellphone at work, but this time she did. She didn't think to check the incoming number as she raised the phone to her ear.
The man's voice on the other end was quick and winded.
"Miss! Miss!" the man said. "Your son has just been in a car accident."
"Oh my God," she said. "Where are you? What are you talking about?"
Jennings doesn't remember if she gave her son's name or if the caller already knew it. But her 19-year-old son Michael came up in the conversation. The man told Jennings her son was riding with a friend when they hit a BMW that belonged to the man's friend. Michael's friend got away, the man told her, but they caught Michael.
She could hear screaming and fast-paced Spanish in the background.
Jennings didn't know this was a scam, that such callers had targeted at least one other person in Pasco County, and that these suspects had an elaborate setup to elude authorities. She just wanted her son back, safe and secure.
The caller identified himself as a gang member. He said Michael needed to learn a lesson.
The caller demanded $1,500 from Jennings. If she hung up or called anyone, the man said, he would kill Michael. If she did exactly as she was told, they would release him at Trinity Medical Center.
"Your son will be all right," the voice said. "Get in the car, and do what we say to do."
Jennings' heart sank. Her face went cold.
He said to calm down so she wouldn't attract attention. She said she didn't have $1,500. All she could send was the $300 in her bank account. He said to wire the money from her bank.
Jennings rushed out of her workplace, telling her boss that her son was in a crash and she needed to leave. While she did, she peeled the phone from her ear and peeked at the number: (305) 979-6967, a Miami number.
With the man still on the phone, Jennings took out $300 from her bank and went to Publix on State Road 54 in Lutz. He said she would be getting another call from another number and hung up.
A few minutes later her phone buzzed again. The number: (440) 344-3652. It was another man who told her to wire the money via Western Union to Bayamon, Puerto Rico, where a woman named Kelisha Larracuenta would pick it up.
The man told her to drive to Trinity Medical Center where she would find Michael. When she got there, the man hung up, leaving her standing in the parking lot, sobbing and alone.
Jennings called her boyfriend, who said he was at home with her son.
The teen had been there and safe the whole time.
She had been conned.
"All I was thinking was are they going to hurt him and I want my son back," she told the Times on Thursday. "How can you put people in this state of mind and get away with it?"
Chris Meizo, an economic crimes detective at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, spoke to reporters Thursday about the threatening phone calls. In the other, the caller from the 440 number told a man that his children were being held captive and to send money to Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. But the man found out his children were actually safe and never sent the money.
Miezo said detectives have tracked that phone number to Puerto Rico and are still investigating. He said anyone who receives similar calls should refuse to send money, then call 911.
"They're playing on the emotions," he said, explaining how the caller would bombard victims with commands and threats until they submitted.
"I'm not worried about my $300," Jennings said. "I want them stopped. I want them to stop playing on people's heart strings. To me, that's the worst part about the whole thing is that someone would terrorize me like that."
A Tampa Bay Times reporter called the 440 number and reached a group of men who continually handed the phone to one another and would not reveal their names. One of the men identified himself as the caller in the other cases. He threatened to come after the reporter for writing the story.
Asked why he made the calls, the man only said, "Cash money!"
Alex Orlando can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.