Home invasion victims faced hours of death threats

Jeannette Álvarez Tom Sweeney

The nightmare began with a doorbell ring from the outside gate of the rental property, something not uncommon in the upscale neighborhood of tenants Tom Sweeney and his coworker Jeannette Álvarez. After death threats, violence and a hostage-style standoff with police that lasted nearly five hours, Sweeney was firmly aware that the man for whom he had opened the security gate was there for anything but a cordial house call.

Ms. Álvarez and Sweeney were the victims of the home invasion in Bello Horizonte de Escazú Monday. Police, who surrounded the house after receiving an emergency notification, were eventually able to negotiate the safe release of the pair and the apprehension of the four suspects, identified as Borden Arias, Castro Obando, López Moreno and Rodríguez Ramírez. But Sweeney and Ms. Álvarez said that while they were inside the house they were not so sure they were going to make it out alive. They gave this account:

They kept saying we were all going to die.

Sweeney’s biggest mistake that day was opening the gate for a stranger about 11:30 a.m. But he didn’t realize the gravity of that mistake until it was too late. Sweeney heard the doorbell from the garage door gate in front. Without thinking too much about it he glanced at the outside gate and opened it part way with the electronic buzzer from the main house.

The 71-year-old Sweeney was at the property that day conducting business for his online matchmaking Web site spanisheyescostarica.com, working alongside his assistant, Ms. Álvarez, a Costa Rican in her 50s. Ms. Álvarez was in a sewing room alongside the main house, unaware of the stranger for the time being.

As Sweeney got closer to the visitor, he said he had second thoughts about the situation. The visitor was talking to Sweeney in Spanish, but Sweeney, a U. S. citizen from Florida, could not understand what the man was saying.

“Halfway down something didn’t seem right, so I turned around and he pulled a gun and started chasing me,” Sweeney said.

Two more men entered the property. The men also called on the assistance of a fourth man, who was driving the taxi in which they all arrived. Sweeney said his goal was to get behind the second gate in front of the house and lock the men out as well as retrieve a baseball bat he usually keeps in the entry way.

Instead, he was overpowered.

They beat Sweeney across the face, pistol whipped him in the head and then one man choked him until he fell unconscious. Sweeney said he awoke an unknown period of time later. He was bound with straps and duct tape.

The commotion attracted the attention of two other people on the property that day. A plumber working in the house heard the commotion and slipped out the back door, jumped the property fence and notified authorities. Ms. Álvarez, too, heard the dog barking in a frenzy and came out front to see why.

She was spotted by the men, quickly pushed to the ground, causing bruises to her body, and told to close her eyes. One of the men ordered her to lead him to her bedroom. There, the assailant threw a towel over her head and began demanding to know where her jewelry was. She kept insisting that apart from her wedding ring she only owned cheap costume jewelry that had no value.

Meanwhile the intruders were loading goods from the house into the taxi.

According to Ms. Álvarez, the men were also looking for cash. They said they were aware of the business Sweeney had and they wanted to know where the money was. Ms. Álvarez said she tried to explain to them that all the transactions are done over the Internet and the money is deposited into his bank in the United States.

I have to be thankful for how the Costa Rica police handled it. The outcome was good for me, bad for them.

Then the authorities arrived and surrounded the house. Ms. Álvarez and Sweeney, who had awakened and untied himself, said he promised not to resist further. He said that was when the situation became desperate for the robbers.. Sweeney said the men took to drinking and smoking pot for hours in the house while they decided what to do. Ms. Álvarez said from the conversations they were having she didn’t think the situation was going to end well.

“One called his girlfriend or wife and said he wanted to see his daughter because ‘This is not going to end well and everyone is going to die’,” Ms. Álvarez said. “They kept saying we were all going to die.”

Ms. Álvarez said she took that opportunity to talk to the man through the towel over her head. She tried to appeal to him that he could still manage to be a father. She said she didn’t know if it had an effect, but the men eventually decided, after hours talking with judicial agents, to mitigate the damage they had caused.

Sweeney said they began unloading everything from the taxi and returning it to the house in hopes that the police would only charge them with breaking and entering and not robbery. They returned the $160 in cash they had stolen from Sweeney. They also returned the ring they had taken from Ms. Álvarez.

Furthermore, they asked forgiveness from the pair.

“They were insistent that they wanted forgiveness and stressed they didn’t steal anything.” Ms. Álvarez said. “I was just frightened, and they wanted forgiveness, and I told them that I forgave them.”

Finally, Sweeney was released about 4:30 p.m.. Ms. Álvarez said she didn’t know if they were taking him to kill him or letting him go. She said throughout the ordeal she had been more concerned for his life because he had seen the assailants and could identify them. She said she never saw any of the men.

Ms. Álvarez was released as well. Both were brought to hospitals for minor treatment, but both were back at work Tuesday. Sweeney said the experience didn’t give him any regrets about moving to Costa Rica from Florida 11 years ago to retire.

“I’m not discouraged about Costa Rica; I’m not discouraged about this neighborhood,” Sweeney said. “I have to be thankful for how the Costa Rica police handled it. The outcome was good for me, bad for them.”

The four suspects received six months of preventative detention with pending charges of aggravated robbery, said the Poder Judicial. Three of the four have prior encounters with the justice system. One is on conditional release from prison.

The crime involving Ms. Álvarez and Sweeney was unusual because it happened in the daytime and ended in a hostage situation. However such home invasions are common.

Not even 10 hours after Sweeney was released and the men captured, two men tried to invade a home in Puntarenas occupied by the owner of a hotel. Shortly after 2 a.m., police got a call from the owner reporting that he had taken refuge in a bedroom.

The Fuerza Pública caught two prime suspects on a motorcycle a short time later based on a description from the would-be victim.

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