Hostages recall harrowing burglary attempt

January 27, 2012

At 71, Thomas Sweeney is a big man. Despite a heart condition, it took four armed thugs to restrain him Monday morning when would-be burglars broke into his Escazú home in broad daylight, tied him up, and held him and his 63-year-old business associate, Jeannette Álvarez, hostage in a harrowing five-hour ordeal that ended peacefully with the arrest of the assailants.

The quick action of a handyman working at the home, who snuck out the back while the attack was in progress, helped alert police, who surrounded the house while burglars were loading a taxi with stolen items.

“The doorbell rang; I opened the door, and one person walked through. I was walking up to him to ask him what he wanted, and the next thing I knew he pulled a gun, and two other people ran through the door. So I ran back inside the wrought-iron door on the house and tried to lock it, but they pushed it in and the three of us got into a big fight,” Sweeney said.

A fourth assailant – a taxi driver who was waiting outside in the getaway vehicle – rushed in to help subdue Sweeney. After beating him, the attackers choked Sweeney until he passed out, then tied him up. 

“[The assailants] were told that there was gold, silver and lots of plata [money] here,” said Sweeney, who owns the Escazú-based Spanish Eyes marriage agency. “I said, ‘There isn’t any money here, there isn’t any gold and there isn’t any jewelry. You’ve been misinformed.’ And so they said they were going to kill us unless we revealed where it was.”

Álvarez also was forced to sit down with her head covered by a towel during the entire ordeal, which began just before midday. Without a watch, she lost track of time. By the time a special tactical unit of the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) freed the two hostages at 4:30 p.m., five hours had passed.

“Throughout the entire process, I prayed. I did what they told me to do and I just prayed. It’s over and God is great,” Álvarez, known by many of her friends as “Purita,” said.

Sweeney, a former Burger King marketer from the U.S. state of Michigan, moved to Costa Rica 12 years ago. He has lived at the house, located in the Bello Horizonte neighborhood of Escazú, southwest of San José, for eight years. Álvarez is a bilingual expatriate from Texas. A 2007 Tico Times story profiled their company, Spanish Eyes (TT, July 6, 2007).

Henrry Mora, 29, who was working in an adjacent property at the time of the invasion, said he heard a dog barking and saw two men enter the home. He also saw a taxi arrive, which remained in front of the house in an area cordoned off by police. Mora said he was asked by police to leave the area.

After being tipped off by the employee who escaped, several units of the National Police surrounded the house, along with OIJ negotiators, a Red Cross team and several ambulances. The four burglars asked for food and cigarettes. 

Inside the house, once the assailants realized they were surrounded, their attitude changed, Sweeney said.

“Before [police arrived], their attitude was that they were going to kill us,” Sweeney said. “After, they basically said, ‘Will you say something nice about us if we surrender,’ and I said there’s nothing nice to say about you. And he said, ‘Well, how about if we give you back everything we took?’ And I said, ‘Well that’d be a good start.’”

The would-be burglars then unloaded stolen TV sets, computer monitors and other items from the getaway car and returned them to the house. They brought Sweeney heart medication. Then they turned themselves in.

Police took four men with the last names Borden, Castro, López and Rodríguez into custody shortly after Sweeney and Álvarez were removed from the house. Borden was arrested four months ago on a firearms charge and obtained conditional release from jail. He was required to spend one night per week in a Puntarenas jail, the daily La Nación reported.

A judge sentenced the four men to six months preventive detention.

With cuts and bruises to his face and torso, Sweeney was taken to San Juan de Dios Hospital in San José, where he was treated and released. Álvarez was also treated for minor injuries. 

“The situation is totally under control thanks to the negotiations of our OIJ agents, who were able to negotiate [with the gunmen] and free the hostages [who are] in relatively good condition,” OIJ spokeswoman Marisel Rodríguez said after the two hostages were released. 

“I’m pretty sore [and] probably will be sore for the next couple days,” Sweeney said. “I’ve got black and blue marks, but I survived.”

Alberto Font contributed to this story.

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