New York grandparents are kidnapped and taken to Canada

Christine Hauser, The New York Times

Posted at Oct 08 2020 05:15 PM | Updated as of Oct 08 2020 05:30 PM

An image provided by New York State Police, James Helm Sr. and Sandra Helm, who were kidnapped from their home on Sept. 27, 2020. Their captors demanded the return of cocaine worth $3.5 million. They were freed after the authorities used cellphone data to track them to a house in Quebec. New York State Police via The New York Times

On Sept. 27, a group of men broke into a home in Moira, New York, a town of about 3,000 people near the Canadian border, and kidnapped the couple in their 70s who lived there, authorities said.

In what prosecutors described as a “terrifying ordeal,” the couple were driven into Quebec and ferried across the St. Lawrence River before they were taken by car to the province’s Eastern Townships. At one point, the kidnappers placed hoods or pillowcases over their captives’ heads, according to a criminal complaint.

Then the kidnappers issued their demands. They contacted the couple’s son and insisted he put them in touch with a person who they said had 50 kilograms of cocaine that belonged to them. The cocaine was to be returned, or else they were to be paid the $3.5 million value of the drugs, the complaint said.

A photograph showing the couple alive in captivity was sent to their son. Officers from the province’s police force, the Sûreté du Québec, rescued the victims from a house in Magog on Sept. 29 after authorities traced cellphone messages to the area and recognized trees in the background of the photograph, authorities said.

Six people have been charged in connection with the kidnapping, including three who were found in the house with the victims, the complaint said.

An American man, Graigory Brown, 50, of Plattsburgh, New York, was charged with conspiring to kidnap the couple, Antoinette T. Bacon, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York, said in a statement. The remaining five defendants were charged in Canada, authorities said.

Bacon’s statement and the complaint did not name the couple, but police and the FBI identified them as James Helm Sr., 76, and Sandra Helm, 70, when they were reported missing and then found.

Public records and court documents show that days before the Helms were kidnapped, their grandson, Macenzie Helm, 28, and his mother, Michelle Helm, were arrested Sept. 21 during a Drug Enforcement Administration operation. They had been picking up 500 grams of cocaine in South Burlington, Vermont, according to an affidavit related to that case.

Their lawyer could not immediately be reached Wednesday.

The kidnappers, meanwhile, did not know the cocaine they were demanding had been seized by the DEA, the criminal complaint says.

The search for the Helms began Sept. 28, when their son contacted authorities because he was concerned that his father had not shown up for work that morning. Police checked their home and found the door had been forced open, the house was in disarray and the couple were gone, the filing says.

Using cellphone geolocation data, authorities traced James Helm’s route Sept. 27 and 28 through northern New York state and the Akwesasne and Mohawk tribal area, which straddles the Canadian border, and into Quebec, the complaint said.

On Sept. 28, the couple’s son was allowed to speak briefly with one of his parents by phone, the complaint said. A captor demanded that he put them in touch with another person, identified in the court document as Individual 1.

In a second call, a captor demanded the return of the cocaine, or the $3.5 million payment, from that person, who the captor said “has our stuff,” the complaint said. Other calls followed in which the captors demanded that the son “hand over” the person who they believed had the cocaine, according to the complaint.

At 8:43 p.m. Sept. 28, the son received a text message from the captors that said: “Parents are sleeping. 12PM tomorrow trade for (individual 1).”

Investigators also obtained the “proof of life” photograph that had been sent to the son. Through cellphone geolocation, they were able to find the couple at a house in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, the complaint said.

Investigators found that Brown had made a call from his cellphone near the Helms’ residence the night they were kidnapped, and a license plate reader captured his pickup truck near the home around the same time, the criminal complaint says.

The FBI, the New York State Police and police in the Akwesasne and Mohawk tribal area took part in the investigation, Bacon said.

In addition to Brown, who was arrested and charged in the United States, Audrey Roy Cloutier, a spokeswoman for the Quebec prosecutor, said in an email that five people had been arrested and charged with seven counts each in connection with the abduction, including kidnapping and threats for ransom.

Brown was taken into custody Oct. 1 in Fort Covington, New York, and told investigators that he had driven his co-conspirators to the Helms’ house to seize them after the group decided they could not kidnap the person who they believed had the drugs, the criminal complaint says.

He is in custody awaiting a preliminary hearing that is scheduled for next week, documents show.