Armed Men Force Mother To Rob Bank By Strapping Dynamite To Her 7-Year-Old Daughter
Despite the ordeal, Michelle Renee says she wants “nothing but the best” for her and her child’s captors.
Three men in California took a mother and her young daughter hostage and forced the woman to rob a bank — or have her child killed.
On the evening of Nov. 21, 2000, Michelle Renee and her girl, then-7-year-old Breea, were at their home with a roommate in Vista when the armed and masked men broke down their door.
The men duct-taped the victims and held them at gunpoint overnight, revealing to Renee they had been following her movements for months and knew all about her life.
“You're gonna rob the bank for us,” she said they told her, 48 Hours reported. “Or you will die, your daughter will go first.”
The following morning, the abductors strapped dynamite to Renee and her child’s bodies, and one man went with Renee to the bank, where she worked as a branch manager. Her daughter was forced to remain behind at their home with the two remaining men.
Renee and her captor left the bank with $360,000 in cash stuffed inside a duffle bag. Following the theft, he fled, and Michelle raced home and found her daughter unharmed in a closet and the two men gone.
They were free, but Renee remained traumatized, explaining that “there came a point when I didn’t feel safe anywhere,” The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Authorities launched an investigation into the 14-hour ordeal, and detectives determined the dynamite used in the crime was actually painted broomstick handles.
Despite the trauma she experienced, Renee was able to provide detectives with the vital clue that cracked the case. She recalled the eyes of the scheme’s ringleader were the same as a man who, under the guise of being a customer, had come into the bank with a woman and left behind a business card.
That business card was printed with the man’s real name: Christopher Butler.
According to the FBI, Butler had a history of robbing banks, and agents surveilled him and the woman, his fiancée, Lisa Ramirez, for 10 days before arresting the couple.
Detectives recovered items from the suspects’ car and home, including Renee’s credit cards, ski masks, and straps used to hold bundles of cash together, among other physical evidence.
“They found all the ingredients to make the fake bomb. … There were broom handles, which were cut up into small dowels, which actually were used in making the fake dynamite. … They also recovered the actual spray cans … Ramirez's fingerprint was on one of those cans,” Tom Manning, a prosecutor in the San Diego County District Attorney's Office, told 48 Hours.
Butler’s co-conspirators, Christopher Huggins and Robert Ortiz, were also arrested and both gave full confessions.
While Butler denied allegations he was involved in the robbery, according to prosecutors, his fiancée, Ramirez, admitted what happened — and then implicated Renee in the failed plot.
“We walked out of that thinking, ‘OK, Lisa's the mastermind behind all of this. And, is it possible [Michelle Renee’s] involved?’” Manning said.
“The first time I interviewed her, she had Breea with her,” the prosecutor recalled. “And ... I saw that bond and relationship. And when she left, I went, ‘she's not involved in this.’”
During Butler and Ramirez’s trial in 2002, the defense attempted to cast doubt on Renee’s credibility. “I was treated like I was the criminal,” she recalled of the defense digging into her background, including her financial history and sex life.
“They were trying to paint me as somebody that was irresponsible,” Renee told 48 Hours, “a selfish, terrible mother that would do anything for money.”
The defense team’s efforts were partially successful. In an outcome Renee called “mind-boggling,” a jury deliberated for five days before they acquitted Ramirez of all charges against her.
Prosecutors believed the case against Ramirez was damaged after key evidence, including the alleged on-camera confession, were ruled inadmissible.
Manning told 48 Hours he still believed Ramirez was “very involved” and pointed out that investigators claimed “she was the brains of the outfit.”
Ramirez’s fiancé, Butler, was convicted on charges of robbery and kidnapping Breea and the roommate, but the jury was hung 9-3 on the abduction charge in connection with Renee. Despite the outcome, Butler still received multiple life sentences for the role he played in the robbery and kidnapping plot.
He’s since twice been denied parole.
Huggins and Ortiz were also convicted for the roles they played in the case.
Renee told 48 Hours she accepted an apology from Butler and “forgave him a long time ago” but doesn’t believe he should be released from prison.
As for Butler’s two co-conspirators, Huggins and Ortiz, Renee feels differently.
“They confessed … they take accountability for what they did. And that's a big thing,” she explained to the news program. “They were younger … than what I am now … if they are doing the work, I want nothing but the best for them.”
In January 2021, Ortiz was granted parole.