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Columbia man who fled country after arrest is sent to prison for extortion

Howard County Times

A Columbia landscape contractor who fled to Mexico after his arrest for trying to extort $200,000 from a childhood friend nearly eight years ago was sentenced to 10 years in prison today, according to Howard County prosecutors.

Raul Pina-Ruiz, 56, last fall pleaded guilty to a single count of extortion.

At a morning hearing, Circuit Court Judge Timothy McCrone suspended all but three years of the sentence and ordered five years of supervised probation upon release, which could happen by the end of the year.

In behavior that his defense attorney called “a real head-scratcher,” Pina-Raul tried to obtain the money after a $50,000 investment with a business acquaintance soured.

“He felt he was defrauded,” said Andrew Jezic of Jezic & Moyse LLC Attorneys at Law, a Wheaton-based firm.

Prosecutors said Pina-Ruiz threatened to kill his friend’s family unless a $200,000 payment was made.

County police undercover detectives arrested Pina-Ruiz on Feb. 17, 2010, behind an Oakland Mills Village Center grocery after he showed up to pick up a bag he thought contained cash.

Pina-Ruiz disappeared after his arrest in Columbia and was taken into custody last April when he flew to North Carolina from Mexico, a move Jezic said was “voluntary.”

“Mr. Pina-Ruiz’s conduct in this case was a tremendous exception or aberration,” said Jezic, who called the sentence fair. “It was shocking that he could be involved in something like this.”

Jezic said Pina-Ruiz is a U.S. citizen and that he left the country for Mexico because “he was scared out of his mind” at the consequences he faced.

Two of Pina-Ruiz’s four adult children and two former employers spoke on his behalf at the sentencing hearing.

Citing “the fear the victim has experienced for years,” prosecutors had asked for a stiff sentence because the anonymous, threatening calls Pina-Ruiz made implied he had connections to a ruthless Mexican drug syndicate, Los Zetas.

Extortion is considered a nonviolent misdemeanor and Pina-Ruiz could be eligible for release after serving six months behind bars, with credit for good behavior and the time he was jailed after he was arrested, according to the prosecutor’s office.

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