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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Michael Mendez and the Woman In The Locked Room

     The English writer John Fowles published a horror novel in 1963 called The Collector. Fowles' protagonist, a neurotic butterfly collector, wins the British Football Pool which allows him to buy an country estate. The former city hall ribbon clerk, after converting his cellar into comfortable living quarters, kidnaps a beautiful young art student he has secretly admired. His purpose is not to rape or ransom, but to "collect" this desirable specimen. The girl he has added to his collection of beautiful objects takes ill and dies. Following her death, the collector reads her diary and is shocked to discover that she had not fallen in love with him. The novel closes with the protagonist planning to abduct and imprison another young woman who has caught his attention. (The film version of the book came out in 1965.)

 The Mendez Case                                                              

     One could describe law enforcement as peeking under rocks in search of criminals and evidence of their crimes. Every so often the police turn over a rock and are surprised by what they find. On August 9, 2012, members of the New Jersey State Police Street Gang Unit, while searching an apartment in Paterson for drugs, discovered something they hadn't anticipated. They found a woman who may have lived ten years locked inside a bedroom. The apartment belonged to a 42-year-old suspected drug dealer and member of the Latin Kings street gang named Michael Mendez.

     Most of Mendez's public housing neighbors had not been aware that the woman, 44-year-old Nancy Rodriguez Duran, had been living in the former roofer's apartment. (Mendez, because of lung problems and bipolar disorder, has been on disability for several years.) Over the past decade, only a few of his fellow apartment dwellers had seen Duran outside of the three-story brick complex. Even those sightings were rare. Mendez had resided in the third floor apartment for more than twelve years.

     Inside Duran's small bedroom, padlocked from the outside, officers found a pail used as a chamber pot, a bed, a television, and a telephone. Searchers also discovered, in Mendez's possession, 4,200 prescription pills, 190 grams of marijuana, and $23,000 in cash. The pills alone had a street value of $100,000.

     New Jersey State Police Officers took Michael Mendez into custody at the Paterson apartment and hauled him to the Passaic County Jail. Charged with possession of controlled substances with the intent to distribute, kidnapping, false imprisonment, and criminal restraint, Mendez was held on $l million bail. The authorities transported Nancy Rodriguez Duran to a nearby hospital for medical evaluation. While Mendez had two previous convictions for aggravated assault, he had only served three months behind bars.

     On August 14, 2012,  before Mendez's preliminary hearing in Paterson, Nancy Rodriguez Duran, in speaking to reporters, denied having been held in Mendez's apartment bedroom against her will. "He padlocked the door with my consent," she said. "I like being inside, I don't like to go out. It's not that he was keeping me there....Why would he keep me in a room for ten years? How could I be so healthy? I should be dead by now."

     The New Jersey State Attorney General's office took charge of the case. The central legal question involved whether or not an adult can consent to being locked in a room for the better part of ten years. And in a case like this, what constitutes "consent?" Perhaps Duran had been abducted against her will, then over the years, developed the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological state in which the prisoner develops empathy for her captor. This woman may have been the victim of what psychologists call "traumatic bonding."

     In March 2013, Mendez pleaded guilty before Superior Court Judge Greta Gooden Brown in Paterson, New Jersey to third-degree criminal restraint and possession of marijuana and prescription pills with intent to distribute. The judge sentenced him to five years in prison.

     Five years behind bars for keeping a woman locked in a room for ten years seems awfully lenient.

   
     

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