PATERSON, NJ – A woman found behind a padlocked door inside a New Jersey apartment said the boyfriend accused of keeping her there for years is "a good man" who has never abused her.
Nancy Rodriguez Duran said the kidnapping case against 42-year-old Michael Mendez is a lie and that she asked him to padlock the bedroom door with her inside.
Speaking to reporters before Mendez appeared in court Tuesday, Duran said her boyfriend was going out last Thursday and she was worried about maintenance workers coming into their Paterson, N.J., apartment and seeing her in a nightgown.
A state police street gang unit searched the apartment for drugs that day and found the 44-year-old woman in the locked bedroom. Based on interviews and evidence, investigators believe she was kept in the room for extended periods of time for the last two years and possibly up to 10 years, state police spokesman acting Sgt. 1st Class Brian Polite said.
Mendez, who police say is a member of the Latin Kings street gang, was charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and other counts, including some related to the drugs officials said they were looking for in the first place.
He pleaded not guilty Tuesday and remains held on $1 million bail.
Investigators said the woman was sometimes let out of the room when Mendez was home.
A neighbor said Mendez was a familiar face around the three-story brick apartment complex. He said he often could be seen outside, polishing a car and listening to music.
The neighbor said he saw the woman a few times in recent years, though it was rare. The man, who refused to give his name because of worries over safety, said he remembered seeing the woman get into a car sometime in the last few years.
Neighbors on either side of Mendez's top-floor apartment said they weren't aware that another person lived in the apartment.
"I didn't see any woman," said a man who identified himself only as Buddy and opened his door only a few inches as he spoke. "This is the first I'm hearing of it."
A maintenance worker, who also declined to give his name because of concerns over his safety, remembered the woman "cussing me out one time when I was doing my work."
State police said they found 4,200 prescription pills valued at $100,000, 190 grams of marijuana valued at nearly $2,000 and nearly $23,000 in cash inside the apartment.