Investigators believe his mother is alive

Updated: January 25, 2005, 8:27 PM ET news services

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Venezuelan kidnappers holding the mother of Detroit Tigers pitcher Ugueth Urbina have demanded $3 million in ransom for her release, but have not contacted her family in at least a month, a chief detective said on Tuesday.

Nearly five months ago, gunmen broke into the family home of Venezuelan-born Urbina and took his mother, Maura Villareal, from the house on the outskirts of Caracas.

"The trail has not been lost. We sometimes work with kidnappings that last a year, that have lasted seven months," Joel Rengifo, head of the national investigative police anti-kidnapping unit, told Reuters in an interview.

"A figure of around 6 billion bolivars [$3.1 million] has been talked about, but we will have to wait for the next stage of negotiations," he said.

Ten police detectives, who received word from her captors late last year, in an anti-kidnapping unit are on the case and believe 54-year-old Maura Villarreal is still being held hostage. Shortly after her abduction, the family received an audiotape, a letter and initial contact proposing a ransom payment. Police said the strategy of making no contact is a common ploy used by kidnappers in the South American country.

Urbina, who was a star relief pitcher for the World Series champions Florida Marlins in 2003, returned to Venezuela soon after the Sept. 1 kidnapping. He has not spoken in public since arriving in Caracas and is expected to rejoin the Tigers in the United States next month for spring training.

Rengifo said the family had reservations about working with the police, but detectives were hoping to mediate to rescue Urbina's mother and avoid a ransom payment.

A senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it had been difficult for the family to accept police involvement because they fear for Villarreal's life.

"Some kidnappers don't call for a month to put pressure on the family. And then they call and say 'So are we going to make a deal?' " he said.

The detective said investigators had pinpointed a criminal gang previously involved in truck robberies that they believed was holding Urbina's mother.

During the abduction, the kidnappers identified themselves as police officers in a tactic used by the gang in a recent commercial robbery, Rengifo said.

Police also have said they believe a mechanic who happened to be working on a motorcycle at the house was taken away along with Urbina's mother.

The Urbina case has highlighted the problem of violent crime in Venezuela, where murders and kidnappings are common, especially along the border with Colombia.

Major league officials are keen to hear about the outcome of the abduction for fear that other players could be targeted for extortion, Rengifo said.

Dozens of Venezuelan ballplayers play in the U.S. major leagues. Two years ago, armed thieves robbed a baseball training camp operated by the Seattle Mariners in Venezuela's Carabobo State.

Information from Reuters and The Associated Press was used in this report.