Three Missouri men abduct New Jersey pet store owner

Monday, January 11, 2010 | 7:10 p.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Three western Missouri men charged with kidnapping a man in New Jersey and driving nearly 1,200 miles before he was rescued apparently abducted the wrong guy, authorities said Monday.

Douglas Stangeland, 46, of Nevada, Mo., and Lonnie Swarnes, 44, and Andrew Wadel, 21, both of Rich Hill, appeared in court in Missouri's Miller County on charges of first-degree kidnapping. Authorities said none of the men had attorneys and all were being held without bond.

"Based on the investigation thus far, we believe this to be a case of mistaken identity," said Gregory Mueller, an assistant prosecutor in Sussex County, N.J., where the three men are charged.

Vernon County, Mo., Sheriff Ron Peckman described the three as "bumbling idiots."

The suspects allegedly approached pet store owner Jeff Muller, 59, of Newton, N.J., outside his business Friday morning and asked if he was Jeff Muller, Newton Police Chief John Tomasula said. When Muller said "yes," they shot him with a stun gun and bound his hands and feet, authorities said.

Authorities would not say Monday why the men were looking for a Jeff Muller.

Once in the getaway car, Muller's captors falsely told him his wife was being held hostage at the couple's home, police said. His wife arrived at the pet store about two hours later and found it locked and dark. Police found Muller's eyeglasses and lunch in the parking lot, where his vehicle also was parked and locked.

Mueller, of Sussex County, N.J., said the suspects drove through the night, held a gun against the victim and threatened to harm him.

Peckman, the Vernon County sheriff, said authorities suspect the men were headed to Stangeland's Nevada, Mo., home before they had car trouble Saturday in the small town of Lake Ozark, about 115 miles to the east in Miller County.

A convenience store clerk saw Muller attempt to escape and called police. When officers arrived, the suspects were trying to restrain the bruised Muller, police said.

Muller was in shock and had a "glazed over look about him" after the rescue, said Lake Ozark Police Chief Mark Maples. His kidnapping story gained credibility when authorities confirmed he had been reported missing in New Jersey.

"We were thinking it might be the next Sunday night movie," Maples said. "It's that strange truthfully."

Muller flew home Sunday. Messages left Monday at his New Jersey home weren't immediately returned.

Peckman said his department also was investigating whether the three men were involved in a home invasion in November in which the homeowner was shot in the hand.

Peckman said Stangeland had a vending machine route and didn't know whether the other two men worked.

The Miller County prosecutor's office said Swarnes agreed Monday to return to New Jersey, where the charges were filed, but Wadel and Stangeland declined to waive extradition.

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