J. Byron Martin, a 77-year-old retired pastor from Dresden, Maine, is among the victims of a global scam that uses seniors to unknowingly carry illegal drugs across international borders.
Testimony about the scam, including a statement from Farmington resident Andy Martin, the victim’s son, was presented to the Senate Special Committee on Aging on Wednesday. The committee, which includes fraud, financial abuse and scams against seniors as a top agenda item, is chaired by Maine U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.
According to his son, Martin was arrested at an airport in Europe in July 2015 after security personnel discovered almost 2 kilograms of cocaine in sealed packages he had picked up in South America, believing they contained legal documents, to deliver to a woman he had met online several years earlier. He is currently serving a six-year prison term.
“I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that seniors and their families become aware of [these scammers’] techniques, and take action to protect themselves and their loved ones from these heartless criminals,” Collins said in her statement before the hearing.
According to a statement from Collins’ office, at least 145 individuals have fallen victim to this “drug mule” scam, most of them seniors, and an estimated 44 Americans are imprisoned overseas as a result.
Andy Martin told committee members that his father had moved in with Andy Martin’s sister in Dresden about six years ago.
“Bored and lonely, Dad would go on Internet chat sites,” Martin said in his prepared statement. Online, his father struck up a relationship with a woman who called herself “Joy,” who said she lived in the United Kingdom.
Over the course of several years, the elder Martin sent money to help the woman cover her living expenses. Although she came from a wealthy family, she told him, she was unable to access her family fortune because of jealous brothers. She also said she had inherited a large estate in South America but was unable to sell it because she didn’t possess the real estate documents. If someone could bring her the documents, she could sell the estate, “then come to America with her millions and marry my father,” Andy Martin said. The plan stalled because the elder Martin was unable to pay for the trip.
In May 2015, J. Byron Martin married a woman he had met in Maine and attempted to end the relationship with “Joy.” But she prevailed on him to travel to Peru, pick up the legal documents and bring them to her in London.
“Broke and wanting to recover the money he had sent to Joy over the years,” Andy Martin said, his father agreed.
Instead of containing legal documents, the packages he picked up in Peru turned out to be loaded with $450,000 worth of cocaine. The drug was discovered when the elder Martin, traveling in a wheelchair, was trying to clear customs at an airport on his way to London.
“The idea that my dad is now a convicted international drug smuggler is surreal, as he had no prior criminal history,” Andy Martin said. Although his father has fallen for other scams in the past, “I don’t recall him ever getting so much as a speeding ticket or parking ticket in his entire life.”
Scams targeting seniors have become more common and more sophisticated with the widespread use of computer technology, but officials say there is little way to track or apprehend the perpetrators, since they typically operate from foreign countries using complex networks of partners to remain invisible.
The Senate Special Committee on Aging maintains a toll-free hotline for reporting fraud, abuse and scams: 1-855-303-9470.