Joseph Bryon Martin, 77, of Dresden, has been sentenced to six years in prison in Madrid, Spain for smuggling 2 kilograms of cocaine into the country, but his son said his father was an unwitting drug mule who fell victim to a “romance scam.”
Joseph Martin’s son, Andy Martin, testified before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging Wednesday, Feb. 10.
The scam is a new one, committee Chairman Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said in her opening statement, yet already the government is aware of 145 seniors who have been arrested by foreign governments for unknowingly smuggling narcotics across international borders.
Forty-four seniors remain incarcerated overseas, Collins said, and Joseph Martin is one of them. A retired pastor, Joseph Martin relocated to Dresden to live with his daughter in his early 70s. “Bored and lonely,” he struck up an online relationship with a woman who identified herself as Joy in 2010, Andy Martin said.
“Dad quickly became infatuated with Joy,” Andy Martin said. “She gave him lots of attention and told him that she loved him and wanted to come to America and marry him.”
Romance scams are a new method used by criminal organizations to trick seniors into becoming drug mules, or couriers for illegal narcotics, Collins said. Con artists develop an online relationship with unsuspecting seniors, and once they are ensnared, ask them to travel overseas, carrying packages across international borders with contents unknown to the senior, she said.
Joy presented herself to Joseph Martin as a struggling artist in the U.K. from a wealthy North African family whose parents were killed by her father’s business partner, according to Andy Martin. Joy told Joseph Martin her deceased father had stashed his assets internationally, but Joy was unable to collect any of it because of jealous brothers.
Joseph Martin was convinced Joy’s life was in danger, Andy Martin said. Joseph Martin sent Joy money every month for five years, even though he could not afford to pay rent to his daughter.
In May 2015, Joseph Martin remarried and attempted to break off his relationship with Joy. “I guess at this point the scammers felt this was their last chance to use my father so they turned him into an unwitting drug mule,” Andy Martin said.
According to Andy Martin, Joy reminded Joseph Martin of his promise to help her and asked him to travel to South America, pick up real-estate papers for her, and transport them to London. Joy made the travel arrangements; criminals making travel arrangements is key to how the scam works, Collins said.
After a period of time in South America, Joseph Martin was contacted by a man who identified himself as an attorney and given two sealed packages and a plane ticket to London, Andy Martin said. On a connecting flight to London in Spain, Joseph Martin was stopped by security.
The packages he was transporting contained 2 kilograms of cocaine, worth $450,000. Joseph Martin has been in a Madrid prison since July 2015; he was sentenced to six years and one day, Andy Martin said. With failing health, his father may have been given a life sentence.
“The idea that my dad is now a convicted international drug smuggler is surreal as he had no prior criminal history,” Andy Martin said. “He never drank, never smoked, didn’t chase women, and never swore. However, being human, he did have his shortcomings. He was too trusting of people to the point of being gullible.”
Collins called on federal law enforcement to mount a vigorous and determined effort to prevent seniors from becoming unsuspecting drug mules. She emphasized the importance of seniors and their families learning the ins and outs of the techniques used in a romance scam to protect themselves from “heartless criminals.”
The warning signs of a romance scam include being showered with affection after only a few contacts online, being told an elaborate story and asked for money, being told information that is inconsistent with the individual’s profile information, and bad grammar, among other indicators, according to the AARP.