Retired Pastor Released From Prison After Online Drug Mule Scam

By Paul Gaita 08/10/16

Last year, 77-year-old Joseph Bryon Martin was captured by authorities in Spain after being tricked into smuggling cocaine by an online romance scam artist.  

Retired Pastor Released From Prison After Online Drug Mule Scam

A retired pastor was sentenced to six years in prison after he was caught smuggling cocaine as part of an online “romance” scam, which required intervention by the U.S. State Department and Maine Senator Susan Collins to secure his release. Joseph Bryon Martin, 77, of Dresden, Maine, was given a six-year prison sentence by Spanish authorities after customs and border agents discovered that he was in possession of 1.4 kilograms of cocaine, which he had been led to believe were real estate documents that would aid a woman he had met and fallen in love with via an Internet chat room, in receiving an inheritance that she would share with him. 

Martin, who was wheelchair-bound and suffered from health issues at the time of his arrest, remained in Centro Penitenciario Madrid from July 2015, when efforts by his son, Andrew, drew the attention of Senator Collins, the Republican chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. With the help of eight Senate colleagues, she successfully petitioned Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene on Martin’s behalf. With the help of U.S. Embassy officials in Madrid and the Spanish government, Martin returned to the United States in June 2016. 

“This scam, which preys on seniors’ emotions, is undoubtedly one of the worst scams my committee has uncovered,” said Collins. “It is outrageous that the individuals who perpetrate these crimes against seniors like Mr. Martin are free, likely targeting more unsuspecting people, while the victims languish in foreign prisons.” The State Department reported that at least 145 Americans, including many seniors, have been arrested overseas for illegally smuggling drugs. Of these, nearly three dozen are still behind bars.

Martin, a former pastor and missionary, became involved in a relationship with an individual he believed to be a woman named “Joy” from London in 2010. Over the course of the next five years, the correspondence began to address the possibility of “a life together,” as Martin said. He soon began sending her money, which he estimates at $1,000 over the course of the half-decade, though his children have stated that they believe he sent her more. Occasionally, Joy would mention an alleged real estate inheritance that she would share with him. In 2015, she convinced him to fly to Peru, where he would pick up two documents needed to obtain the inheritance, to bring to her in London. 

After arriving in Lima in June 2015, Martin was given two packages from a man who was allegedly a representative for Joy’s attorney. Though suspicious of the items—which resembled shrink-wrapped books—Martin accepted them and flew to a stopover in Madrid on route to the United Kingdom. There, airport security intercepted the packages and Martin was detained. Due to the Spanish legal system, which assumes that defendants are presumed guilty until they prove their innocence, a panel of three judges sent him Centro Penitenciario, where he would remain for the next 11 months. Due to his health problems, he spent the entire time in the prison’s infirmary.

Soon after his incarceration, Martin’s son, Andrew, was informed that his father had been arrested and jailed in Madrid. He was able to secure an English-speaking lawyer to represent his father, who faced an uphill battle in the courts due to the fact that he was unaware of the true identity of the people that had convinced him to smuggle the packages. In January 2016, Martin was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of six years and one day.

Andrew was invited by Senator Collins to testify about the case at a February 2016 hearing before members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. And Andrew began working with Collins and Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the committee’s ranking Democrat, to facilitate his father’s release.

Collins and McCaskill sent a letter to John Kerry in March, asking him to intervene directly with the Spanish government on Martin’s behalf. Through the Bureau of Consular Affairs, Collins’ staff and Joseph Martin’s attorney petitioned for a humanitarian release on the grounds that Martin’s health concerns required more substantial medical attention than what was available through the prison. One year after receiving the packages in Lima, Joseph Martin was on a flight home to Boston. He later settled in a senior housing complex near Andrew Martin’s home in Las Vegas. The person who claimed to be Joy, and the other individuals involved in the smuggling case, were never discovered by authorities.

As Collins noted, the Martin case should serve as a worst-case scenario for seniors and their families. “Some people lose money and that’s bad enough, but Mr. Martin lost his freedom,” she stated. Regrettably, Martin’s predicament is becoming less of an isolated incident, with seniors across the United States, and even as far away as Australia, becoming mules—unwitting or otherwise—for the global drug trade.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.