A 77-year-old former Dresden man who fell victim to a “romance scam” and landed in a Spanish prison has been released and reunited with his family in the United States. Joseph Byron Martin is currently in Nevada with his son after serving nearly one year of a six-year prison sentence for drug smuggling in Madrid.
Martin credits U.S. Sen. Susan Collins for his freedom. “She really went to bat for me,” he said. “I would have died in there.”
Martin was one of about 145 individuals who have fallen victim to what Collins called “one of the worst scams my committee has uncovered,” in a Tuesday, June 14 press release.
In February, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, chaired by Collins, held a hearing about a new romance scam that turns unsuspecting seniors into drug mules. It was the first time the scam had been publicly discussed by law enforcement officials.
International criminal syndicates perpetrate the scam, which involves establishing an online relationship with a senior, building trust, and asking the senior to travel internationally for seemingly plausible reasons, Collins said.
Seniors are asked to carry a package on their trip, which the criminals arrange, Collins said. The travel itinerary is often complicated, and involves traveling through several countries with multiple layovers, Collins said.
In 2010, Martin struck up an online relationship with a woman who identified herself as “Joy” and claimed to be from the U.K. For five years, the two communicated via instant messaging, he said.
He was initially suspicious of Joy, but her story always seemed to check out, he said. “I’m a retired pastor and an Eagle Scout. I’m trustworthy and I thought that went both ways,” he said.
After getting remarried in May 2015, Martin attempted to cut off his relationship with Joy.
Joy offered him money if he would transport real estate papers to her in London via South America. He and his wife were living off of Social Security, Martin said. He thought the money would help them, and he had made a promise to Joy to help her, he said.
“I had no doubt that it was legitimate,” Martin said. “I don’t know what’s true anymore.”
An initial $2,500 was placed in his bank account and Martin traveled to Quito, Ecuador and then Lima, Peru, where he was given a package. He was in touch with three people who organized his trip, he said – Joy, a man calling himself James who sent him the $2,500, and a man going by Frank who made his travel arrangements.
When in Peru, Joseph Byron Martin was instructed to go outside and call out, “James.” A man on a bicycle rode over and gave him a shrink-wrapped package that Martin thought contained real estate papers.
The next day, he flew to Madrid, where he was supposed to catch a connecting flight to Dublin, then London. Martin never made it out of Madrid.
He was searched by security at the airport; the package he was carrying was found to contain about 2 kilograms of cocaine. “I was floored,” Martin said. Throughout the course of his relationship with Joy, drugs had never been mentioned, he said.
He was sentenced to six years in prison in July 2015.
Collins was first alerted to Martin’s case by his wife in Dresden. Following a report from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging took a closer look at romance scams, and Martin’s son, Andy Martin, was invited to testify at a February hearing.
Following the hearing, Collins and ranking members of the committee wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry urging him to look into the cases of senior citizens, such as Joseph Byron Martin, who have been locked up abroad after falling for the scam.
About a month ago, Andy Martin received a letter from a high-ranking member of the U.S. Department of State saying the department was looking into the case. Around the same time, his father received visitors at the prison who never told him where they were from.
“A lot of things happened behind the scenes that no one was aware of,” Andy Martin said.
Joseph Byron Martin was released from prison Thursday, June 9. According to the papers for his release, it was because of severe medical conditions, he said.
The Martins credit Collins and members of the U.S. Department of State who were working on his behalf.
“I tell him how blessed he is,” Andy Martin said. “It was a bit of a miracle.”
Andy Martin arranged for his father’s travel home, and on Saturday, June 11, the two were reunited.
“I lost everything,” Joseph Byron Martin said. “My house, my car, my wife, most of my possessions. Thank God for my son.”
With his wife filing for divorce, Joseph Byron Martin is unsure what the future holds for him, or where he will spend the rest of his days. His immediate focus is on recovering, he said.
Collins has pledged to continue to advocate for the release of other seniors who have fallen victim to romance scams.
At least 145 victims have been arrested by foreign governments for unknowingly smuggling drugs, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; 30 of those victims, many of them seniors, are currently held overseas.
“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, thousands of miles from their families,” Collins said.
Andy Martin also intends to continue to advocate for senior citizens imprisoned overseas as a result of the scam. He and his wife have established a Facebook account entitled International Scams – the Martin Expose.
Through the Facebook page, the Martins hope to raise awareness about the romance scam, and connect with other families who have had loved ones imprisoned overseas, so they can continue to advocate on their behalf.
For more information, go to https://goo.gl/XKUQ62.