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American jailed in Spain was unwitting drug mule, US says

In this December, 2018 photo released by the Stemberger family, Victor and his wife Han Stemberger, are shown at their home in Centreville, Va. Victor Stemberger sits in a Spanish jail, one year after flying into the country with 2.4 kilograms (more than 5 pounds) of cocaine expertly sewn into bubble jackets in a bag. His family says he knew nothing about the drugs. Though Spanish authorities are dubious, the U.S. Justice Department has advised Spain that it believes Stemberger was duped into acting as a drug mule for a West Africa criminal network, and has asked the country for evidence it's gathered, according to correspondence obtained by The Associated Press. (Victor Matthew Stemberger via AP)
In this December, 2018 photo released by the Stemberger family, Victor and his wife Han Stemberger, are shown at their home in Centreville, Va. Victor Stemberger sits in a Spanish jail, one year after flying into the country with 2.4 kilograms (more than 5 pounds) of cocaine expertly sewn into bubble jackets in a bag. His family says he knew nothing about the drugs. Though Spanish authorities are dubious, the U.S. Justice Department has advised Spain that it believes Stemberger was duped into acting as a drug mule for a West Africa criminal network, and has asked the country for evidence it's gathered, according to correspondence obtained by The Associated Press. (Victor Matthew Stemberger via AP)

WASHINGTON – Victor Stemberger wasn't about to ignore the emails inviting him into a multimillion-dollar business opportunity, so he pitched himself as perfect for the job. In a way he was — but for all the wrong reasons.

The 76-year-old Virginia man, whose family says he has cognitive issues, accepted the offer and boasted of his credentials as “an experienced businessman who does what he says he will do, and executes flawlessly, according to plan.”

He apparently did follow the plan, but the execution wasn't flawless.

Today Stemberger sits in a Spanish jail, one year after flying into the country with 2.4 kilograms (more than 5 pounds) of cocaine expertly sewn into bubble jackets in a bag. His family says he knew nothing about the drugs. Though Spanish authorities are dubious, the U.S. Justice Department has advised Spain that it believes Stemberger was duped into acting as a drug mule for a West Africa criminal network, and has asked the country for evidence it's gathered, according to correspondence obtained by The Associated Press.

Federal officials have for years warned about scams that lure elderly Americans or those with diminished mental capacity — Stemberger had a significant brain injury nearly 15 years ago — into becoming drug couriers. The frauds work by persuading victims they'll receive payouts if they travel or take some other requested action. The Department of Homeland Security said in 2016 that immigration and border authorities had worked with foreign partners to intercept dozens of unwitting couriers and that more than 30 were believed to still be jailed overseas.

“One of the common characteristics that we find in these scams is that oftentimes the senior is living alone, has lost a spouse and is lonely,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who leads the Senate Special Committee on Aging and helped secure the release of a Maine man jailed in Spain under similar circumstances as Stemberger.

Stemberger, who marks his one-year anniversary in Spanish detention on July 5, faces a trial next month in Madrid. His son says the only explanation for his father's actions is that "these perpetrators really connected with our dad under the veil of what he thought was a legitimate business opportunity.”

“With his diminished mental state, he became the perfect victim of a crime syndicate just like this,” Vic Stemberger said.

A spokesman for the Madrid judiciary, who agreed to discuss the case only on condition of anonymity, said Stemberger told authorities he had planned to deliver the jackets to United Nations officials in Asia and that he didn't know they contained drugs. Officials did not consider the narrative plausible and sought to have him jailed before trial rather than let him return to the U.S., the spokesman said.

Prosecutors are seeking a prison sentence for Stemberger, whose Spanish lawyer, Juan Ospina, said he plans to argue that there was no way Stemberger could have noticed the extra weight of the drugs because they were cleverly distributed among the jackets.

“It’s a pity that it’s always the mules that are being snatched, the lowest in the scale of a criminal organization. They are the easiest, weakest target, but there is rarely a police investigation, deep and rigorous, targeting the original sin,” Ospina said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors from the Southern District of New York are investigating whether his contacts were part of a West Africa network of money launderers, fraudsters and drug traffickers under scrutiny for scheming the elderly and feeble, according to a Justice Department document sent to Spain last October. It also seeks permission to interview Stemberger, in additions to copies of investigative documents related to his arrest.

The case began in March 2018 with an email from someone purporting to be a financial consultant with Nigeria’s Ministry of Finance, inviting Stemberger, of Centreville, Virginia, into a business opportunity that carried the prospect of a lucrative payout. The job entailed traveling abroad to deliver gifts and documents to officials, with a goal of recovering funds that were misallocated.

A flurry of emails and phone calls continued over the next year and a half, but Stemberger concealed the details from his family. He even traveled to South America and Hong Kong when his wife thought he was in Chicago.

“He certainly knew that talking to these folks internationally could be possibly something that our family would question,” said Vic Stemberger. “We just never had an opportunity to intervene.”

Emails reviewed by AP show Stemberger at times sought reassurance the project was legitimate but also portrayed himself as game for it, saying he could travel provided his expenses were covered “and we have a clear plan in place before I depart.”

A Justice Department attorney told Spanish authorities that the emails show Stemberger concerned about being defrauded, undergoing uncomfortable travel conditions and having to pay for travel. But, wrote attorney Jason Carter, “There are no communications reflecting that Stemberger believed or suspected that he would assist in trafficking controlled substances."

Retired DEA agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, whose investigative firm has worked on the case, said the 161 pages of emails he's reviewed make clear that “he's completely unwitting.”

“It was very hard to read, quite honestly, because it tells a sad tale in and of itself,” he added.

A Vietnam veteran with two master's degrees, Stemberger specialized in corporate executive coaching and prided himself on being a savvy businessman, his son said. But he hasn’t been the same since a 2006 brain aneurysm left him with impairments in judgment and critical thinking.

Last July, he traveled to Brazil on a trip that was to take him to Spain and on to Asia. His contacts told him the officials he was supposed to be meet with would be visiting his Sao Paolo hotel room to help transfer gifts into luggage.

Stemberger reassured his son over email the work was legitimate: “Gifts referred to in the message are standard protocol for dealing with government officials in this part of the world. No contraband — be sure of that.”

He was arrested the next day on a stopover in Madrid.

As his family works to prove his innocence, even Stemberger, who passed his 50th wedding anniversary in jail, has come around to the idea that he was roped into a fraud, his son said.

The younger Stemberger said he understands how extraordinary the saga may sound, joking that if every drug dealer used his father’s defense, no one would be in jail.

But, he said, his father was unquestionably duped.

“There was never any attempt to commit a crime," he said.

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Associated Press writer Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.