77-year-old U.S. man languishes in Spanish jail after falling prey to 'romance scam'

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A retired pastor from Maine was sentenced to six years in a Spanish prison after he allegedly fell victim to a “romance scam” that targets senior citizens in the United States.

Joseph Bryon Martin, 77, was arrested by Spanish authorities last year carrying $450,000 worth of cocaine – though he had no idea he was moving drugs. He was sentenced in January to six years in prison.

His son, Andy Martin, decided to bring his father's case to the attention of lawmakers in Washington, D.C. 

"I'd like to get the word out about this," Martin told Fox News Latino, "so other lonely seniors don't fall prey." 

He testified in February before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, thanks to the committee's chairwoman, Susan Collins of Maine, who is looking into catfishing schemes that target seniors.

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“At the age of 77 and in poor health, this likely is a life sentence,” Martin told the committee about his father. “The idea that my dad is now a convicted international drug smuggler is surreal, as he had no prior criminal history. Before this conviction, my dad had never been charged with even a misdemeanor. I don’t recall him ever getting so much as a speeding ticket or parking ticket in his entire life.”

According to Andy, his father had been communicating online with a woman he met on the Internet in 2009 who went by the name of Joy. She said she was a struggling artist and needed money. For several years, even though he was living on a fixed income and couldn’t always pay his own rent, he would send Joy between $500 and $2,500 a month.

He got engaged to a woman in Maine – who later became his third wife – in April 2015, and he tried to break things off with Joy, sending her a message to let her know he would be no longer be sending money. 

Somehow Joy convinced Martin to travel to Peru and pick up real estate documents for an estate she claimed she had inherited. She told him couldn't get a visa to make the trip herself. His new wife objected, but he still made the trip.

In Peru, he picked up two sealed packages that he told Andy felt like books, according to the Portland Press Herald. But when his flight to London was stopped in Madrid, Martin was arrested by local authorities who found the cocaine.

The U.S. government is aware of 145 Americans who have been arrested by foreign governments as a result of similar scams. Forty-four of them, including Martin, remain incarcerated overseas.

Andy told the Senate committee that his father suffers from chronic back pain and needs surgery. He had been treated for prostate cancer, had quadruple bypass surgery and has a pacemaker. He's living in the prison infirmary with eight to ten other prisoners, according to his son. 

In a statement issued by her office, Collins said Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection revealed Wednesday that they have created a new initiative to combat such scams called “Operation Cocoon.” 

So far it has prevented 16 senior citizens from boarding planes, and foreign authorities have arrested 15 suspects alleged to be involved in the “romance scam.”

Tuesday Collins and eight other senators sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking him to get involved in the case. In the meantime, Martin's attorneys in Spain are trying to get him released on the grounds of his advanced age and the argument that he isn't a threat to anyone.

"It's a long drawn out process, and we'd be much better off with the U.S. intervening," Andy Martin told Fox News Latino. "[Seniors] get trapped, and they send money, and, once they do that, these people sell their information to other scammers. I want people to know what's happening." 

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