Centerville, Virginia, a man imprisoned in Spain was an involuntary drug mule

Victor Stemberger, of Centerville, Virginia, is in a Spanish jail after being scammed to fly with 2.4 kilograms of cocaine, the United States Department of Justice said.

WASHINGTON (AP) – Victor Stemberger, of Centerville, Virginia, was not willing to ignore emails inviting him to a multi-million dollar business opportunity, so he presented himself as perfect for the job. In a way it was, but for all the wrong reasons.

The 76-year-old Fairfax County man, whose family says he has cognitive problems, accepted the offer and boasted of his credentials as “an experienced businessman who does what he says he will do and runs smoothly, according with the plan. “

Apparently he followed the plan, but the execution was not perfect.

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

Federal officials have warned for years about scams that appeal to older Americans or those with diminished mental capacity (Stemberger had a significant brain injury nearly 15 years ago) to become drug couriers. Scams convince them that they will receive payments if they travel or take any other requested action. The Department of Homeland Security in 2016 said immigration and border authorities had intercepted more than 140 involuntary emails, some as young as 87, and that more than 30 are believed to still be incarcerated.

“One of the common characteristics we find in these scams is that the older person often lives alone, has lost a spouse, and is alone,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who chairs the Senate Committee on Aging and He helped secure the release of a Maine man imprisoned in Spain in circumstances similar to those of Stemberger.

Stemberger, who celebrates his first anniversary in Spanish detention on July 5, faces trial next month in Madrid. Her son says the only explanation for his father’s actions is that “these perpetrators really connected with our father under the veil of what he thought was a legitimate business opportunity.”

“With his diminished state of mind, he became the perfect victim of a criminal union like this,” said Vic Stemberger.

A spokesman for the Madrid judiciary, who agreed to discuss the case only on condition of anonymity, said Stemberger told authorities that he had planned to hand the jackets over to United Nations officials in Asia and did not know they contained drugs. Authorities did not consider the narrative plausible and sought to have him jailed before trial rather than letting him return to the United States, 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 intelligently distributed among the jackets.

“It is a shame that mules are always stolen, the lowest on the scale of a criminal organization. They are the easiest and weakest target, but there is rarely a deep and rigorous police investigation that points to original sin, ”said Ospina.

The Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are investigating whether their contacts were part of a network of West African money launderers, scam artists, and drug traffickers under scrutiny for intriguing the elderly and the weak, according to a document. from the Justice Department sent to Spain last October seeking permission to interview Stemberger and copies of investigative documents.

The case began in March 2018 with an email from someone purporting to be a financial consultant to the Nigerian Foreign Ministry, inviting Stemberger to a business opportunity that carries the possibility of a lucrative payment. The job consisted of traveling abroad to deliver gifts and documents to officials, with the aim of recovering misallocated funds.

A wave of emails and phone calls continued for the next year and a half. Stemberger withheld details of his family. He even traveled to Argentina and Hong Kong when his wife thought he was in Chicago.

“I certainly knew that talking to these people internationally could be something our family would question,” said Vic Stemberger. “We simply never had the opportunity to intervene.”

Emails reviewed by AP show that Stemberger sometimes sought assurances that the project was legitimate, but also presented himself as a game to himself, saying he could travel as long as his expenses were covered “and we have a plan clear in progress before leaving. “

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

Retired DEA agent Robert Zachariasiewicz, whose investigative firm has worked with the family on the case, said the 161 pages of emails he has reviewed make it clear that “he is completely unconscious.”

“It was very difficult to read, honestly, because it tells a sad story in itself,” he added.

A Vietnam veteran with two master’s degrees, Stemberger specialized in corporate executive coaching and prided himself on being a smart businessman, his son said. But it has not been the same since a brain aneurysm in 2006 left him impaired in judgment and critical thinking.

Last July, he traveled to Brazil on a trip that would take him to Spain and Asia. His contacts told him that officials would visit his hotel room in Sao Paulo to help transfer the gifts to the luggage.

Stemberger assured his son by email that the job was legitimate: “The gifts mentioned in the message are standard protocol for dealing with government officials in this part of the world. Without contraband, make sure of that.

He was arrested the next day after arriving in Madrid.

As his family works to prove his innocence, even Stemberger, who spent his 50th wedding anniversary in prison, came up with the idea that he was cheated, his son said.

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

But, he said, his father was undoubtedly cheated.

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


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

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