© 2021 Maine Public
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Dresden Man Back in US After Susan Collins Helps Negotiate Release from Spanish Prison

Courtesy Andy Martin
Bryon Martin

A former pastor from Dresden, Maine, serving time in a Spanish prison after falling prey to an international drug smuggling scam is now free.

Bryon Martin, 77, arrived back in the U.S. on Saturday after U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and other officials lobbied for his release. He says he is relieved to finally be back on U.S. soil.

“I’m doing great,” he says.

Martin landed in a Spanish prison, where he spent nearly a year, after falling prey to a scam that began about five years ago. That’s when he befriended a woman online who called herself Joy.

Joy told Martin she was a struggling artist living in London. For years, she convinced Martin to send her hundreds of dollars every month, with the promise they would one day get married.

When Martin eventually tried to break off the relationship, Joy asked Martin to do her one last favor.

“That was when she brought up a promise he had made to her a couple years back, where he would go to South America to get some real estate documents,” says Andy Martin, who shared his father’s story with MPBN back in March.

Martin says Joy told his father that the real estate papers were an inheritance from her parents who’d been killed. She promised to share some of it with him.

So, last June, he made the trip to Peru. After he arrived, a man posing as Joy’s attorney gave Bryon Martin two sealed packages. Martin boarded a plane bound for England with the packages in a carry-on bag. But during a layover in Madrid, Andy Martin says two security officers stopped his father.

“So they X-rayed the bag, saw the books, opened them up, inspected them and found the cocaine inside,” he says.

Bryon Martin was sentenced to six years and one day in prison. In ailing health, he spent his time in the infirmary and his family worried he would die in prison. They contacted Collins to help.

“I am just so happy that he is back home where he belongs,” says Collins, chair of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Collins brought attention to these kinds of scams — and Martin’s plight — last February, when she invited Andy Martin to testify at a congressional hearing.

Collins says 145 Americans, mostly seniors, have been arrested abroad due to scams that unwittingly turn them into drug mules. At least 30 are incarcerated overseas.

In March, Collins and eight other members of the Committee on Aging sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, asking him to intervene in Martin’s and others’ cases.

“We then had to do a months-long process, where we were calling the embassy in Spain and the State Department here, every single week, pushing and asking our government to intervene to get a humanitarian release,” Collins says.

As the committee pursues other cases, she says the Department of Homeland Security is also trying to prevent seniors from falling victim to scams in the first place. A program launched in late 2013 called Operation Cocoon has prevented 16 potential victims from transporting narcotics, and helped arrest perpetrators.

“There have been 15 other individuals who are affiliated with these international criminal organizations who were arrested overseas,” Collins says.

So far, no one has been arrested in connection with Martin’s case. He’s currently staying with Andy in Nevada, and though he’s grateful to be out of prison, he’s still dealing with the consequences of the scam.

He says he has lost his home, his car and his wife, who wants a divorce. They were married just before he tried to end things with Joy.

“So I have to look forward to losing just about everything else that I have,” Martin says.

He says he hopes his story serves as a warning to others, though looking back, he admits it’s hard to know when you’re the victim of a scam.

“It’s really hard, because like I say, I talked with this person for five years. Drugs were never mentioned in any context. We talked about so much, I really felt I knew her and could trust her,” Martin says.

Collins says her advice to seniors is to be wary of accepting a free plane ticket, and to never carry a package that you don’t know the contents of.