How a small town Canadian grandmother ended up in a Hong Kong prison

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Over my career, I have investigated a number of romance scams. There is, tragically, a never-ending supply of stories of vulnerable, lonely people who have been duped into handing over their heart and their money to someone who doesn’t exist.

In one investigation, I told the story of what’s believed to be Canada’s costliest romance scam: an Ontario woman who was robbed of almost two million dollars.

In another investigation, in which the victim died by suicide, I infiltrated the Nigerian crime syndicate, The Black Axe.

For another story I tracked down one of the thieves and exposed how once you give up even a small amount of money, you are put on a so-called “suckers list.” And I have also engaged online with a man who was trying to scam me.

But I have never seen a story like the one airing this weekend on W5.

I first learned of Suzana Thayer’s plight when her daughter Angela sent me a panicked email, begging for help.

Her mother had been arrested at Hong Kong’s main airport, accused of smuggling drugs into the country.

It was such an implausible story. How did a grandmother of six from Barrie, Ont. get caught up in an international scheme that ended with her behind bars, potentially for the rest of her life?

The short answer is: loneliness, naivete and a desire for love. The long answer is more complicated.

Five years after she became a widow, 64-year-old Suzana decided to try to find love online. She was flattered by all of the attention she received. She quickly fell in love with a man who, over the course of a few months, drained her of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

They never met in person.

Her friends and family believe that same man then re-entered her on-line life, using a new name and a new photo. But instead of trying to get money from her, this time he had another plan.

He paid for her to fly to Ethiopia, ostensibly to meet him. But he never showed. So he had some friends drop off presents: new clothing and a new suitcase. He then bought her a ticket to meet him in Hong Kong, where she now sits behind bars.

It turns out those gifts were loaded with cocaine inside the buttons of the clothes.

Our investigation, “The Cocaine Buttons,” spans from Canada to Ethiopia and Hong Kong where lawyer Michael Arthur says Suzana’s only hope is to prove that she was caught up in an international crime syndicate.

“There are pretty severe sentences here. She is looking at serious jail time,” he told W5.

Her case isn’t expected to even go to trial for another two years. In the meantime, Suzana only gets one 10-minute phone call a month.

I was on the call she had with her daughter Angela in January. Through a crackling connection’ she said; “It would be a life sentence if I am convicted. Not being able to see my family again hurts the most. I want you guys to know I am completely done with internet dating.”

Watch W5’s one-hour documentary, ‘The Cocaine Buttons,’ Saturday at 7 p.m.

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