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'Classic scam': Ex-cop thinks area woman innocent in smuggling case

'I don’t want to give any false hope … but it just seems so similar to cases I have been involved with,' says retired Toronto police narcotics investigator

The family of Suzana Thayer, the Barrie woman who's being held in a Chinese jail awaiting trial on drug-trafficking charges, is refusing to give up hope that their mother will come home to them.

The 64-year-old mother of three and grandmother of six is being detained in a Chinese prison after being arrested at Hong Kong International Airport, accused of smuggling drugs into the country.

Her daughter, Angela Thayer, says she fell victim to not one but two online romance scams.

Two months after first sharing Suzana’s ordeal, Angela says she has managed to dig up a trail of emails from a person claiming to be James Caywood, the individual her mother thought she was meeting in Ethiopia last fall.

Having a paper trail, she says, is helping boost her confidence that they will be able to prove her mother was merely a pawn in someone else’s scheme and did not know that the clothing she was given contained one kilo — or 2.2 pounds — of cocaine hidden inside the buttons.

One reason for Angela's small boost in hope is support from several veteran police officers, who say they have seen innocent Canadians fall victim to similar scams too many times to count over the course of their careers.

One of those people is John Green, a retired Toronto Police Service Drug Squad detective, who reached in the hopes that his own experiences over his nearly four-decade career could, in some small way, help the Thayer family.

“It’s just similar facts and evidence to support her mom’s predicament,” said Green, who spent nearly four decades with Toronto police, and more than two of those decades doing drug investigations. 

“The information about the fact that she was a blind courier resonates with me and some of the investigations that I had,” he said, pointing to a prominent case he worked around 2010 that ultimately led to the conviction of a Canadian citizen in Japan on two drug-smuggling offenses

The Toronto resident had set up importation of ketamine and, with the help of a girlfriend, recruited three of her friends to use as 'blind couriers' to transport the drugs to Hong Kong, Green said. 

Green, who was the lead investigator on that case, said police checked the Toronto man's luggage prior to boarding the plane, but found nothing. 

“I didn’t know who these couriers were that I suspected he might have with him until we got to the airport and bags were already loaded on the plane," he said. "By the time I got the names off of the boarding passes … the airline wouldn't hold the plane until we could check those bags because it would put the flight crew over their time limit.”

Investigators, with the assistance of Canada Border Services Agency, alerted customs officials in Hong Kong, who were waiting for the group when they landed, subsequently arresting them all. The three blind couriers were held in custody in Hong Kong for approximately a month before authorities ultimately opted not to charge them, said Green.

However, the fact that the three women were used in a very similar situation leads Green to believe Suzana Thayer is also innocent of the charges against her. 

“Reading her story is similar in that she was duped — initially by this so-called love relationship with this guy who in turn put her on to meeting with these other people in (Ethiopia) to bring these buttons of dresses, which is not uncommon from the policing side of it. I don’t think she had any idea what she was doing,” he said.

In Green's opinion, the Barrie woman’s situation sounds like a “classic scam.”

“I don’t want to give any false hope … but it just seems so similar to cases I have been involved with," he said. "She more than likely had no idea what was going on.

"I can’t imagine what it’s like for this family to have their mother stuck in jail over there who I don’t think had any idea what she was getting into,” Green added.

Thayer's daughter says knowing that police officials with years of experience dealing in these types of cases believe her mother is innocent is extremely validating. 

“It’s just kind of validating my thoughts and feelings of what I was believing to be true," Angela said. "I was really trying to look at the evidence in front of me and take out the emotion. I just believe that she is innocent.

"When you have professionals that are saying she’s innocent, it just really validated (my thoughts)," she added. "I wanted to cry and scream. The downfall to it is we have to wait to get all of this to the courts, and an innocent person has to stay in jail.

"We can’t prove her innocence until she is at least in Middle Court, because she’s not allowed to submit anything until then.”