WASHINGTON – Victor Stemberger wasn't about to ignore the emails inviting him into a multimillion-dollar business opportunity, so he pitched himself as perfect for the job. In a way, he was – but for all the wrong reasons.
The 76-year-old Virginia man, whose family says he has cognitive issues, accepted the offer and boasted of his credentials as “an experienced businessman who does what he says he will do, and executes flawlessly, according to plan.”
He apparently did follow the plan, but the execution wasn't flawless.
Today Stemberger sits in a Spanish jail, one year after flying into the country with more than 5 pounds of cocaine expertly sewn into bubble jackets in a bag. His family says he knew nothing about the drugs. Though Spanish authorities are dubious, the U.S. Justice Department has advised Spain that it believes Stemberger was duped into acting as a drug mule for a West Africa criminal network, and has asked the country for evidence it's gathered, according to correspondence obtained by The Associated Press.
Federal officials have for years warned about scams that lure elderly Americans or those with diminished mental capacity – Stemberger had a significant brain injury nearly 15 years ago – into becoming drug couriers. The scams convince them that they'll receive payouts if they travel or take some other requested action.
“One of the common characteristics that we find in these scams is that oftentimes the senior is living alone, has lost a spouse and is lonely,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who leads the Senate Special Committee on Aging and helped secure the release of a Maine man jailed in Spain under similar circumstances as Stemberger.
Stemberger, who marks his one-year anniversary in Spanish detention on July 5, faces a trial next month in Madrid. His son says the only explanation for his father's actions is that “these perpetrators really connected with our dad under the veil of what he thought was a legitimate business opportunity.”
“With his diminished mental state, he became the perfect victim of a crime syndicate just like this,” Vic Stemberger said.
A spokesman for the Madrid judiciary, who agreed to discuss the case only on condition of anonymity, said Stemberger told authorities he had planned to deliver the jackets to United Nations officials in Asia and he didn't know they contained drugs. Officials did not consider the narrative plausible and sought to have him jailed before trial rather than let him return to the U.S., 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 cleverly distributed among the jackets.
“It's a pity that it's always the mules that are being snatched, the lowest in the scale of a criminal organization. They are the easiest, weakest target, but there is rarely a police investigation, deep and rigorous, targeting the original sin,” Ospina said.
The Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors from the Southern District of New York are investigating whether his contacts were part of a West Africa network of money launderers, fraudsters and drug traffickers under scrutiny for scheming the elderly and feeble, according to a Justice Department document sent to Spain last October. It also seeks permission to interview Stemberger, as well as copies of investigative documents and Spain's help in investigating the network.