The ink on his fourth divorce was barely dry when Joseph Bryon Martin found himself browsing internet chat rooms late one night.

It was 2010 and he was living temporarily with his adult daughter in a trailer in rural Somerset County.

“I was divorced. I had recently been told I might be dying of cancer. I was lonely,” Martin said, attempting to explain how it all started. “Really, I was just looking for a friend, a companion.”

A woman emerged from the online sea of anonymity: mid-30s and pretty, slightly mysterious, a struggling artist living in London, a name synonymous with happiness. Joy.

Martin was twice her age, but a hopeless romantic. Four failed marriages had not stripped him of that. He didn’t know where the relationship would go, but he found comfort in their conversations.

Fast-forward five years after their initial contact and Martin was incarcerated in a prison overseas. The woman he developed a virtual bond with (who may not have been a woman at all) had persuaded him to deliver what he thought were real estate documents from Peru to England. He never made it to his destination. The documents turned out to be nearly 2 kilograms of cocaine, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, hidden in a pair of hollowed-out books.

Martin, who was in a wheelchair at the time and suffers from a host of health problems, spent the next 11 months in prison in Spain, a country whose legal system operates on the assumption that defendants are presumed guilty until they prove their innocence – not the other way around.

It took persistence and help from a Spanish attorney, pressure from a U.S. senator and, eventually, intervention by the U.S. State Department to get him released.

Martin, a one-time pastor, blames his own “stupidity” for the ordeal and said he’s deeply ashamed, but cases like his are becoming more common as international criminal organizations target senior citizens in a variety of scams.

Bryon Martin at a Las Vegas senior living center. Most of his possessions are back in Maine, where he lived for many years.

Bryon Martin in Las Vegas where he lives now.  Photo by Ronda Churchill Photo by Ronda Churchill

In some cases, scammers encourage seniors to send money, with the promise of a reward down the road. In other cases, like Martin’s, seniors become unwitting drug mules, pawns in the distribution of illegal narcotics without any way for authorities to trace them back to the source.

The State Department has tracked at least 145 Americans, including many seniors, who have been arrested overseas for illegally smuggling narcotics. Nearly three dozen remain incarcerated – some in countries far worse than Spain.

Maine’s senior U.S. senator, Susan Collins, has become an expert on such scams during her time as chairwoman of the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging. She first brought Martin’s case to the attention of her committee in February and later raised it directly with Secretary of State John Kerry.

With more and more baby boomers reaching retirement age, especially in such a gray state like Maine, Collins said it’s not a question of if such scams will keep occurring, but when.

“Of all the scams that we’ve investigated over the years that I’ve been on this committee, this is by far the worst,” Collins said in an interview last month. “The idea that an unsuspecting senior could be tricked into transporting drugs, get arrested and end up in a foreign jail thousands of miles from their home is just unbelievable.”

Martin, now 77, has been back in his native country for about two months. He’s living in Las Vegas, near his son Andrew. He’s slowly rebuilding his life – what’s left of it.

“For a while, it seemed like I was destined to die in that prison,” he said.

FREQUENTLY VISITED DATING SITES

Martin, who goes by his middle name Bryon to distinguish himself from his father, grew up mostly on the West Coast.

He first came to Maine as a missionary and helped build a Bible conference center in Weld, a tiny town west of Farmington in Franklin County. He bounced around a bit after that, spending time in Pennsylvania, Washington, and California before returning to Maine later in life.

Bryon Martin flips through a Bible at his Las Vegas home, where he lives to be near the son who helped rescue him.

Bryon Martin flips through a Bible at his Las Vegas home, where he lives to be near the son who helped rescue him. Photo by Ronda Churchill Photo by Ronda Churchill

He had four children with his first wife – two of them still live in Maine – although they eventually divorced. He said he found out later she was never really in love with him. After the divorce, he was forced to leave his ministry, so he managed motels and did other odd jobs until he retired.

But he still believed in love, or at least, companionship. He remarried three more times. All ended in divorce.

Martin met two of those wives online, so he was no stranger to dating sites and internet chat rooms when he wandered back there in 2010, not long after his fourth marriage dissolved.

He and Joy forged a connection quickly, mostly through instant messaging on the search site Yahoo. She told him she was an artist living in London. When he asked what she looked like, she sent pictures: Shoulder-length, layered, dark blond hair. Pale skin and dark eyes. A slight smile.

Joy, the woman Joseph Bryon Martin met online, might not even exist.

Joy, the woman Joseph Bryon Martin met online, might not even exist. Courtesy of Joseph Bryon Martin

“We talked about everything,” Martin said. “Her artwork. Her background. We talked about a life together. I knew she was so much younger, but that didn’t seem to be a major issue.”

Occasionally, Martin would send Joy money – he estimates approximately $1,000 over five years. His children, however, believe he was sending her more than that, perhaps as much as $500 a month for several months, or roughly half of his Social Security check. Martin’s daughter saw her home go into foreclosure – in part because she stopped getting rent payments from him, according to his son, Andrew.

The elder Martin said he now realizes he was naive, but any fears he had at the time about Joy’s intentions were quickly allayed. Any time he brought up a detail from a previous conversation, for instance, Joy didn’t miss a beat. She even sent him a copy of her passport. Once, Martin bought a plane ticket so she could come visit him but she backed out at the last minute.

Not once in their slow-burn computer courtship did they talk about drugs, he said.

By early 2015, nearly five years into his relationship with Joy, Martin had met a woman in Maine named Claire. They fell in love and he got married for a fifth time. They moved in together in Dresden, a town in Lincoln County between Brunswick and Augusta. He was upfront with Claire about his online relationship with Joy and began to extricate himself from it.

But there was still something Joy wanted from him. Periodically, they had chatted about a real estate inheritance in her name. It was complicated, but she said if he helped her, she would share the proceeds. All Martin needed to do was fly to Lima, Peru, pick up some documents and then deliver them to Joy in London.

She couldn’t do it, she told him, because she couldn’t get a travel visa. Joy even sent Martin the plane tickets, already paid for. His new wife warned him not to go, but he thought if he did, he could recoup some of the money he’d sent Joy.

“I promised (Joy) I would make the trip, so that’s what I did,” he said.

FIRST STOP: LIMA, PERU

Martin first flew to Peru in late June 2015, where he was to meet with a representative for Joy’s attorney, a man named Ken. He was told it would be a couple of days before he could get the real estate documents but he ended up waiting 11 days in a local hotel room before the meeting took place. He was told the documents still needed signatures. At one point, Joy even sent money via Western Union to pay for Martin’s hotel.

When the meeting finally took place, a man met Martin outside his hotel room. They went back to the room, where the man gave Martin two packages. They looked like hardcover books that had been shrink-wrapped.

Martin admitted he was skeptical but still, he never suspected drugs.

“What if they want to open them up at airport security?” he asked the man.

The man told him that if that happened, he should let them.

Martin went back to the airport in Lima with a ticket to Europe. His final destination was London, but he had to go through Madrid first and then Dublin, Ireland.

“I went through the X-ray machine in Peru and nothing happened,” he said. “So I got on the plane.”

About 12 hours later, he landed at Madrid-Barajas Airport in the Spanish capital.

Martin was using a wheelchair at the time because of his various health problems – he had been treated for prostate cancer, he had recent bypass surgery, he suffered from chronic back pain. While waiting in line to go through security, he had a carry-on bag and camera case in his lap, and placed both of them on the conveyor belt to be X-rayed.

“The first one went through the machine and the guy said ‘Oh.’ And then the next went through and he said, ‘Oh,’ again. Then he said, ‘There is a problem here.’ ”

Martin watched as airport security personnel unwrapped the two packages he thought contained real estate documents. One worker used a knife to remove a small amount of white powder. It tested positive for cocaine.

Martin was placed under arrest immediately.

Local police held him for a night and the next morning he appeared before a three-judge panel to face the charge of drug smuggling. The judges determined enough probable cause existed to keep him incarcerated.

Between the two packages, Martin had unknowingly smuggled nearly 2 kilograms of cocaine that had a value ranging between $200,000 and $450,000, depending on how it was repackaged or sold and whether the high-purity product was diluted along its retail path.

In an instant, an elderly man in failing health, whose only prior brush with the law was a single speeding ticket, joined the various criminals housed at Centro Penitenciario Madrid.

“In a weird way, I am pleased I got caught because that means those drugs never ended up on the street,” Martin said.

BADLY NEEDED HELP FROM SON

When Martin failed to arrive in London, the criminals started to panic.

They called Martin’s wife, asking why he wasn’t in London. They had thick African accents and appeared angry, even threatening. After fielding several calls, she had to change her phone number.

Shortly after, she decided this was too much drama for a late-in-life marriage. She filed for divorce while Martin was still in prison.

Because of Martin’s recent behavior – some going back to before he even met Joy – his relationships with his children also had deteriorated. His oldest son wrote him off entirely. His two daughters were frustrated as well.

That left Andrew, who got an international collect call at his home outside Las Vegas last summer. He hadn’t seen his dad in more than a decade.

“When I got a call that he was picked up for smuggling drugs, I said, ‘You must have the wrong person,’ ” Andrew Martin said. “I thought it was a joke.”

When he realized his father really was in trouble, Andrew Martin talked to his three siblings and then began to piece together the story.

Then they had to decide how to get him out.

A Spanish Civil Guard car patrols Soto del Real penitentiary, near Madrid.

Soto del Real penitentiary, near Madrid, one of the prisons where Martin was held. Reuters Reuters

The U.S. State Department was notified of Martin’s case on July 13, two days after he was detained. Spanish authorities contacted the local embassy and a consular officer visited Martin in prison on July 15, per the terms of the Vienna Convention, an international agreement that outlines broad guidelines for diplomatic relations between countries.

The first step was to get him a lawyer. Martin was provided a list of attorneys who handle criminal cases and who speak English. He chose Matthias Wiegner, a German who had represented Americans before, even in drug smuggling cases, which are common in Spanish courts because of the country’s close links to South America.

“Spanish police and customs call the flights from South America ‘vuelos calientes’ (hot flights) and those flights get closely monitored,” Wiegner said.

Even though Martin was a senior citizen and using a wheelchair, suspicions were raised because of his flight’s origin.

Wiegner said it was clear to him that Martin had been scammed but he knew proving it would be virtually impossible, because Martin never knew the identity of the people with whom he was dealing.

“If you get arrested with such a significant amount of drugs, they don´t want to hear the excuse ‘I did not know,’ ” he said. “The reason is basically that such an approach would open a door to all future smugglers claiming that they did not know what they were carrying.”

Wiegner said he didn’t bother trying to demonstrate Martin’s innocence. Instead, he worked with Spanish prosecutors on a plea deal. In January, Martin pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs. Because of the amount of drugs involved, he was sentenced to the mandatory minimum – six years and one day – although it could have been much longer if he had been found guilty at trial.

“My approach was to find a solution once Bryon was sentenced,” Wiegner said.

By that time, Andrew Martin was in regular contact with Collins’ office.

Collins, as head of the Senate’s Committee on Aging, had heard plenty of anecdotal stories about seniors who had been scammed in one fashion or another, but suddenly one of the targeted was one of her own constituents.

Knowing how difficult it is to navigate international courts, Collins said the best way to help Martin might be to share his story. She asked Andrew if he’d be willing to come to Washington, D.C., to testify before her committee.

Andrew said if she thought that would help his dad, of course he would.

TESTIMONY TO SENATE COMMITTEE

The hearing was set for Feb. 10. Andrew Martin was among a number of people who spoke about the growing problem of online scams targeting seniors.

He walked the committee members through what he knew about his father’s relationship with Joy and how that led him to Peru and then Spain.

“The incident involving my dad has had a significant negative impact on his reputation, his finances and his closest personal relationships,” he testified. “This is likely a life sentence.”

Media outlets across the country covered the hearing, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The elder Martin, meanwhile, was still stuck in a prison on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Because of his health issues, Martin spent all of his prison time in the infirmary inside Centro Penitenciario Madrid. That meant he never had to mingle with the general population of inmates, although there were murderers and rapists and actual drug smugglers in the infirmary, too.

Still, Martin said he was treated well. State Department officials said Andrew Martin provided medical records for his father, which allowed prison officials to address his health problems. The food, Martin said, was “mediocre.” The beds and chairs were “basically comfortable.” He had access to medications for his various ailments.

Martin said he often exaggerated his failing health to ensure he would stay in the infirmary. He spent a lot of time reading magazines and books that his attorney brought him. He was allowed 10 phone calls each week, but each could last only five minutes and the people he called had to be preapproved.

He befriended the guards and some other inmates, including a German man who encouraged him to adopt a more optimistic outlook. He said he knew people were working on his behalf, but no one could make any promises.

On March 4, less than a month after the high-profile hearing, Collins and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the Aging Committee, sent a letter to Kerry, pleading with him to “raise Mr. Martin’s case directly with the Spanish government.”

In May, Andrew Martin got a letter from a prominent State Department official saying the agency was looking into the case.

They couldn’t change the outcome of the court case but officials from the Bureau of Consular Affairs worked with Collins’ staff and Martin’s attorney to find a solution. They enlisted a court-appointed forensic doctor who concluded that Martin, because of his failing health, could not receive the treatment he needed behind prison walls. Spanish officials then agreed that he wasn’t a threat. He petitioned for and was granted what is called a humanitarian release.

“I think, but for our hearing and his son’s testimony, Mr. Martin would still be there,” Collins said.

Martin recalled how he found out he was free.

“I was up in my room and they have an intercom system,” he said. “When they call your name out, you go down to the guard station. There was a man there they called ‘the educator,’ he spoke good English. He had this big smile on his face and said, ‘You’re free.’ And that was it.”

Martin called his lawyer, who arranged for him to stay at a hotel in Madrid until he could get a flight home. Three days later, he landed in Boston, where his son was waiting for him.

‘THEY WILL TRY ANYTHING’

Collins said Martin’s story should serve as a cautionary tale for Maine seniors. She said families need to be mindful of their loved ones’ online activity and unexplained expenses.

“Some people lose money and that’s bad enough, but Mr. Martin lost his freedom,” she said.

Authorities have not found the people behind the scam that landed Martin in prison. They likely will never find out.

“What I have learned is how ruthless and persistent these criminals are,” Collins said. “They will try anything and say anything. And they are clever.”

Andrew Martin said he’s relieved to have his dad back home and said the two have been working to mend a relationship that had deteriorated over many years.

“I’ll be honest, this was way more than I bargained for,” he said. The younger Martin had recently remarried, and his 22-year-old son and his son’s girlfriend had recently moved out of the house. He was looking forward to spending more time with his new wife when his father’s crisis happened.

“But there was no one to help him if I didn’t,” he said. “You’ve got to stick by your family.”

Bryon Martin has settled into an apartment at a senior housing complex in Las Vegas. He has few personal effects there; everything he owns is still back in Maine with one of his daughters and he’s not sure when he’ll get it back.

Joseph Bryon Martin sits in his bedroom in Las Vegas.

Joseph Bryon Martin sits in his bedroom in Las Vegas. Photo by Ronda Churchill

Martin still has health issues to contend with, some of the old ones, but now also some new ones. His back still gives him constant pain. He still has his pacemaker checked regularly. He started developing panic attacks and has trouble sleeping through the night.

The laptop he once used to communicate with Joy is still wrapped in plastic from when he had to turn it over to authorities, along with all his other possessions, after his arrest in Spain.

Martin said he plans to stay offline for a while.