A retired minister from Maine serving time in a Spanish prison for trying to smuggle a large quantity of cocaine into the country is a victim of a so-called “romance scam” that has been targeting vulnerable senior citizens across the U.S., said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Joseph Bryon Martin of Dresden, a small town in Lincoln County, was arrested in Madrid, Spain, in July 2015 after airport security found nearly 2 kilograms of cocaine – worth about $450,000 – concealed in real estate documents he had picked up in South America for a woman he had fallen in love with in an online romance.

The 77-year-old’s son, Andy Martin of Henderson, Nevada, testified Wednesday before the Committee on Aging, the first time that the scam had been discussed publicly by Congress. Collins had asked Andy Martin, who grew up in Farmington, to testify.

“The criminals who set this chain of events into motion are cruel, but also very, very clever,” Collins told the committee. “I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that seniors and their families become aware of their techniques, and take action to protect themselves and their loved ones from these heartless criminals.”

Collins said victims are drawn into “a web of deceit using the romance scam in which the con artist develops a personal relationship, usually online, with the unsuspecting senior.” The victims, who are mostly elderly, are then instructed to pick up and transport packages across international borders. The victims are told to not open the packages and therefore don’t realize that they are being used as “drug mules” by international drug cartels.

Typically, the criminals pay the victim’s travel expenses for itineraries that are complicated and often result in the victim having to wait several days in a foreign country before they are contacted.

The U.S. government is aware of 145 Americans who have been arrested by foreign governments as a result of the scam. Forty-four of them, including Martin, remain incarcerated overseas. Collins said a total of 272 kilograms of methamphetamine, 209 kilograms of cocaine, 4 kilograms of ecstasy and 11 kilograms of cocaine have been confiscated.

“My dad is a retired pastor. He never drank, never smoked, didn’t chase women and never swore. However, being human, he did have his shortcomings,” Andy Martin told the Special Committee on Aging. “He was too trusting of people to the point of being gullible.”

TRICKED BY WOMAN, AILING IN PRISON

Martin said his father met a woman through an Internet chat site about six years ago. He described his dad as being single, broke and lonely at the time.

Martin was told by his father that the woman was “young, attractive and in her 30s.” The woman, who went by the name of Joy, told his father that she was a struggling artist living in England.

The older Martin became infatuated with Joy, who told him she loved him and wanted to come to America to marry him.

While their online relationship blossomed, Joy began to ask for things that were indicators of the trouble ahead.

Martin told the Senate Committee that his dad sent Joy money after she claimed to be poor and unable to buy food. Eventually she asked him to travel to South America to pick up real estate documents for a large estate she had allegedly inherited there.

Martin, however, eventually married a woman from Maine in May 2015 and the online relationship came to an end. That did not stop Joy, who asked Martin to help her by picking up the real estate documents in South America. She also offered to pay him a large sum of money if he agreed to retrieve the documents from her family’s attorney.

Joy told Martin she couldn’t get a visa to travel. Over the objections of his new wife, Martin made the trip. He collected two sealed packages that felt like books, but when his flight to London landed in Madrid, he was arrested by local authorities after they found cocaine packed inside.

Martin, who visited his father in a Madrid prison in October, said his dad is doing as well as can be expected, but his six-year sentence is too long for a 77-year-old man in failing health to endure.

He suffers chronic back pain and needs surgery. Before being arrested, he had been treated for prostate cancer, had quadruple bypass surgery and has a pacemaker. Martin has been living in the prison infirmary since his arrest.

Andy Martin said it breaks his heart to think that his dad will live out the rest of his life in a prison, alone and ashamed of what he did.

“At the age of 77 and in poor health, this likely is a life sentence,” Martin told the Senate committee. “The idea that my dad is now a convicted international drug smuggler is surreal as he had no prior criminal history. Before this conviction, my dad had never been charged with even a misdemeanor. I don’t recall him ever getting so much as a speeding ticket or parking ticket in his entire life.”

EFFORTS TO HELP SCAM TARGETS

In a statement issued by her office, Collins said Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol revealed Wednesday that they have created a new initiative called “Operation Cocoon” to combat the romance scam.

According to Collins, the operation has prevented at least 16 senior citizens caught up in the scam from boarding airplanes. Foreign authorities also have been able to arrest 15 suspects believed to be involved in the scam.

Collins asked immigration officials Wednesday if they could identify the countries where Americans are being held as prisoners “to see if there is a way that we could intervene to get these people returned home.” She also indicated that Congress will consider reaching out to the U.S. State Department to see if officials can negotiate the release of Martin and other prisoners.

“I don’t want my dad dying over there,” Martin said Wednesday night. “He has already served eight months. He deserves to come home.”