The apparent online scam that landed Suzana Thayer in a Hong Kong jail for allegedly trafficking cocaine on a flight from Ethiopia was not the first time the Ontario grandmother had been duped by a fake internet romance.
Thayer was writing a book about her first experience of being defrauded online — by someone purporting to be a doctor working for the United Nations in Syria — when her family says she was lured in again.
In the first ordeal the Barrie, Ont., resident lost more than $200,000. In the second she lost her liberty, at least for now, as she languishes in a Hong Kong jail pending resolution of her case.
Thayer’s daughter told The Canadian Press that her 64-year-old mother is “1,000 per cent innocent” of drug trafficking, and would never have knowingly travelled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of cocaine packed into buttons of clothing she was asked to transport.
Angela Thayer described her mother as a woman who became vulnerable as she sought companionship online several years after the 2016 death of her husband, the only man she had ever been with and to whom she had been married for decades.
“I believe she had no knowledge of the drugs and that she was a victim of a romance scam,” Thayer said in an interview.
When asked about the matter, Global Affairs Canada said “consular officials are actively engaged on this case and are providing consular assistance to the individual and their family.”
Suzana Thayer is receiving informal assistance from a Hong Kong-based Catholic clergyman named John Witherspoon, who says he’s helped more than a dozen foreigners who claimed to have been tricked into smuggling drugs.
Witherspoon said in an interview that he has visited Thayer in jail several times.
He voiced hope Thayer may walk free, saying the Hong Kong authorities “are not after blood at any cost,” and have a track record of releasing people when evidence points towards innocence.
“I am optimistic but I can’t guarantee a time frame,” he said.
“You just have to be patient.”
Thayer transferred $200K
Angela Thayer said her mother was first targeted by someone who identified themselves on Facebook as Walter Williams.
She isn’t certain when the relationship began, but knows that by the summer of 2021 her mother believed she was married to the person, who presented her with a marriage certificate subsequently deemed fake by Ontario Provincial Police.
Suzana Thayer had also transferred more than $200,000 to the person, her daughter said.
When Angela Thayer learned that her mother had been defrauded, she insisted they file a complaint with the OPP.
“She kind of broke down,” the younger Thayer said. “She says that she was in love with him.”
Suzana Thayer then wrote I’ve Been Conned: A Book for Dummies, that came out in June 2022 and was her attempt to raise awareness about the scourge of fake internet romances, which have defrauded countless people across the globe.
While writing her book, Thayer was approached on Facebook by someone who identified himself as James Caywood and claimed he was a member of the U.S. military.
Angela Thayer recalled how her mother sent chapters of her book to Caywood, who would provide feedback.
Their exchanges became romantic but suspicions weren’t raised because Caywood never asked for money, Thayer said.
Thayer arrested in Hong Kong
Caywood then got Suzana Thayer a one-month entry visa for Ethiopia and sent her a ticket to fly to Addis Ababa, her daughter said.
Angela Thayer asked her mother not to go, but Suzana Thayer insisted she would not pass up an opportunity to travel, having never previously left Canada.
According to Angela Thayer, her mother spent around two weeks in an Addis Ababa hotel, but Caywood never showed up. He then sent her a ticket to Hong Kong and asked her to meet him there.
Next, she said a man who identified himself as Eric brought a blue suitcase to the hotel, which he described as a gift from Caywood.
Angela Thayer said she received a call from her mother at 10 a.m. EST on Sept. 6, telling her that the police at Hong Kong’s airport had arrested her after discovering that the buttons of the clothes she was carrying in her suitcase were filled with cocaine.
Angela Thayer said she is now working tirelessly to secure her mother’s release, efforts that include a GoFundMe campaign to hire a lawyer in Hong Kong.
Her mother had lived a “sheltered” life, she said, and suffered from depression following the death of husband — a former police officer.
“She was just going online because she was lonely,” she said. “She was wanting to find that love that she had, that she lost, she just wanted to be with somebody again, to be happy.”