‘They knew I was innocent’: Jailed for drugs in Hong Kong, Ontario grandma tells her story

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Suzana Thayer of Barrie became an ‘unwitting drug mule’ and spent nine months in prison before being suddenly released with no explanation

Barrie resident Suzana Thayer tells the story of her detainment in a Chinese prison and the twist in the story around her sudden and unexpected release in May after she was jailed in Hong Kong in September 2022 for allegedly smuggling cocaine into the country through the Hong Kong airport.

Thayer, the victim of an alleged romance scam, travelled to Hong Kong to meet a man whom she had developed a long-distance, online relationship with. He called himself James Caywood and claimed to be a member of the United States military living in California.

Not long before this mystery man was set to travel to Toronto to meet her in March 2022, she received an email from Caywood informing her that he would not in fact be allowed to fly to Ontario. She then submitted a passport application in order to fly to Ethiopia to meet him instead.

Her daughter, Barrie resident Angela Thayer, is convinced that her mother had no idea where she was actually going.

Caywood purchased her ticket, hotel and meals while she was away, but the two never actually met at any point.

Due to a travel visa that was soon to expire, a flight home to Toronto was set, but a last-minute change saw her travel to Hong Kong.

On her departure date, Suzana was “gifted” a suitcase full of new clothes from Caywood, which, unbeknownst to her, contained cocaine hidden inside buttons on the clothing. She was arrested upon arrival in Hong Kong with 2.2 pounds of the narcotic in her possession.

Angela learned of her mother’s fate on Sept. 6, 2022, when Suzana called to tell her she’d been arrested for drug trafficking.

In the end, Suzana spent 274 days, almost nine months, before being released on May 27, 2023, with no explanation as to why.

“They wore me down (at the airport) three days prior to the interrogation (on video),” she tells our sister site, BarrieToday. “I was in handcuffs for the three days, but was surprised they took them off for the video interrogation.”

Suzana says she repeatedly requested a lawyer from the first day of incarceration, but was refused one.

She also asked to speak with the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong, but they denied that as well, she claims.

Medication she required for heart problems — such as pills to treat blood pressure and cholesterol — as well as pain pills she needed, were withheld.

She says her health began to deteriorate.

“At one point when they were interrogating me, just before they took me to a hospital, I looked at the interrogator and said ‘this is torture’. He literally smiled at me and said ‘yes it is.’

“It was demeaning and cruel,” she adds. “You just want to crawl in a corner and cry, and that’s basically what I did. I just cowered in a corner.”

What especially bothered her was when officials placed a hood over her head.

“The one guy said to me, ‘this is to protect you,’ and his next words were ‘you’re not going to be in for long,’ so I do believe that right from the beginning, they knew I was innocent,” she says.

Suzana Thayer’s photo of a tree, the first thing she saw outside of the Hong Kong courthouse, after she was suddenly released by officials with no explanation. She had been in prison for nine months after being arrested for drug trafficking in September 2022. | Image supplied

‘Get up! Stand at attention!’

Suzana was then moved to jail where she spent the remainder of her nine months in prison, waiting for her case to wind its way through the country’s legal system.

She says she suffered physically while in prison. She was taken to hospital several times because of the denial of her medication for more than a month, “because one doctor there said it was all in my head and that I didn’t need any medication.

“When the head madam came by, and every time the madam comes by you have to stand at attention and be fully garbed in your prison uniform. I was sitting in my underwear and a T-shirt, and I was sitting on the bed when she (stood) next to me, she goes ‘Get up! Stand at attention!’

“I tried to stand up,” Suzana explains. “She took one look at me and said sit down, get better and the next thing I know they had me at the hospital.”

She says she was in a hospital for over a week so doctors there could determine what medicine she required because the doctor in the prison refused to give her any medication, resulting in her hospital stay.

Over the next several months, Suzana says she occupied her time with education, learning about the legal system in China and specifically Hong Kong.

“I did the university law course for one of the girls in prison because she couldn’t read English and she didn’t know how to write properly, so she asked me to do the course for her,” Suzana says. “I wanted to do it only because I wanted to know about their law.

“I was so disgusted, because whoever is judging (the case), if they had a bad day, they could take it out on you, and they don’t have to explain why you are charged and convicted. Right now, they are still using part of the British rules, however they are breaking away from it as well. They want to use their own Chinese laws,” she adds.

Suzana claims no one has ever been released through the lower court, where she was stuck, “because you do not have a voice there. You cannot have a lawyer, you can’t even speak for yourself. Only in middle to high court. I never got to that stage.”

She adds that “most people that are in there, and I’ve talked to quite a few people that have been used as (drug) mules, didn’t have a clue as to what was happening to them. They are in there for 20 years or more because Hong Kong chooses which way they want to go.”

Suzana says she spoke with several fellow inmates about their situation, and described one story of a woman who is serving 20 years in prison. That woman was asked by her boyfriend to bring a book to Hong Kong and the book contained hidden drugs.

Another woman was jailed because she brought Christmas ornaments into the country, which contained drugs.

Suzana claims around 10 per cent of the women who were in the prison with her are innocent of similar crimes.

Living conditions in the prison were subpar as well, she says.

“The person sleeping next to me was a murderer and I was in a cell with 15 women. The beds were like plastic coffee tables with a couple of blankets. No mattresses, no nothing,” she says.

She also noted she was only allowed to go outside for a maximum of 10 minutes each day, and sometimes not at all.

‘She is really, really out’

Back home in Barrie, her daughter, Angela Thayer, tells BarrieToday that at the time Barrie police wrote a letter to the court in Hong Kong, saying this is what a romance scam is, and included her statements to police, in an attempt to make clear it was a scam.

“There are some reporters I know in Hong Kong that declined speaking to me and I was advised against speaking to anyone (in the media) in Hong Kong,” says Angela. “I could say anything I wanted to in Ontario, but I couldn’t say anything in Hong Kong” about her mother’s plight.

Fast forward to May 2023, on the day of Suzana’s unexpected and surprising release from prison, she was told by the head madam she was to appear in court that day, which was a Saturday.

Suzana replied that she instead had to be in court the following Monday as previously scheduled. The madam insisted this was not the case and Suzana was ushered away.

“My lawyer did not know this,” she says. 

Neither her lawyer, Gerard Morada, nor Father John, a local priest who helped her with her case and is well known for assisting foreign nationals who get arrested as drug mules, knew she was at the courthouse.

“I was at the court all day,” she says. “All they kept talking about was the buttons and how many there were.”

That’s when she found out there were 270 buttons with cocaine hidden inside them on all the dresses which were in her suitcase at the airport.

They put her back in a cell again.

Suzana Thayer was gifted a jacket and a suitcase with new clothes prior to her September 2022 arrest in Hong Kong for allegedly trafficking cocaine. She has since been released from jail. | Image supplied

Morada finally arrived at the courthouse and he told her he thought the court may release her.

“He just had a hunch,” she says.

At around 2:30 in the afternoon, a jail guard unlocked her cell door and took her to where her belongings were at the prison where she lived.

“Maybe they were taking me somewhere else,” Suzana says. “I didn’t know what they were doing.”

They then took her to another room where they gave her back her money and cellphone that was seized at the airport nine months prior.

“My lawyer, Gerard, barged in just as they were handing me the money, and he said ‘count every cent,’ so I counted the money,” she explains.

The next thing she was told by officials was she could go out a nearby door.

“And that was the first time I walked out of the courthouse through the front door,” she says. “The only one I ever saw was the back door where they bring the prisoners.”

When she stepped outside she says the first thing she saw was a tree, so she took a picture.

Meanwhile, Morada was trying to contact Angela back in Barrie on the phone, but she was asleep as it was 3 a.m. here in the city. Angela finally awoke and answered their call.

When she found out her mother was finally free, she says she burst into tears.

Morada sent her a picture of himself standing outside the courthouse with her mother.

“This is real,” he said. “She is really, really out.”

Suzana says she was dumbfounded by the events that day.

“They just dropped all of the charges against me and let me go free,” she says.

“I couldn’t sleep,” says Angela. “I was awake when she called at 3 a.m. and couldn’t sleep again until the next night.”

When her mother arrived back in Canada on June 5, her first words to her mom were: “I can’t believe it’s you, I can’t believe you’re home.”

Looking back on the ordeal, Suzana reflects on the people and organizations that helped make her release happen.

“I attribute it to W5,” she says of the CTV documentary program that aired at the time reporting on her case.

“I attribute it to Father John. I attribute it to Gerard, and to the Barrie police department, the Ontario Provincial Police, and my daughter especially, because she was my go-to person. Every time I had that 10-minute phone call (each day from prison), I said to her ‘get in touch with so-and-so, do this, do this,'” Suzana says.

Barrie resident Suzana Thayer was arrested at the airport after arriving in Hong Kong in September 2022 for allegedly smuggling cocaine inside buttons on the clothes she had in her suitcase. She has since been released from prison and returned to her home in Barrie. | Image supplied

‘Never in a million years’

Suzana never thought she would ever fall victim to a con-artist.

“Never in a million years,” she says. “Not once did it happen, but twice, and by the same guy. You know why the guy got me so easy the second time? Because he knew who I was.

“If you’re talking to some guy and you’re starting to fall for them online, and all of a sudden they turn around and say ‘I’m going to give you a present, I’m going to send you on a trip, and I’m going to meet you there,’ trust me, they’ll never meet.”

She says she had nine months stuck in a foreign prison to figure it all out.

“I hated myself so much,” she says. “People don’t realize how hard it is to sit there and look at your life, knowing that you’re going to die someplace and never see the people you love again. You can’t even put it in words.”

She feels that too many people are conned, and they are too embarrassed to come forward and admit to it, “because you’re labelled, and people shun you for it.

“I don’t care if I get egg on my face if it’s going to help someone realize what is happening out there,” she says in regards to her telling her story.

“People should not think with their hearts.”

The investigation continued well after Suzana arrived back home in Canada. She gave Barrie police her cellphone when she got back.

“They do have some leads right now that they are working on,” she says. 

Back in Hong Kong, Michael Arthur, a lawyer based there who assisted with the W5 reporters and who also helped Suzana, but did not officially represent her, continues the effort to try and clarify why she was released from prison.

“I have drafted a letter for her to write to the prosecutions in Hong Kong asking for the reasons why the case was dropped,” he tells BarrieToday.

As to his theory about why she was released so suddenly?

“I’m none the wiser. It’s a bit of a mystery, really. It’s unheard of by me. It’s very unusual,” he says. “The television program may have had some impact on the decision of the prosecution to drop the case, but maybe not. Maybe it was something else.”

His office sees quite a few similar cases, he says.

“A week before last, a guy from Texas came in with four kilos of cocaine. I’ve dealt with a lot of these cases, to be quite frank.

“Unwitting drug mules, is a real problem,” Arthur adds. “I’ve had a steady stream of people like this, with some variation, since about 2014.”

Meanwhile, back in Barrie, Suzana hopes police will be able to track down the person who put her in this predicament in the first place. 

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