Falling prey to Nigerian scam artists cost Trevor Miranda his marriage and more than $100,000. But it wasn’t until his freedom was in jeopardy that the retired chef realised what a fool he was.

The Aucklander was lured to Papua New Guinea on the promise of picking up US$8.5 million in cash. He returned empty-handed – except for some extra luggage, which a man who called himself Daniel Tucker asked him to take.

His passenger arrival card immediately raised red flags with border authorities.

Q: Did you pack your baggage?

A: No.

Q: Are you carrying any goods on behalf of anyone else?

A: Yes

A Customs officer x-rayed the black backpack and blue suitcase to find 1.5kg of methamphetamine hidden in secret compartments in the padding.

Bewildered by the discovery of the drugs, the truth finally dawned on Mr Miranda, who was 68 at the time.

“I was shattered. I was really shattered,” Mr Miranda told the Weekend Herald.

“When I was asked, ‘do you have something to declare?’, I said ‘yes’ and gave them the bags. I never expected [Daniel Tucker] to be so low. I trusted him. I never expected him to treat me in this way.”

Importing a Class A drug carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Sitting in the interview room with law enforcement officers, a distraught Mr Miranda – with no previous brushes with the law – was looking at a long lag behind bars.

He co-operated with a five-week covert police investigation to identify those behind the smuggling ring, which still ended with his arrest in December 2013 and a long wait until trial. Last week, he was finally cleared of all charges after a marathon 11-week trial in the High Court at Auckland.

Choking back tears, Mr Miranda recalls the emotions when the jury read out: “Not guilty.”

“To be honest, I was in tears … but not emotionally showing that to the court. I was ecstatic. I understand that it was prayers that led to this,” said Mr Miranda.

“The thought of going to prison was very, very terrifying. The trial was also terrifying and tiring … I was positive that I was innocent. But my innocence had to be accepted by the jury.”

His defence? That he had no knowledge of the drugs secreted inside the luggage and was an unwitting pawn, groomed and duped by an unscrupulous con artist.

His defence counsel, Lorraine Smith, told the jury they would not have been fooled.

“But clearly there is a fundamental flaw in Mr Miranda’s reasoning process. Or perhaps it is an obsession. Perhaps it is an addiction. But whatever is the actual fault, the people who conduct these scams are able to attract naive victims; groom them and bleed them dry.”

In the late 1990s, Mr Miranda received the first of many emails that said a relative in Africa had left him $2 million. Born in India, he wasn’t sure if he had any family there but responded anyway. For the inheritance to be released, he was asked to send between $100 and $200, which he did.

The requests kept coming, for different reasons, and Mr Miranda kept paying.

Next was a refugee from Ghana, calling himself Chol Gerang, who needed an overseas sponsor in order for his own inheritance to be transferred. Again, Mr Miranda sent the money but nothing happened. He was later told the boy had died.

After that, emails from other refugees who appeared to have the same issues as Chol Gerang started arriving.

“At no stage did Mr Miranda ever doubt the authenticity of these appeals to help people in distress,” Mrs Smith told the jury.

Over the next 13 years, until his arrest, he sent about $100,000 to different people who emailed him asking for help.

These, of course, were advance-fee fraud emails, commonly referred to as “Nigerian 419 scams”.

Fed up with the constant flow of money, Mr Miranda’s wife left him but still he persisted.

A “Daniel Tucker” sent an email claiming to work for the United Nations in Nigeria. He told Mr Miranda that the UN had set aside US$8.5 million to repay the $100,000 and use the remaining balance to build an orphanage in New Zealand. The money never arrived.

On November 4, 2013, Tucker again wrote to ask Mr Miranda to travel to Papua New Guinea to uplift the cash, bank it, then transfer it to a New Zealand account.

Tucker even sent him $972 by Western Union to pay for the return flight and Mr Miranda departed for Port Moresby a few days later.

Mrs Smith told the jury that Tucker capitalised on her client’s desire to help people. “Mr Tucker hooked into that desire to build an orphanage and help needy people so that he could manipulate and groom Mr Miranda to unwittingly bring drugs into New Zealand … He knew the right button to push and he pushed it.”

Of course, the US$8.5 million was no longer in Papua New Guinea when Mr Miranda arrived. Apparently there was a mix-up and the cash, contained in two boxes, was in fact in New Zealand.

The notes were coated in a substance to protect them while in storage, which could be easily removed by a chemical that Mr Miranda was to take back home. This is another elaborate ruse commonly employed by Nigerian scammers to gain a target’s trust.

Mr Miranda refused – he wasn’t going to take chemicals on a plane. Instead, Tucker said the chemicals would be shipped to Mr Miranda’s home in Auckland and arranged for a laptop to be given to Mr Miranda to “track” the progress of the parcel.

He was also given another bag to carry back and told to then give the laptop to someone waiting for him at Auckland International Airport.

Both bags were declared at the border, then x-rayed before the $1.5 million of methamphetamine was discovered.

“At that point, I came to my senses,” said Mr Miranda.

He agreed to co-operate with detectives from the Organised and Financial Crime Agency of New Zealand to trace those working with “Daniel Tucker”. Several attempts to hand over the drugs to “Alfred Coker” did not come to fruition, until they arranged to meet at a supermarket in Mangere Bridge.

Mr Miranda asked for the code phrase – “In God we trust” – which was not returned. In farcical scenes, he refused to hand over the bags despite the police, who were watching covertly, silently willing him to.

Eventually, at the urging of Tucker over the telephone, the transaction was completed. Mr Miranda’s part was done and he hopped on the next bus.

The detectives kept following the drugs parcels and intercepting the phone calls of those involved until their arrests in December 2013.

While Mr Miranda was acquitted, co-accused Ugochukwa Okpara, Nnamdi Iwu, Hyacaith Ochibulu and David Obiaga were found guilty of various methamphetamine charges.

Nancy Leefe, whom the Nigerian nationals used to pick up the bag from Mr Miranda in a bid to distance themselves, was also convicted. She was paid just $200. Her son Whetu was acquitted.

Mr Miranda, who turns 70 in November, is speaking publicly now in order to warn others of the dangers of Nigerian scams. He may be a free man but his naivety has cost him dearly. More than $100,000, his marriage and almost his freedom.

He struggles to explain how he was sucked in by Tucker’s tall tales.

“I’ve never seen this man. I’ve never had a photograph of him. But he kind of brainwashed me,” he said.

“They were preying on my naivety … they could manipulate me. I have lost a lot … it’s something that was a fantasy that they made me feel was to come to fruition. And it didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen.”

Despite his very public fall from grace, Mr Miranda realises his situation could have been far more serious.

Fellow New Zealander Antony de Malmanche is languishing in an Indonesian jail cell awaiting trial for smuggling 1.7kg of methamphetamine into the country. His defence is ostensibly the same as Mr Miranda’s – that he was duped by a cunning organised crime syndicate that took advantage of his naivety.

Antony de Malmanche with his lawyer, Craig Tuck, awaiting trial for drug smuggling in Bali. Photo / Supplied
Antony de Malmanche with his lawyer, Craig Tuck, awaiting trial for drug smuggling in Bali. Photo / Supplied
If convicted, de Malmanche could face the same fate as members of the so-called “Bali 9”, who were caught smuggling heroin. Ringleaders Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, both Australian citizens, were recently executed by firing squad, while seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment.

It’s something that Mr Miranda has thought about.

“I would say I’m very, very lucky this didn’t happen to me in another country.”

How it unfolded

• Over a period of 13 years, Trevor Miranda gave $100,000 to various email requests for financial help from African nations.

• One man in regular contact was Daniel Tucker, who purported to work for the United Nations in Nigeria.

• He told Mr Miranda there was US$8.5 million in Papua New Guinea to repay him. The balance could be spent on building an orphanage in New Zealand.

• Tucker gave him $972 for a return flight from Auckland to Port Moresby in November 2013.

• On arrival, Mr Miranda was put up in a hotel, given money for his expenses and a laptop. But he was told the money was now in New Zealand.

• Tucker convinced him to carry two pieces of luggage back to New Zealand. Hidden inside was 1.5kg of methamphetamine.

• Mr Miranda declared these bags at Auckland International Airport and the drugs were discovered. He co-operated with Customs and the police to track down those who had used him.

• He was charged with importing a Class A drug and possession for supply, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

• He was acquitted on both counts after an 11-week trial.