MADRID – A Spanish court on Thursday found a 77-year-old American man guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced him to seven years in prison, rejecting his defense that he was duped.
Victor Stemberger had told the Madrid provincial court he didn’t know cocaine was hidden in the jackets he carried across the world on behalf of a man he thought represented the United Nations. Stemberger spent over a year in pretrial detention before his trial started earlier this month,
The court concluded that found that he was carrying 2.4 kilograms (more than 5 pounds) of cocaine as he stopped over in the Spanish capital on a journey from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Hong Kong. The drug was expertly sewn into four puffer jackets Stemberger had carried.
The Vietnam war veteran and former business coach from the state of Virginia told the court he was asked to take the jackets by a man called Frank or Franklin, whom he met after receiving an email from an unidentified person, according to the court's written verdict in the case.
The verdict said Stemberger admitted transporting the jackets, which he was told were gifts, but said he didn’t know they contained drugs.
The court found his story “implausible,” adding that it was “improbable” that he would take the jackets without any reward.
The court also fined Stemberger 278,727 euros ($329,000).
Stemberger’s family claims he has had cognitive issues since he suffered a severe brain injury 15 years ago. He had no previous criminal record.
His family in the United States expressed dismay at the verdict.
“We just can’t understand why they would sentence him to prison with this kind of evidence showing he was a victim,” his son, Victor Stemberger Jr., said in a written statement.
Defense lawyer Juan Ospina presented the court with a psychological report that said his client suffers from dementia and that Stemberger's ability to interpret reality is altered to such an extent that it compromises his decision-making.
The U.S. Justice Department advised Spain that it believed Stemberger was duped into acting as a drug mule for a West African criminal network, like many other elderly or vulnerable people in recent years.