MADRID (AP) — A 77-year-old American man facing drug smuggling charges in Spain told a judge Thursday that he didn’t know cocaine had been hidden in the jackets he carried across the world on behalf of a man he thought represented the United Nations.
Victor Stemberger took the stand at a Madrid provincial court after spending just over one year in pre-trial detention accused of carrying 2.4 kilograms (more than 5 pounds) of the drug expertly sewn into bubble jackets he carried from Sao Paulo, in Brazil, to Hong Kong.
The Vietnam war veteran and former business coach from Virginia was arrested during a stopover at the Spanish capital’s airport on July 5, 2019. Prosecutors are seeking a 7.5-year prison sentence and a fine of 278,726.91 euros ($318,000).
The U.S. Justice Department has advised Spain that it believes Stemberger was duped into acting as a drug mule for a West African criminal network, as many other elderly or vulnerable people in recent years.
Spanish law enforcement and judiciary have been cooperating with an investigation by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and prosecutors from the Southern District of New York into the network of alleged money launderers, fraudsters and drug traffickers under scrutiny for scheming the elderly and feeble.
The man’s family claims that Stemberger has cognitive issues ever since he suffered a severe brain injury 15 years ago.
During Thursday’s hearing, the defendant’s lawyer, Juan Ospina, presented the judge with a psychological report concluding that his client suffers from dementia and that his ability of interpreting reality is altered to a degree that it compromises his decision-making.
“He has always maintained that he was acting within the law, under a mandate from alleged U.N. officers,” Ospina said. “That’s clear since the beginning, when he also fully cooperated with police at the airport.”
The judge rejected another technical expert’s report claiming that Stemberger couldn’t have told that an extra weight of 600 grams had been cleverly introduced into each of the four jackets. Ospina also requested for DEA officials to testify, but his request was denied by the judge.
A verdict in the case is expected later this month.