Saturday 25 January 2020

Surgeon 'fell victim to scam where he brought €100k of cocaine into Dublin airport' - court

Dr Gargan said it was a “very extreme and very sad” case.     
Dr Gargan said it was a “very extreme and very sad” case.     

Fiona Ferguson

An eminent US surgeon with early onset dementia who fell victim to a phishing scam which culminated in him bringing €100,000 of cocaine into Dublin Airport will be sentenced next week.

Dr Carlos Cruz Soriano (76) began responding to phishing emails after becoming isolated and depressed following his retirement from a “glittering career”, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court was told. The scammers told him a long lost relative had died and he was due to inherit US$2.3 million.

They gained Soriano's trust over a number of years, including sending him on a “dry run” to Hong Kong, before flying him to Columbia where he was given the paperwork for his inheritance as well as a “gift” in a red bag for Irish banking officials who would facilitate the transfer of funds.

Soriano, of Cove Circle, Riverview, Florida, pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine valued at €107,000 inside the red bag in the arrivals hall at Dublin Airport on September 1, 2015. He has no previous convictions and has been in custody here since his arrest.

Judge Melanie Greally said Soriano's isolation and the deterioration in his mental health had contributed to him being susceptible to manipulation by “sinister forces.” She said she accepted he did not appreciate the serious nature of his conduct.

She noted that rather than availing of “other options” he had chosen to plead guilty at an early stage.

Judge Greally indicated that she would impose a five-year sentence which she would fully suspend on condition he leave the country. She adjourned the case until next week for finalisation to allow arrangements be put in place for his return to the United States.

Sergeant Fergal Finnegan told Pieter Le Vert BL, prosecuting, that immigration officials had concerns about Soriano on his arrival in Dublin as he had no return ticket to the US and only $300.

Soriano, who had travelled to Ireland from Bogota via Panama and Paris, told customs officials that a red bag he was carrying contained a gift for banking officials which would facilitate the transfer of a US$2.3 million inheritance from a long lost relative he had never heard of until recently.

He was very co-operative with the officials and agreed to allow them x-ray and examine the bag. It was found to contain 1.86 kilograms of cocaine in three packets.

Sgt Finnegan said gardai were initially sceptical that Soriano could have fallen for the scam but as the interviews went on they became aware that there were underlying issues.

Gardai found documentation that Soriano had printed out about other “phishing” scams. He said that he knew they were scams but he was lonely and would respond to them for “a little bit of fun.”

Sgt Finnegan said despite this he remained adamant that the inheritance was still due to be claimed.

Soriano told gardai he had become isolated and very lonely at home after martial and family problems arose when he lost money on a previous occasion to a Nigerian phishing scam.

Sgt Finnegan agreed with Caroline Biggs SC, defending, that Soriano had a “glittering” surgical career over 40 years but had become very lonely after his retirement. The communication with the email scammers had became his only contact with the outside world.

He agreed with Ms Biggs that Soriano had become excited when it was explained to him he was going to prison as he thought he would be around people and have a chance to make friends.

Ms Biggs told the court Soriano had an “eminent career” as a surgeon, had written a book about his life, published papers and had been honoured with the keys to the city of St Petersburg, Florida.

Psychologist Dr Ian Gargan told Ms Biggs that Soriano had bipolar and depressive disorder and early onset dementia. He agreed with Ms Biggs that following his retirement Soriano's life had fallen apart causing him to become isolated and lonely as well as intellectually frustrated.

He agreed with Ms Biggs that Soriano was highly suggestible. He said Soriano was afraid that he might die before he was released from prison.

Dr Gargan said it was a “very extreme and very sad” case.              

Sgt Finnegan said the scammers made initial contact with Soriano via email three years previously. They posed as churchmen looking for relatives of a “Peter Soriano” who had died intestate.

They said they were finding it difficult to contact relatives of the man in order to facilitate a $2.3 million inheritance. Soriano had never heard of this relative but engaged with the scammers.

Sgt Finnegan said in order to gain his confidence the scammers sent Soriano on a “dry run” to Hong Kong where he was given hotel and pocket money while the documentation was being sorted out.

He was then told there was a difficulty and the inheritance could not go ahead but would on a later date. He was treated well and returned home without anything happening.

Soriano told gardai he was later bought flights to go meet people in Colombia. In Bogota he was given what he was told was the documentation needed to get his inheritance. He was to travel to Ireland and on the way to the airport he was given the red bag.

He was told it contained a gift which would facilitate the release of the funds. Soriano was suspicious and had a look inside the bag to make sure it did not contain a gun or bomb.

He attempted to speak to a official at Bogota Airport but it appears they could not understand him.

Soriano told gardai he was a surgeon with a practice in Florida until he retired in 2004. He said he had not expected to live so long and his savings were all gone leaving him and his wife living on social security. He is married with four children and seven grandchildren.

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