U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and eight of her Senate colleagues have asked Secretary of State John Kerry to negotiate the release of a retired Maine pastor from a Spanish prison.

Collins, chairwoman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the panel, announced their intentions in a news release Monday.

The bipartisan letter to Kerry asks that he work with foreign governments to re-examine the cases of more than 30 American senior citizens who were duped into serving as drug mules for international criminal enterprises and remain in prison. Though the number of seniors now in foreign prisons is believed to be closer to 44, federal agents have only been able to verify that more than 30 that are currently being held.

Of the 145 Americans arrested in the scam so far, 116 were over the age of 60.

Collins said Joseph Bryon Martin, 77, a retired pastor from Dresden, was arrested and sentenced in January to six years in prison after Spanish customs and border agents found him in possession of 1.4 kilograms of cocaine. The drugs were concealed in real estate documents that Martin had agreed to pick up in South America and was trying to deliver to a woman he had fallen in love with online.

“Because of his age and poor health, this may be a life sentence for Mr. Martin,” the senators told Kerry.

The “romance scam” typically can take months or years to develop. Martin’s son, Andy Martin of Nevada, testified last month that his father met a woman named Joy online about six years ago.

The elder Martin became infatuated with the woman, who told him she loved him.

In their letter, the senators ask Kerry to raise Martin’s case with the Spanish government with the goal of having him released and returned home.

“While we recognize that under Spanish law individuals can be convicted without evidence of intent to violate the law, we find it terribly unfair that an older American who by all indications is a victim and did not understand that he was being used to transport illegal drugs remains incarcerated abroad while the criminals who masterminded this scheme remain free,” the letter says.

The senators said that U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials told the committee at a hearing last month that the criminals cover the cost of international travel for each victim and create a complicated itinerary that requires the victim to go to at least one other country, where they are instructed to pick up a package or suitcase. Drugs are hidden in the package.

The senators want Kerry to work with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to identify all of the victims and work with foreign governments on getting them released.

Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

[email protected]

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