'I've never been arrested before': Cocaine accused

21:41, Apr 22 2011
STOPPED AT AIRPORT: Sharon Armstrong is a former deputy chief executive of the Maori Language Commission.
STOPPED AT AIRPORT: Sharon Armstrong is a former deputy chief executive of the Maori Language Commission.

Former high-ranking public servant and probation officer Sharon Armstrong had never fallen foul of the law before she was arrested, accused of cocaine smuggling and thrown in an Argentinian prison.

"I've never, ever been arrested," she said tearfully as she spoke to The Dominion Post from jail.

The 54-year-old mother-of-one and former deputy chief executive of the Maori Language Commission was stopped at Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires on April 13.

A security scan had discovered more than five kilograms of cocaine concealed in the bottom of her locally made suitcase.

Airport police later confiscated Australian, American and Argentinian currency and four driver's licences from her personal belongings.

She had arrived in Buenos Aires a week earlier and told The Dominion Post she spent the week sightseeing.


"Oh God, I feel so foolish," she said, speaking from the medium-security Federal Centre of Detention for Women.

Armstrong's family are adamant she has been scammed by a man she met on an online dating site.

"There is no way on earth she would do this," her niece Kapoi Mathieson said. "Her whole family are all so very supportive of her and will continue to be, because we know this is a tragedy.

"She has been taken in by a guy who is a cad, a total cad."

For several months before her arrest, Armstrong had been emailing and Skyping a man she met on the internet. She had arranged to travel to London to meet him, but, at the last moment, he changed her flights to go via Argentina.

He asked her to pick up some documents he needed for a new job and paid for her flight. She has not heard from him since her arrest.

Her advice to those considering internet dating: "Be very careful. Don't believe all you're told."

Armstrong maintains she did not know the cocaine was in her suitcase.

Waiting in prison for a court date, she is frightened about her future.

"What frightens me is the people I got involved in know who I am and if I say too much, I'm concerned for my safety.

"I think the scariest thing for me is I'm just out of my depth, I don't know this world."

New Zealand embassy staff visited Armstrong on Wednesday local time, bringing magazines and writing paper. "I'm starting to keep a journal, writing to my family, just writing everything."

She has no watch, but tells the time of day by the monotony of prison routine.

"Usually I think the first sort of call is at half past 7. They sort of do a check at 8. They come and count the number of women, make sure we're all here – not that I'd know where we could go."

About midday they have their first meal, with more food in the evening.

She shares her cell with 18 other women – only one of whom speaks English – and wears clothes given to her by the prison.

"I have my own jeans, that's about it."

She has been allocated a lawyer from the public defenders' office who does not speak English. She is yet to appear in court and is expected to make her first court appearance next week.

She refused to comment on reports she was carrying four driver's licences when she was arrested.

She said she had heard horror stories about corruption in the prison system.

"You know, if you've got money, you can buy your way out. But I would never put my family through that."

It was her family who had been keeping her sane, she said. "I'm taking it day by day. Some days are better than others.

"The first few days were like hell but you know I just have to get strong. I have to get out of here, that's all I can think of really. I just may have to do my time. I don't know."

A former colleague said Ms Armstrong was "street-smart"and after eight years working as a probation officer would be hard to fool.

"You don't work with criminals and be gullible after all those years," he told the Taranaki Daily News.

"She is a street-smart, savvy woman. I just can't imagine her being conned."

On the same day that Armstrong was arrested, Argentinian authorities announced they had intercepted a total of 32 kilograms of cocaine. Much of the haul had been stopped by police at Ezeiza International Airport between April 8 and April 13, business journal Diario El Comercial reported.

The Dominion Post