SYDNEY — A 91-year-old retired surgeon has been charged with importing cocaine hidden in soap into Australia, prompting police to warn travelers to beware they are not tricked into becoming drug mules.
Victor Twartz, of Sydney, was released on bail when he appeared in Sydney's Downing Center Local Court charged with importing a commercial quantity of cocaine last month. He did not enter a plea and will appear in court next on Oct. 6.
The retired oral surgeon faces a potential life prison sentence if he is convicted of importing 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of the drug into Sydney Airport on a July 8 flight from New Delhi.
A search of Twartz's luggage found 27 packages of soap that tested positive for cocaine, police said.
Police say it appears that Twartz was scammed by a group of people he had befriended online before his trip. Australian Federal Police organized crime commander David Stewart declined to say whether Twartz had been promised anything by the group, but said he had been in contact with them over several months.
Police were tipped off by Twartz's family about the email exchanges but did not stop him from leaving Australia, Stewart said.
"There is certainly some evidence to suggest that this man was legitimately scammed by this group and exploited," Stewart told reporters. "There were warnings issued to him about his activities both here and overseas ... but you can only provide people with certain warnings. At the end of the day, they'll make their own choices."
Twartz told Australian Broadcasting Corp. that he met people in New Delhi whom he had befriended online. As he was about to board his plane to return to Sydney, he was handed a bag that he was told contained gifts for someone in Australia, he said.
As Twartz left court on Tuesday, a reporter asked if he had been taken advantage of. Twartz replied: "Always, always."
Australian Federal Police manager Wayne Buchhorn warned that unwittingly bringing drugs into Australia could result in charges.
"People can expect they will be charged if they knowingly bring drugs into Australia, or are reckless or willfully blind to the fact that there could be narcotics concealed inside their luggage or items they are carrying," Buchhorn said in a statement.