An Australian woman, Yoshe Taylor was the victim of an internet dating scam run by a Nigerian drug smuggling syndicate in Cambodia, a special joint investigation by Fairfax Media and SBS's The Feed, reveals.
The international syndicate which entrapped her, targets Australian women with the intention of turning them into unwitting drug mule.
This report is how a notorious Nigerian drug trafficker and fraudster, who claimed to be a South African businessman tricked the lovestruck woman into smuggling heroin into Cambodia only for her to be arrested at the airport and subsequently sentenced to 23 years in prison. Unknown, to her, the backpack supposedly full of art samples he had asked her to bring for him contained heroin.
In 2013, Yoshe Taylor was a single mother living on an isolated property in Queensland. She had recently quit her job as a kindergarten teacher and was working part-time as a tutor while home-schooling her own two children, aged 9 and 14. She dreamed of building a new career in the arts
Like millions of others, she went online in search of companionship. There she came across a man who offered even more - not just charm, sex appeal and romance, but the possibility of a job in an arts and crafts business. He went by the name Precious Max, and claimed he was a successful South African businessman working in Cambodia at the so-called Khmer Arts and Crafts business but turned out to be a Nigerian named
Over 12 months, the pair shared photographs and flirted. Long-haired and muscular, Precious posed in photographs at bars and shirtless in a swimming pool. Slowly he gained Taylor's trust. She had never travelled overseas, so when her new love interest offered to pay her way to Phnom Penh, Taylor jumped at the chance. There he wined and dined her, and talked more about her setting up a Brisbane branch of his business
Over three months, Taylor travelled three times to Cambodia. On her second trip, Precious asked Taylor to carry back a package to give to a contact who supposedly ran the Sydney branch of the Khmer Arts and Crafts business.
"He apparently has a job for me running an Cambodian art gallery in Australia," Taylor told a friend in a message. "Read a contract. It seems legitimate".
The long digital trail between the pair indicates Taylor believed Precious Max's front. Fairfax Media and The Feed have reviewed dozens of pieces of correspondence in which Taylor discusses with others the concept behind the business opportunity. She even contacted real estate agents in search of a place to set up shop.
Precious provided Taylor with a copy of his passport - later assessed by the South African embassy in the US to be a forgery - as well as an employment contract and a fake form authorising the 'release' of $50,000 from Khmer Arts and Crafts.
The money, he said, was seed funding for Taylor to help her set up the business. The funds never materialised.
What Taylor did not know was that every move she and Precious Max made was being monitored by the Cambodian authorities. And for good reason...he is not South African. He is a Nigerian national. His real name is Precious Chineme Nwoko, and he is a convicted drug trafficker and fraudster who has groomed dozens, possibly hundreds, of women in Australia and other countries.
To do it, he has created a number of convincing online profiles across multiple platforms including Facebook, Tagged, Badoo and Twoo. He has sent photos of offices and fake passports, along with other documents, to convince potential victims of his legitimacy.
"He gave me a contract, but first I'd asked him for copy of his passport," Taylor told Fairfax Media and The Feed from her prison cell. "Then when I got here, he provided me authorisation for seed money … he had me totally fooled'.
On September 18, 2013, Taylor was in Cambodia on her third trip and due to fly back to Australia. This time Precious had asked her to carry back a backpack full of samples. She hadn't even made it to the check-in counter at Phnom Penh airport when police swooped. They immediately went for the backpack. In the lining they found just over two kilograms of heroin.
Nwoko was arrested only hours after Taylor. In local media, deputy chief of the Cambodian police's anti-terrorism department Lieutenant Colonel Kong Narin said Taylor and Nwoko "were arrested by our Cambodian anti-terrorism police based on a report from Australian anti-drug police after they seized a stash [of heroin] sent from Cambodia to Australia in early 2013."
Nwoko's lawyer also said his client had been arrested based on a report from Australian authorities - a story confirmed by Taylor.
Taylor wasn't the first to be tricked by Precious Max. Just under a month before her dramatic arrest, another woman, Kay Smith*, had arrived back in Melbourne after a whirlwind four-day tour of Phnom Penh. She was there to meet a love interest who she had met online.
This time, Nwoko had sold himself as a successful South African businessman in the import and export trade. He wined and dined Smith, before proposing marriage on the day she was to return to Australia. It was her first trip overseas, too. Giddy with the excitement of the engagement, she agreed to carry back samples that Nwoko claimed were for an Australian associate.
At the Customs counter at Melbourne airport, the fairytale came crashing spectacularly to earth. She was stopped by officers who discovered two kilograms of heroin sewn into a secret compartment. CCTV footage of the search shows Smith collapsing to the floor. It is not only the drugs being revealed to her at that moment, but the treachery of the man she thought she would marry. Officers lifted her into a chair. (SEE THE FOOTAGE AT THE LINK)
At Smith's committal hearing in 2014, lawyers for the AFP confirmed Australian authorities had passed information to their Cambodian liaison officer in the Phnom Penh embassy. But Smith herself was not prosecuted. In early 2015, a year-and-a-half after her arrest, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions dropped the case against her. It accepted that she had been duped, that she had not formed criminal intent.
However the prosecution brief in the Cambodian case against Taylor includes details taken from Kay Smith's case in Australia, as well as that of one other Australian, a man arrested carrying drugs on behalf of Nwoko.
AFP Commissioner Andrew Colvin was in Phnom Penh in June 2016, to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Cambodian National Police to establish Strikeforce Dragon, which focuses on the illicit drug trade. The aim, according to Colvin, is to "protect our respective communities and to bring to justice those that seek to profit from transnational crime".
Police would only acknowledge that their senior liaison officer in Cambodia had received documents from Taylor's family in 2014. These documents, her family say, provide further information that suggests Taylor is innocent.
According to Taylor and her family, she has crucial information that could assist the AFP in the fight against drug trafficking; she not only met Nwoko and his associates in Phnom Penh, but she also spoke on the phone and met with his so-called "business partners" in Australia.
On her second trip to Cambodia, Taylor brought back a parcel, supposedly for a man called Alex. When she spoke with Alex by phone, he had an Australian accent. But the person who arrived to collect the package was, she believes, a Cambodian national. To her knowledge, the AFP has never followed up this lead.
In her three years in prison, Taylor has never been interviewed by the AFP. Nor have her family or friends.
"No one has ever spoken to me. I've never seen anyone from the AFP. They did not even come to my trial; no one has ever visited me here," she says.
The Department of Foreign Affairs would only say they were providing "ongoing consular assistance" to an unnamed Australian woman. The AFP has refused to answer questions relating to prosecutions brought against any who are connected to Nwoko's syndicate within Australia. Fairfax Media and The Feed were unable to find an example of any individual being prosecuted.
The failure to follow up on the case of Yoshe Taylor raises concerning questions regarding the capacity of Australian law enforcement to stop the flood of illicit substances making their way into Australia, and seriously undermines the government's message on border security.
Fairfax Media and The Feed can confirm that Nwoko continues to operate from within a Cambodian prison. In 2015, two years after Taylor was arrested and Nwoko was imprisoned, a third victim, Joanne Mitchell*, a single mother-of-three from Melbourne, became ensnared in the scam.
Again, Nwoko claimed to be a South African businessman - this time with the name Curtis - and was quick to declare love and propose marriage. "I love you so much. Happy to be yours forever," Mitchell responded.
But when she travelled to meet him, he said he had been called away on urgent business and could not meet her. She did not know he was in jail at the time.
"Curtis" told Mitchell to return to Australia, but not before retrieving a special gift - a musical instrument. At Melbourne Airport, Mitchell was told that the saxophone she was carrying concealed nearly two kilograms of heroin - $1.5 million worth of the drug.
"I'm a strong person … but you will never get over it," she said, remembering that moment. He used to video-call me, he sent money, he paid for my ticket - all from jail."
Last year, Mitchell provided the AFP with an 18-page statement. All charges against her were dropped. Again, the prosecutor could not find criminal intent. Fairfax Media and The Feed understand that yet another drug mule, conned by Nwoko's syndicate and arrested in Australia, had their case go to trial but was found not guilty.
Online today, Precious Max, aka Nwoko, still has active online profiles. On Twoo, his profile has been accessed within the past 30 days. Is he back online from behind bars? Are others in the drug syndicate operating the profile? Whatever the case, it means that another Australian woman could be in the process of falling in love, travelling to Cambodia and ultimately carrying a bag of drugs back into the country.
But while Nwoko's victims who were lucky enough to be arrested and charged in Australia are free to try and pick up the pieces of their lives, Yoshe Taylor faces another two decades inside the former Khmer Rouge torture camp that is now PJ Prison.
She does not blame the Cambodian system. She says they were just doing their jobs. But she is furious at authorities in her own country, whom she feels have abandoned her.
"There are so many people who've been tricked; I'm not the only one," she said.
During her three years in prison, her children have grown taller, lost teeth and gained new ones, and moved up three grades at school. They know that their mum is in jail, but they don't know all the details. When she was asked outside a Cambodian courtroom this month if she had a message for her family, she broke down and cried. Her message was a simple one:
"I love you. I miss you". I haven't spoken to my kids since November 2014, when I was taken to hospital".
Only then did a sympathetic guard allow her to use his mobile phone to call them.
Taylor is appealing her conviction in Cambodia. A decision is due to be handed down on the December 6.
More photos below...