It sounds like a script for a Hollywood movie: A small-town grandmother gets arrested and jailed for allegedly trafficking drugs into another country.
For Barrie resident Angela Thayer, unfortunately, there are no bright lights or famous movie stars in this script, simply the fear that she may never see her 64-year-old mother, Suzana Thayer, again.
The mother of three and grandmother of six is being detained in a Chinese prison after being arrested at Hong Kong International Airport, accused of smuggling drugs into the country. Her daughter says she fell victim to not one but two online romance scams.
Angela Thayer described her mother as a high-spirited, loving, giving, and caring person who was always doing things to help the people she loved, but after the death of her husband in 2016, whom she met when she was only a teenager, she found herself a little bit lost.
“She always wants to be there and do things for everybody," Angela tells BarrieToday during a sit-down interview at her north-end home. "She loves doing things for everybody else, and I think when my dad died a big part of her died, too."
After about five years mourning her husband's death, Suzana was able to find her way beyond the grief and opened herself up to the possibility of finding love again.
“I guess she wanted more than what she was doing. She realized she wanted to do something for (herself) and find something for her,” Angela says. “When my dad died, she just lost a piece of herself and was really wanting love.”
'The good doctor'
It wasn’t long before Suzana started talking online to a man by the name of Walter Williams who, according to his Facebook profile, claimed to be a neurosurgeon with the United Nations and who Suzana had nicknamed “the good doctor."
“She was flirty on the internet, but just like any other woman or guy on there. You’re trying to meet somebody, so you’re being a little extra-friendly. I would admit, he was good looking,” says Angela, who told her mother if he made her happy to go for it.
“She was all ‘he could be your daddy’ and obviously that made me uncomfortable, because I was just getting used to the idea of her wanting (to date). But I didn’t want to judge her.”
It didn’t take long before Angela could see how smitten her mother was with “the good doctor,” and although she and her siblings supported her mother’s pursuit for love, they say they warned her to be cautious, and told her not to give any money to anyone, which her mother assured them she wouldn’t do.
“My mom hasn’t had experience with any of this in her whole life," Angela says. "She met my dad when she was just a teen and it was instant love and they were together their whole lives."
Angela believes the individual behind the profile gained her mother’s trust and eventually began asking for money.
“I think what happened when she met this guy is she developed this friendship. And that’s how these all work — they develop these friendships and the trust … and it starts off with them asking for a little bit of help," the daughter says. "She would give the shirt off of her back to help somebody else out if they needed it.”
Angela says the family was unaware of the fact her mother was giving this person money, adding it wasn’t until the summer of 2021, while she and her husband were away on vacation, that it first came to her attention. Angela says she got a call from her brother, who told her that he was concerned for their mother.
“There was mention that she’d asked for $1,500 … and I was wondering why she was asking for that when she’d just gotten a loan. That’s when it was starting to not make sense. … Why was she asking for money all of a sudden? She had money left over from the sale of the house I assumed, and at the time, I never really paid any attention to her finances because that’s not my business to really know," Angela says.
Angela says her brother attempted to confront their mother, but she refused to listen and took off to a hotel for a few nights. While she was away, the family took the opportunity to look through her apartment; they discovered several transactions and began to realize their mother was likely being scammed by the man who claimed to be Dr. Walter Williams.
“She believed he was real. She 'married' him, but it was a fake marriage. She said she had a connection and thought he was real and that she was loved. The way he was talking to her made her feel alive and loved and wanted. That just made her believe what he was saying was real," says Angela.
Whoever was behind the screen spent a year getting her mother to feel loved and trusted, says Angela, adding the family still doesn't know exactly how much money her mother handed over, but are guessing it’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Looking back, Angela can now see things that, when put together, are indicative of what she says is someone attempting to brainwash another person. She says it started off with her mother going on a diet, and “the good doctor” directing her on what foods to eat and when to eat.
“She was doing it and began to lose some weight. In all, it really does sound harmless ... if it’s just that. Then time goes on and he’s convincing her to go off of her sleeping pills. More, time goes on (and) the next thing is he’s teaching her to meditate, so I’m not sure if he was saying any reference type things to her,” she says.
“If you capture somebody and you hold them and lock them up, you control their food, prevent them from sleeping, you say these subliminal messages to them, you isolate them, then you are starting to brainwash them and I believe that’s what happened to my mother. ... If it happened all at once, that would be a red flag, but it happened so gradually, and one at a time, so I didn’t think much of it at the time.”
Angela says she was finally able to get through to her mother and convinced her to report the scam to the police in the summer of 2021.
“It’s hard to have that conversation,” she says.
After sitting down with police, Angela felt her mother learned from the experience and was determined to be more cautious moving forward with making connections online.
“I thought she wasn’t just willy nilly connecting with people and ‘here’s my money’. We had talked, and I was trying to let her know I was just trying to be understanding and supportive and didn’t want to judge her," she says.
As life started to return to normal, Suzana was determined to find a way to make sure others didn’t become victims like she had and decided she’d write a book.
“She just had this (mentality) of wanting to stop him and stop others, so she could try to save and help other people. She didn’t understand how someone could manipulate and make someone fall for them and take all their money," Angela says.
While writing her book, however, Angela says her mother began to talk to a second man, who called himself James Caywood and claimed to be a member of the United States military living in California. Angela says he offered to help her mother with her book, noting Suzana would send him sample chapters to review.
Although they are still trying to prove it, Angela is convinced the two scams are connected, and that whoever the person — or people — claiming to be “the good doctor” are also behind the Caywood profile.
Over time, Angela says Suzana and Caywood formed a romantic connection and he told her mother he would fly to Toronto to visit her in March 2022 and they would get married.
Angela said she has since seen a copy of a ticket showing his plans to come to Canada, but she’s convinced it was fake, adding in her investigations of the communications between the two she has spotted several inconsistencies with his name — including several different middle initials.
“That brings a bit of a red flag, too, but obviously my mother never noticed," she says.
Not long before this man was set to travel to Toronto, Suzana received an email claiming to be from the U.S. military, which informed her Caywood would not in fact be allowed to fly to Ontario. She then submitted a passport application in order to fly somewhere to meet him instead.
“That’s how she ended up in Ethiopia,” says Angela, adding the day before she was set to leave, Suzana told her daughter she would be travelling to 'Utopia'.
Angela is convinced her mother in fact had no clue where she was flying to.
“She didn’t buy the ticket, he did. She didn’t pay for the hotel, he did. She didn’t pay for her food, he did. She didn’t pay for anything. There are no transactions," Angela says. "There were no large transactions being sent out to anybody. There was no money coming in and no airline tickets being paid.”
Angela says she asked her mother to send her itinerary, which she did a few hours before she was set to leave and after Angela was already in bed.
"I was thinking maybe she meant she was going to Texas, because there is a Utopia in Texas. I saw (the ticket) and it said Addis Ababa. I started looking online and trying to find out … and it was Ethiopia.
"And mind you, my mom (was) leaving in five hours.”
Angela started researching the country and sending her information about it, telling BarrieToday her biggest fear when her mother left had nothing to do with drugs.
“I was afraid she’d be robbed or kidnapped or murdered,” says Angela, adding she didn’t have much of a chance to try to convince her mother not to go. “It was late and she was sleeping. Then she came in and gave me a kiss goodbye and she left.”
Long way from utopia
Once she arrived in Ethiopia, Angela says her mother pretty much stayed in the hotel, awaiting the arrival of her 'prince charming' from the internet. But he never arrived, claiming he couldn't get anyone to relieve his post.
Although obviously concerned, Suzana was in daily contact with her daughter and her best friend — she was happy, healthy and safe.
With her mother so far away, and with concerns for her safety, Angela says she had her mother send her copies of her identification, as well as her e-visa, which she required to enter the country.
It was after she received those that Angela noticed the e-visa was set to expire nearly one week before her mother was scheduled to return to Canada on Sept. 9, 2022. She explained to her mother that she would need to go in person to extend the e-visa for one week, which Suzana promised she would do.
She says her mother shared Angela’s concerns with this second man, who then made a last-minute change to Suzana’s return ticket. Instead of flying back to Toronto, it had her travelling to Hong Kong, China.
Angela says she believes the reason for the late change to Hong Kong was due to the fact she noticed the discrepancy between her e-visa expiring and her flight home.
“It was only seven days, but I looked up the laws … and you could be jailed or fined and I didn’t want my mother to be jailed for an expired visa," she says. "I think if I hadn’t pushed and made it a big deal, I don’t think she’d have been sent to Hong Kong. He could have changed it last minute anyway, but we don’t know what he was capable of or planning to do.”
The day of her departure, Suzana was given a suitcase full of new clothes — a “gift” from Caywood. And although Suzana admitted to her daughter the clothing was “really loud and not her style,” she was delighted to have received the gift.
Angela says she did question her mother about the suitcase, but admitted she thought nothing of the clothing.
“My mom was all happy and excited that she got this clothing. What woman doesn’t like clothing? If I had known what I know now, I’d have said don’t take it," she says.
The 'what she knows now' is that several buttons on the clothing her mother was given were allegedly filled with cocaine. Upon her arrest, Suzana was found to have one kilo — or 2.2 pounds — of cocaine in her possession.
A photo of her mother the day she was flying to Hong Kong shows her wearing a jacket that Caywood had purchased for her, and which she was wearing at the time of her arrest. Angela says Caywood had requested a photo of her mother wearing the jacket, which she now believes was so that someone in Hong Kong would know what her mother looked like in order to recover the smuggled drugs.
“I believe that picture was taken so that whoever was waiting knew what she looked like so they could rob her, kidnap her … so they could get the drugs. If my mom had known she had drugs on her, she wouldn’t have done it," Angela says.
Angela learned of her mother’s fate at 10 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2022, when her mother called to tell her she’d been arrested for drug-trafficking.
“All she said was I have been arrested for having cocaine in a button. That’s what came out of her mouth … a button … not knowing it was several buttons.”
Angela says her mother initially thought it was a joke and was asking where the cameras were hiding, but when Chinese officials told her what they’d found, and showed her the drugs, she dropped to her knees.
“She was just mortified and couldn’t believe that’s what was in the clothes she was given," Angela says.
Angela immediately burst into tears, fearing she’d never see her mother again.
“I was just devastated. I was numb and I was lost.”
Angela travelled to Hong Kong in October 2022, joined by a camera crew from CTV’s W5, in the hopes of seeing her mother.
“I had a nice talk with her and I bawled my eyes out. She seemed OK, but you could see she just wanted to hug me so badly," Angela says.
The two were separated by glass. During her trip, Angela says she only got to see her mother once for 15 minutes.
“What you see in the movies is what was there. I had to pick up the phone to talk to her," Angela says.
Angela had planned on returning the following day — Oct. 17, 2022 — which was also her father’s birthday and was a day she’d spent with her mother since he’d passed away. That visit didn’t happen. While on her way to the prison, Angela was informed her mother had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 and she’d been placed in quarantine.
Angela says she's not convinced that's the truth, but it was the last time she saw her mother in person.
Proving her innocence
Angela says her mother is “100 per cent innocent” and would never have knowingly transported drugs of any kind.
“She was married to a police officer her whole life. She’s never done drugs or had a speeding ticket. She’s lived a really nice, sheltered life," Angela says.
Suzana is currently in what Angela referred to as “Low Court” while she awaits trial.
“She’s unable to apply for legal aid until she is in High Court. High Court is when the trial starts and I have no idea when that’s going to be. It could be months or it could be years," she says.
With no clue as to when her mother’s case will come to trial, Angela says she's left feeling helpless.
“I know I have done everything I could. I have submitted all of the evidence that I could," she says. "I wish I could call up the prosecution or the courts and file all of the evidence that I’ve found.”
Angela is also concerned that if her mother is unable to secure a lawyer, she will be unable to get a fair trial. She has created a GoFundMe page to help with her mother's legal fees. Any leftover funds will be used to assist in fraud prevention, in order to help protect others in the future, she says.
“I really worry that they will not let her have a say and it will be a closed case. The thing that scares me the most is that when she gets to High Court, are they going to try to sabotage it so that she doesn’t even have a chance to submit anything or speak on her behalf?" Angela wonders.
Angela hopes sharing her mother’s story will help spread awareness about the dangers of online dating and the internet in general, and wants to prevent others from finding themselves in a situation like her mother.
“There is a form of addiction with this. You get caught up with how these people are treating you," she says. "Our main purpose is to make people aware so they don’t fall victim like my mother has. It’s devastating, not only to the victim but to the family.”
Angela’s goal has already paid off. Barrie police were alerted last week by a concerned citizen living in southern Simcoe County who had watched the W5 episode and recognized the photo and description of an online profile as being one of a number of photos that were featured in the story
“We know that, unfortunately, the lady involved was fraudulently a victim of the romance scam initially, and then obviously fell victim to another online scam that saw her end up in Ethiopia, and then ultimately in Hong Kong where she remains in custody on those charges,” Barrie police communication coordinator Peter Leon tells BarrieToday.
“We deal with these scams year-round and we’ve spoken on the romance scams in the past, and that’s what she was initially a victim (of). We see this time and time again, especially the romance scam, that seems to catch a lot of people," Leon says.
When contacted by BarrieToday, Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte MP Doug Shipley said he was unaware of the case, but urged family members to contact Global Affairs Canada for help with legal issues happening overseas.
Angela says she has been in contact with officials in Ottawa, who are helping the family navigate the legal system in China and sharing information.
Since speaking with BarrieToday on March 9, Angela says she has discovered several Facebook profiles under the name James Caywood name — one of which is using the same photo that was used on a profile claiming to be Walter Wiliams — also known as “the good doctor,” a discovery she admits is “huge” and hopes will go a long way in proving her mother’s innocence.
“Finding the proof is the battle when her devices are in Hong Kong,” Angela says.