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7 years on from her Argentinian prison ordeal, Sharon Armstrong is fighting to help other victims of scams

“I never wanted to become bitter and twisted as a result of what happened,” she says. “In order to move on, I knew I needed to forgive others, but forgiving myself has been more difficult.”

Critically ill with septicaemia, Sharon Armstrong woke after 16 days in a coma to find her family gathered by her bedside. She'd been admitted to Christchurch Hospital with a perforated bowel and things took a grave turn when she developed a life-threatening infection in her bloodstream.

"I woke up in ICU and the first thing I saw were the faces of my family," recalls Sharon. "Once again, they were there for me, no matter what."

Six months on from her brush with death, the Kiwi grandmother recognises how lucky she is. Not only is her health back on track, but a 60th birthday in April last year with close-knit whanau has given her a fresh perspective on life.

"I still feel bad about the pain my family went through, however, I don't want it to hold me back," tells Sharon. "It's up to me to make the best of things – that's one of my primary drivers in life now."

Sharon's fall from grace seven years ago is a story well told. After a stellar career in the public service, she was arrested as she attempted to board a flight from Argentina to London with five kilos of cocaine hidden in the lining of her suitcase.

She says she'd fallen victim to an elaborate romance scam and manipulated into believing she was transporting top-secret business contracts for "Frank", a man she'd met online.

Sharon's mug shot from when she was arrested.
Sharon's mug shot from when she was arrested.

Sharon, the former deputy chief executive of the Maori Language Commission, was initially sentenced to four years and 10 months in Unidad 31 prison, just past the slums on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.She was released after two
and a half years.

At the beginning of 2017, Sharon moved into a converted warehouse in Christchurch, where she lives alone but has a close-knit posse of supportive family and friends.

"I never wanted to become bitter and twisted as a result of what happened," she says.

"In order to move on, I knew I needed to forgive others, but forgiving myself has been more difficult."

Despite not having a criminal record in New Zealand, Sharon struggled to find work after her release.

"I was called a drug mule and no-one wants those kind of headlines," she says. "I knew I'd need to focus and work hard to rebuild my life, and along the way there would be barriers that had to be overcome."

She's now doing contract work for an iwi, running her own social-media platform Standup2scams and volunteers with anti-cyber crime organisation stopMULEvictims.

"I accept that I will always be judged and I still come across people who have said, 'I don't think you're dumb, but how can you be seen as an intelligent woman when you didn't even lift the lining on the suitcase and check what was inside?'"

Sharon spent more than two years in Unidad 31 prison in Argentina.
Sharon spent more than two years in Unidad 31 prison in Argentina.

And it's that sentiment – people who believe "it won't ever happen to me" – that's prompted Sharon to write her first book, Organised Deception: My Story.

Launched at the Womad festival last month, it covers the portion of her life between arrest and release from prison, much of it penned behind bars.

"Scammers find a vulnerability – they often look for people at the crossroads," she explains.

Sharon became vulnerable when she moved to Brisbane in 2011 to be with family. Despite her credentials in NZ, she struggled to find work.

She met "Frank" on an online dating site her cousin signed her up for. After finishing the final draft of the book, Sharon gave it to her only child Ariana, 38, to read before it went to print.

"Ariana is the person I've hurt the most because for the first time in her life, I didn't put her first," concedes Sharon. "But Ariana read it and said, 'I'm proud of you, Mama.' I haven't shoved things under the carpet and if it means one person thinks twice before stepping on a plane, that's what it's all about."

Although she's the picture of strength and composure, Sharon acknowledges there have been two major times during her life she's really "lost it".

Sharon's sister Leanne and daughter Ariana (right) visited Sharon in jail, then were her rocks when she was released.
Sharon's sister Leanne and daughter Ariana (right) visited Sharon in jail, then were her rocks when she was released.

The first time, she was 22 years old and four months' pregnant with Ariana when her much-loved mother, who was known as Tricia, died suddenly of heart failure at the age of 52. The second was on April 13 in 2011, when she was arrested at Ezeiza Airport in Buenos Aires.

Despite strong opposition from her family about flying to the other side of the world to meet a man she'd chatted to online, Sharon thought she was in love and it was her first new relationship in 20 years.

Through an elaborate ruse that Sharon believes was probably backed by a global drug cartel, "Frank" convinced her to pick up a suitcase en route to London from Buenos Aires. Told it had top-secret documents hidden in the lining, Sharon never checked the contents.

"I can see it now – it screams at me – but at the time, I didn't check inside the lining," she says. "I truly thought they were confidential papers."

As customs staff at the airport ripped the suitcase open to reveal the plastic bags of white powder, Sharon felt shock, then lost control. "It was like the dream was ripped away in an instant. I heard this voice go, 'No, no, no.' It was me, but it didn't sound like me."

Sharon's sister Leanne and daughter Ariana were her rocks when she was released.
Sharon's sister Leanne and daughter Ariana were her rocks when she was released.

Her arrest photo and pictures of the suitcase full of drugs appeared on news sites around the world. Thirty hours after her arrest, Sharon says she was full of shame when she called her sister Leanne.

"I started crying and said, 'Honey, I've been arrested and I'm in Argentina in prison.' All she said was, 'Thank God, we thought you were dead and buried.'"

To help survive in prison, Sharon broke her incarceration down into minutes, not days. A saving grace was pen and paper, dropped off by the embassy, which she used to record a journal of her days and nights.

"One of my greatest fears was dying behind bars or a tragedy at home I couldn't come back for," she recalls.

Leanne and Ariana visited her twice in Argentina, and phoned two or three times a day. Sharon is still repaying her whanau the final part of the $100,000 they spent to support her and fight for her freedom. "They were my lifeline," she says quietly.

During her incarceration, Sharon felt she had to stay strong for her family. She walked circuits around the prison yard to stay fit and forced herself to stay positive.

"I knew when I got out, I had to be in the best frame of mind I could and not be a further burden on my family."

Although Sharon initially had questions about the scam that saw her jailed, she's closed that door and is determined to focus on the future.

"Even when your back is against the wall and you don't think you have choices, you can have control over what you feel. If I can choose happy or I can choose sad, why would I choose sad?" she asks.

Seven years on from her arrest, Sharon – who regularly visits Leanne, Ariana and her 15-year-old grandson in Australia – is thankful for where she is and knows she wouldn't be there without her whanau.

"I hid things from my whanau," says a remorseful Sharon.

"I know they suffered and were worried about me. However, they've never once said to me, 'What were you thinking?!' Their support has been unwavering from the beginning.

"The hardest thing I have to do now is forgive myself."

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