Pensioner Rob Arbon went from tending bees on the West Coast to facing life in an Australian jail for trafficking cocaine from Brazil. A new Loading Docs documentary investigates how a remarkable life was derailed by relentless Nigerian scammers.
West Coast beekeeper Roy Arbon is not your typical international drug mule.
The 72-year-old pensioner is more at home in the bush than he is jet setting across the globe to ferry suspicious suitcases packed with illegal narcotics for international organised crime.
The former alpine climber and search and rescue hero has had his fair share of adventures and close scrapes.
He made his money working on oil rigs drilling for black gold in the North Sea.
He was working in Antarctica when flight TE901 smashed into the side of Mt Erebus and was among those who helped pull bodies from the twisted wreckage.
He also responded in the aftermath of the Cave Creek disaster, winning commendations for his work recovering the dead after the West Coast DoC platform collapsed into a ravine.
"That affected me a lot."
Arbon was locked up briefly in a Kenyan jail for accidentally breaking a train window. And he once broke his back falling from scaffolding – preventing him from embarking on a Himalayan climbing expedition, on which he was later replaced by Rob Hall.
He's known for his immense physical strength, his delicious organic honey, which he still sells every week in Greymouth, and his stubborn determination.
But he's also known as the West Coast beekeeper who was arrested at Perth Airport in February 2016 after Customs officials discovered 2.5kg of high-grade cocaine hidden in the lining of a suitcase he had transported from Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Just how he found himself facing life behind bars for trafficking A class drugs is as tragic as it is utterly bizarre.
Arbon's story is now the focus of a new Loading Docs short documentary - The Scam - screening on nzherald.co.nz.
His inadvertent foray as a drug mule was the culmination of a series of elaborate scams that left Arbon "broken" and drained of nearly half a million dollars.
Sophisticated criminals based in Nigeria first "got their hooks into him" in about 2013.
Once he was on their radar as naive and susceptible, Arbon's details appear to have been harvested and on-sold to other scammers as a vulnerable target to be repeatedly milked.
No one is quite sure when the first scam commenced, but Arbon told the Herald he recalls losing about $2500 in an initial finance scam about eight years ago which involved him sending money overseas.
Next, he's believed to have received an email from a person purporting to be a Russian dental assistant looking for love but in need of cash.
He was single and lonely. Perhaps it seemed like the perfect match. Arbon is thought to have made repeated international money transfers in the doomed pursuit of female companionship.
His good friend of 30 years Graeme Macilquham says it's unclear how much Arbon lost to the imaginary Russian - "he plays his cards very close to his chest" - but it was only the start.
Years later, while Arbon sat in an Australian prison cell, friends tidying up his flat discovered enough Western Union receipts to "wallpaper the whole house".
Next came an inheritance scam which would leave Arbon in an even greater financial hole.
Arbon was contacted by someone overseas about an opportunity involving "a box full of cash". He was told it contained assorted treasures, including $17 million that he'd get a percentage of if he helped courier it around the globe to avoid foreign "death duties".
He was sent photos of the apparent riches as proof and agreed to take part.
Arbon – who would later be diagnosed with a cognitive impairment - shared news of his good fortune with Macilquham.
"I said, 'Roy chuck that bit of paper away – it's a scam'."
But Arbon was again taken in, sending repeated cash transfers offshore over the next few months to cover supposed Customs duties needed to secure the box's release.
Eventually he lost nearly $200,000, which he financed through the sale of his farm near Barrytown.
"The whole lot went to Nigeria," Macilquham said.
"He came in and said, 'I've lost all my money, I've lost everything. I've been ripped off'. He was just broken."
Arbon told the Herald he was "pissed off" after realising it was all a ruse.
"I thought, 'Man, I've been done again.'"
And though they had cleaned him out this time, the scammers weren't done with Arbon yet.
Sometime in 2015 he received another email – this time from a Roger Cook claiming he was from Santander Bank in London, saying Arbon was eligible for a US$120,000 loan. But he needed to travel overseas to sign finance documents to enable the money's release.
Arbon - who admits he's a trusting person - saw this as an opportunity to recoup some of his losses and invest in his honey business.
In February 2016 – unbeknown to his close friends - Arbon made his way to Christchurch Airport before boarding a flight to Brazil.
He promptly lost his wallet and waited at Sao Paulo airport without food for 24 hours before his "contacts" arranged for him to taxi to the city's outskirts where he says he was held by two men who swapped his bags.
He was given a suitcase, driven back to the airport and told to fly to India.
Arbon insists he checked the suitcase for anything illicit, but found only clothes.
"I pulled all the gear out to see what was in there.
"I never thought I was carrying drugs. I thought it could be money. It could be gold. It could be jewellery. It could be anything. I didn't even know what cocaine looked like. I've never seen cocaine."
He could not board the flight to India without a yellow fever vaccination so his contacts bought him another ticket, this time to Perth, via Dubai.
Perth Customs officers discovered the drugs inside the suitcase. He was arrested for drug trafficking and thrown in jail pending trial.
Arbon's first lawyer judged his case as hopeless, telling him, "You f***ed up", and advising him to plead guilty.
After Arbon sacked the solicitor, his new defence team hired private investigator Therese Bogart to unravel the case and track what had led to Arbon's boarding a plane overseas to unwittingly traffic drugs.
She gained access to his computer and trawled through hundreds of emails from the scammers to build a picture of how he had been duped, which would later be presented as evidence in court.
She also tracked the IP addresses and phone numbers back to Nigeria – a likely signpost he had been scammed.
Bogart told the Herald the criminals who used Arbon to ferry their narcotics were educated, clever and experienced.
"These people who are doing the drugs scams are at the top of their game. They're highly skilled and they're covering their tracks."
The scam masterminds were rarely caught and police rarely investigated such scams, she said, preferring to prosecute slam dunk drug importation cases such as Arbon's.
She said without her investigations uncovering the lengths the Nigerian criminals had gone to lure Arbon overseas and trick him into ferrying the suitcase, he would likely still be incarcerated.
"I hate to see anyone, not just Roy, put away in prison when they're innocent. It's unfair.
"It's injustice enough that he had to go through all these scams, lose his money, lose everything he had – that's a lot for a person to take."
Eighteen months after Arbon's arrest, a jury returned not guilty verdicts, before he was eventually deported home.
Now living in Otira, he is thankful he was not caught with the drugs in Dubai, where he could have been executed as a drug trafficker.
"It was pretty harrowing, I can tell you.
"In total I probably lost close to half a million. But it's only money, I'm still alive. Money is meant to be spent."
Macilquham said it later emerged the Brazil trip was not the first time Arbon had ferried a suspicious suitcase.
"He'd done it before."
It also emerged that Arbon had even been contacted by Scotland Yard detectives at one point warning him he was being used, but had refused to listen, Macilquham said.
"He's just a soft touch and he just couldn't see it.
"I told him if he does it again he's on his own. If I get a call from bloody Timbuctoo and he's locked up in prison, he's staying there."
Arbon says despite what he's been through he still tries to see the best in people.
"The Lord trusted Judas. If you can't trust people you might as well die."
But he admits he's grown wiser and says he hasn't been scammed since.
Arbon's advice to anyone receiving dubious emails about fantastic financial opportunities overseas?
"Don't answer them. Delete them straight away. And talk to the police."
• The Scam is part of the 2021 Loading Docs collection and can be viewed online via nzherald.co.nz/loadingdocs and www.loadingdocs.net