Romance scam grandmother happy to be home

Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto, an Australian grandmother leaves the courthouse following drug charges trial at the Federal Court in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur.  Picture: Mohd RASFAN/AFP/via Getty Images
Maria Elvira Pinto Exposto, an Australian grandmother leaves the courthouse following drug charges trial at the Federal Court in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur. Picture: Mohd RASFAN/AFP/via Getty Images

A GRANDMOTHER who fell victim to an internet romance scam and was sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Malaysia has spoken of her relief at coming home and declared: “I learned my lesson.”

Maria Exposto had a tearful reunion with her siblings and children at Sydney Airport on Friday morning, having touched down on a flight from Kuala Lumpur.

The 55-year-old was freed on Tuesday after the full bench of the Federal Appeal Court of Malaysia agreed with her lawyer that she was an innocent dupe and had not known she was carrying drugs.

Wiping tears from her eyes, she told reporters at the airport she was struggling for words but was “very happy” to be back home.

She said her first act on home soil would be to visit the cemetery to pay respects to her mother, who has died while she was in jail.

Maria Exposto at the Magistrate Court in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur in 2014. Picture: AFP Photo/MOHD RASFAN/AFP via Getty Images

Ms Exposto said she had kept faith throughout her ordeal that her lawyers would be able to get justice for her, and thanked her family for their support.

“I can’t thank them enough, because in prison I needed support, and my family was there,” Ms Exposto said.

Her lawyers argued she was the “perfect textbook dummy” and the victim of an online romance scam.

Branding the internet “evil”, Ms Exposto said she hoped her case could help other scam victims and be a warning to young people.

“I want to tell the young people ‘don’t trust anyone, don’t help anyone out there’ … I learned my lesson,” she said.

According to defence lawyer Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Ms Exposto fell prey to the internet romance scam initiated by a man who identified himself as “Captain Daniel Smith”.

The man said he was a US soldier stationed in Afghanistan, a widower whose wife had died in a car accident and the father of a teenage son.

Mr Abdullah said the scam had lasted a couple of years and Ms Exposto had sent money to “Smith” before flying to Shanghai, China, in 2014. They intended to meet there, where he could request her help lodging documents for his retirement from the military.

“Smith” did not show up in China but an American who claimed to be his friend did.

Shortly before her scheduled departure, he asked her to take a black backpack, which Ms Exposto believed contained clothes, to Melbourne.

Drugs were found in the bag after Ms Exposto landed in Kuala Lumpur in transit on her way home to Sydney in December 2014.

She volunteered the bag for a search after a scan at the airport revealed “something green” and 1.5 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine was found.

She was acquitted by the High Court in December 2017 after the judge found she was scammed by her online boyfriend and was unaware she was carrying the drugs.

However, the prosecution appealed the verdict.

In May 2018, an appeal court overturned the acquittal and Ms Exposto was sentenced to death by hanging for drug trafficking.

Malaysia has a mandatory death sentence for anyone found guilty of carrying more than 50 grams of a prohibited drug.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne, who coincidentally met with her Malaysian counterpart Dato’ Saifuddin Abdullah on Friday in Sydney, welcomed Ms Exposto’s return.

“I did acknowledge to Minister Saifuddin that we are very pleased to see the court acquit Maria Exposto and to see her return again to her family today, there were some very heartwarming photographs in the media,” she told reporters.