An Australian mother has returned home, having spent almost six years in a Cambodian prison after she was lured into an internet love scam.
A Cambodian court ruled that Yoshe Ann Taylor, 47, was an innocent victim of a drug smuggling operation, duped by a man she thought loved her and wanted to help her.
Ms Taylor was confused and overwhelmed as she arrived at Brisbane airport this morning, where she was met by her Australian lawyer, Alex Wilson.
“We’re just overjoyed that this happened,” Ms Wilson said as she ushered Ms Taylor away.
“This is going to be a difficult time for her as she readies herself for this period in her life.”
Ms Taylor hopes to reunite with her children soon.
On her way home from what she thought was a legitimate business trip in 2013, Cambodian police found about 2 kilograms of heroin stitched into the lining of a backpack she was carrying.
Since the former primary school teacher was arrested in September that year, she has maintained that her new friend, whom she knew as Precious Max but whose real name is Precious Chineme Nwoko, asked her to carry home some local artefacts that Ms Taylor thought were for the arts and craft business she was hoping to set up with his assistance.
Before agreeing, she had checked the bag Nwoko gave her and found nothing untoward in it.
Ms Taylor was shocked when police stopped her and a young woman she thought was Nwoko’s business associate at the airport and found heroin hidden in the bag.
In 2014, Nigerian national Nwoko was sentenced to 27 years in jail, and 19-year-old Charlene Savarino to 25 years. They are both still serving time in prison.
Ms Taylor was sentenced to 23 years, a verdict that was upheld on appeal in 2016. Her children would be adults by the time she was free. But fresh evidence meant her case was reopened last year.
On Easter Friday, the Cambodian Court of Appeal ruled Ms Taylor had been the innocent victim of an internet love scam.
Judge Chay Chandaravann said Ms Taylor had been consistent in her testimony in all courts and described her as honest.
“You are now free and released,” he said, waiving the 50 million riel ($17,366) court fine.
After the judgment, Ms Taylor hugged her Cambodian lawyer, tears streaming down her face.
“Today, justice in Cambodia was done,” defence counsel Mosseny So told Australian Story.
“What Yoshe has waited for for almost six years is finally over. I’m very, very happy, that I can say. And the last word is that you can find justice in Cambodia.”
But Ms Taylor had despaired that this day would never come.
Ms Taylor was single and had recently lost her job when she first met Nwoko on an online dating site in 2013. He paid for her to travel to Cambodia, where they met in person for the first time. She returned home a week later.
According to Cambodian Court of Appeal Judge Chandaravann, Nwoko then asked her to come back.
But she was suffering stomach problems at the time and did not want to go. He encouraged her by offering financial assistance to set up a Khmer Arts and Craft shop in Queensland, as well as to pay for her travel expenses.
Drawn to the possibility of working in the arts, she boarded a flight and Nwoko took her on a holiday to the Elephant Mountains in southern Cambodia.
Ms Taylor sought out proof that Nwoko was legitimate, and armed with documentation that looked real, she then looked for business rental options on the Sunshine Coast.
Ms Taylor made a third trip to Cambodia and on September 18, 2013, she was due to fly home.
That was when her dream of a secure future ended.
‘I miss my children terribly’
After three weeks in Prey Sar Prison, Yoshe Taylor was moved to the smaller and less crowded Police Judicial Prison. But with little access to sunlight and food, her health deteriorated.
After her pleas of innocence were rejected at trial and appeal, she seemed destined to serve out her 23-year sentence far from her children and the life she had known in Queensland.
But then an Australian law student started looking into the case and discovered Ms Taylor was not the only victim of Nwoko and his associates.
“Several other women and a man were found to have drugs hidden in their luggage when they arrived at Australian airports,” Luke McMahon said.
But charges against them were dropped when authorities were convinced they had been duped.
The Cambodian Supreme Court overturned Ms Taylor’s conviction in July last year, but the prosecution appealed its decision.
And when Australian Story visited her in prison three weeks ago, she feared the worst.
“I feel very alone,” Ms Taylor said, breaking into tears. “I miss my children terribly.”
Last chance at freedom
On April 19, Ms Taylor was one of eight handcuffed prisoners brought to the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh.
Wearing the orange uniforms of convicted prisoners, they sat together in the ornate court room, each one waiting for their respective matter to come up.
Ms Taylor was the only woman. Her name was called first.
As Judge Chandaravann went through the prosecution’s case, Ms Taylor started to shake, convinced she was going down.
But Judge Chandaravann said she had done all she could to check the bag before carrying it into the airport, going as far as photographing the Khmer embroidery inside it. He added it would have been impossible for her to have seen the bags of heroin as they were sewn into the sides of the bag.
He said the evidence of two other Nwoke victims, who were arrested in Australia and then released, had not played a role in the decision of the panel of judges, but rather it was evidence provided by Cambodian authorities.
At the request of Ms Taylor’s legal team, which did not want anything derailing her safe return home, Australian Story agreed not to report on the court win at the time.
Ms Taylor was now a free woman, but had to return to prison to await the finalisation of paperwork.
“I’m playing Santa Claus, giving away my things to prisoners, dismantling my life of the last five years in a few days,” she said.
“I can’t think much about the future as things take so long in Cambodia and you don’t know what will happen, so I’m still cautious.”
On Thursday, the mother of two started on the next and no doubt difficult step in her journey – rediscovering her children and a life back in Australia.