Kiwi gran’s drug mule horror: Sharon Armstrong’s prison hell hits screens

It’s been 10 years since Kiwi grandmother Sharon Armstrong made headlines around the world for falling victim to an elaborate romance scam that saw her imprisoned in Argentina.

Tricked into believing she was transporting top-secret documents for “Frank”, a man she’d fallen in love with online, Sharon was arrested as she attempted to board a flight from Buenos Aires to London with 5kg of cocaine hidden in the lining of her suitcase.

Now 63 and working in youth services in Northland, Sharon is revisiting those nightmarish first days after her arrest for TVNZ 1 drama The Tender Trap, based on her story, which screens Monday, March 15.

She hopes that before viewers pass any judgment, they realise a scam like that could happen to anyone – a sentiment that was key for actress Rima Te Wiata, who plays Sharon’s character in the biopic.

“Both the producer and I talked about wanting to convey that,” says Rima. “There are certain times in our lives where we’re more vulnerable to falling for a scam. It also depends on how clever someone is who’s grooming you.

“It’s just revolting. It was very important to represent Sharon’s intelligence and the difficult time with the infamy that surrounded her afterwards.”

Sharon, the former deputy chief executive of the Māori Language Commission, adds, “I was vilified. People still look sideways at me and I can tell what they’re thinking: ‘How could you be so dumb?’

“Never did I think it would happen to me. I wasn’t looking for a relationship – it was just my cousin signing me up to a dating website for a laugh. I actually found it creepy, so I deregistered myself, but my profile stayed live for three days. That’s when Frank came in.

“I was vulnerable after moving to Australia to be with my whānau and was struggling to find work. My self-esteem had taken a hit, so getting pursued romantically was incredible and all-consuming.”

After Sharon’s laptop was handed over to police in Argentina, digital analysts found 7000 emails between the pair during their six-month relationship. “And that was just the emails,” she tells. “He called me every day at least once as well.”

Caught up in the fantasy, Sharon was still in denial, even when she was taken off the flight by police. “I didn’t feel overly nervous and was still thinking, ‘Once they open my case, they’ll see there are only papers in there.’ I can laugh at it now, but I started to hyper- ventilate as they slit the first package and I could see the white powder.”

Sharon collapsed, with medics rushing in. One of them asked her in broken English, “Are you OK?” Her first thought was, “I’m never ever going to be OK again!”

Her rose-tinted glasses were shattered as fingerprints were taken and her mug shot was splashed across media worldwide.

“The feeling of whakamā [shame] was huge,” recalls Sharon. “I was asked if I wanted my embassy contacted, but I said no because I didn’t want anyone to know about it, so my whānau didn’t get hurt. There was a little bit of me that also thought, ‘Maybe Frank’s been caught up in this as well.'”

Her whānau’s response on the phone when they first heard her tell them she’d been arrested in Argentina was, “Thank God for that!”

Sharon explains, “They thought I was dead and buried. Their unconditional support was the difference in me surviving it. They were my reason to keep going.”

She also learnt to feel grateful for three things. “Firstly, that I hadn’t made it to London to meet Frank because I quite possibly might’ve had my throat slit and been chucked out of the car on the side of the road.

“Secondly, that the scammers didn’t transit me through a country with the death penalty – and also that I was not responsible for putting five kilos of cocaine on the streets of London.”

Sharon was sentenced to four years and 10 months in Unidad 31 prison, near the slums of Buenos Aires. She was released after two and a half years.

“To my knowledge, I was never convicted of any offence in Argentina,” she explains. “The original sentence was appealed and subsequent appeals were never finalised, so my lawyers applied to have me deported.”

Since writing her tell-all book Organised Deception: My Story in 2018, Sharon has worked voluntarily with other romance scam victims. “I’ve supported six victims since Christmas, with the last two approached through gaming apps,” she says.

“Netsafe statistics show there’s been a 40 percent increase in romance scams in 2020 and, with COVID, the modus operandi has changed – people are being asked to transfer bitcoin, becoming unwitting money mules.”

Sharon wants to educate people that if someone online professes their love within a couple of weeks or asks to be sent something without having met you, it’s for certain a scam.

“My experience hasn’t ruined me. I didn’t come back from prison hating men or the internet. I came back stronger and less naïve. Life is good and I’m grateful to be here telling my story.”

On the cloudless Auckland day when actress Rima Te Wiata met Sharon Armstrong to prepare for her starring role in The Tender Trap, the pair hit it off immediately and “never stopped talking” for nine hours.

“It was amazing – you couldn’t shut either of us up!” enthuses Rima, 57, who didn’t know much about Sharon’s story beforehand, other than recollecting reading about her arrest in the newspaper at the time.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t interrogating her,” says Rima. “I thought about myself being in her position. If it had happened to me and I had to talk to an actor, I’d be like, ‘I hope this turns out alright.’ I felt responsible for representing a real person, not a fictional character in a play.”

Once they felt comfortable enough to start exchanging information about their lives, they got to sharing “very personal things very quickly”, tells Rima. “Like how you operate when you’re in love and how you get taken in sometimes.

“It’s been proven that falling in love can actually affect your brain and it gives you a high. You get addicted to that high, which is why you keep thinking about a person, in order to get that chemical reaction in your brain again.”

Sharon, who had always admired the actress, agrees. “What gave me confidence that Rima would do a good job was that I could feel her empathy as opposed to pity.

“We had a fabulous day together. We walked along the beach, laughed at some of the similarities in our previous romantic encounters – not Frank! – and I appreciated that she was really open and honest with me. Plus, I thought she was so brave to take her clothes off for the shower scene in prison!”

Rima gives a hearty laugh.”I was initially a bit, ‘Oh, gawd!’ when I found out I had to strip for that scene, but there are a lot of women who are slightly overweight and I actually haven’t seen one naked on TV that has love handles.

“I thought, ‘I’ll just do it – it doesn’t really matter,’ because I’ve never had that sexy persona in my acting career. It’s just not my currency.”

What Rima can’t ever imagine doing is swiping sideways on a dating app or flicking through endless profiles to meet a new love interest online. “Never,” she says. “I’m from a generation that hasn’t been savvy to all that and I’m not interested – it’s like the SPCA!”

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