The phone rang twice that morning. The first call was bad news about one of the outdoor cats. Malone had come down with several terminal health problems exacerbated by old age. The decision was made, reluctantly, to have him put down. Saying the fateful words spawned an emotional funk that shrouded the second call.
“Uncle Ron, it’s your nephew, Lance.” The voice disappeared in a welter of noise. He must be using a cellphone or a wireless extension. The voice asked about the weather on Maui. It asked about my health.
After years of silence, contact had been re-established with his mother only in the last year or so via emails and phone calls. She and her three sons are the only family left. Lance was the youngest of three nephews last seen during a Mainland trip 21 years before.
The voice quivered. He seemed to be crying, or trying not to cry. With the bad connection, it was hard to tell. Something was wrong. One statement came through clearly.
“Please don’t tell anyone, especially mom.” The voice went on to tell a tale. A friend at work had won a trip to Mexico for two. Lance had been asked to come along. The two of them planned to drive to Mayan ruins with “two guys” they had met in Mexico City.
They had been stopped by police. Lance, a former state police officer and holder of a university degree in jurisprudence, told the officers they could search the car. “They found a kilo of marijuana. I had no idea that crap was in the car.” The voice could be shaking due to extreme humiliation over the situation. The lousy connection made it hard to tell.
The voice said he was being held temporarily at the U.S. embassy. “What?” The voice disappeared in the noise. “I’ll turn you over to Sergeant Sam Roberts and he’ll explain” came through the noise. There was a pause.
A voice identified himself as Sgt. Sam Roberts. The connection was excellent. He explained the situation in detail. Lance was due in court. He would surely be acquitted, but it would be a couple of days before he could be released from custody. Could I come up with bail money? Yes. “We need $1,145. Could you do a wire transfer of the money?” Speed was important.
“We’ve handled situations like this before. It’s obvious your nephew is innocent but he is facing six or seven weeks in jail before he can be heard in court.” He asked me for Lance’s last name. I suffered brain fade and said I didn’t know. My sister had three husbands. Sgt. Roberts said he understood and would check the court document. There was a longish pause. He gave me Lance’s last name as Hampton.
Roberts detailed how I could send the money. He even knew the closest Western Union office. “It’s important you call me back as soon as possible with the tracking number. Don’t mention the reason or he’ll have trouble crossing the border.”
Money on its way within an hour, I called 1-514-649-7798 and heard “U.S. Embassy. How can I help?” The call was transferred to Roberts. I gave him the tracking number. In a subsequent call, Roberts said all was well and I was to call again the next day.
Overnight, 50 years of newsman skepticism finally kicked in. Too much wasn’t adding up. I checked a recent email from Lance. The last name was what I finally remembered. The next day: “Sergeant Roberts is away from his desk. Can you call back in an hour?” Wait an hour. Roberts said the bail money would be returned by certified embassy check “next week,” but “Lance” needed more money for expenses and to prevent him from “having to return and do community service.”
“This is beginning to sound like a scam,” Roberts was told. He put “Lance” back on the line. When asked, “Lance” said he’d changed his last name a year ago but hadn’t bothered with his email address. I asked him to name his two brothers. He didn’t answer and angrily accused me of doubting his identity. “Roberts” came back on the phone. Still fearing I was leaving my nephew in the lurch, I hung up.
I finally called my sister. Lance had taken her to a concert the night before. All they needed for identification was the tracking number.
My sister said a similar scam had been tried on her a year ago. Only a lack of funds and hours of checking had prevented it. We decided the con artists probably came up with the names and connections by hacking emails, from her Facebook page and the tag line on “Maui Nei” – all available on the Internet.
Lesson learned, a lesson that cost $1,145.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email is ryoungblood@Hawaii.rr.com.