Isabelle Lagace, a 29-year-old part-time actress and model said she only agreed to carry the drugs because she was $21,000 in debt.
Lagace was traveling with two other Canadian nationals. Altogether, the three had over 200 pounds of cocaine in their suitcases.
This was the largest Australian seizure of narcotics carried by passengers of a cruise ship or airliner, according to Tim Fitzgerald, New South Wales regional commander for the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
The maximum penalty would have been life in prison.
Luxury Drug Cruise
Lagace and her two companions, 23-year-old Melina Roberge and 64-year-old Andre Tamine—all residents of the area around Montreal, Canada—boarded a Sea Princess ocean liner for a 51-day, multi-country cruise on July 9, 2016. The ship, departing Dover, England, was due to stop at a dozen different ports before docking in Sydney, Australia.
It is not yet known how the three planned the cruise. Though they all lived in the same Canadian province, they didn’t appear to know each other.
Both young ladies were active on social media, but were not Facebook friends or followers.
The Australian Border Force (ABF) believe the three were working for an international drug-smuggling syndicate.
Commander Fitzgerald said that Australian officials had done a “significant amount of risk assessment on the passengers aboard the vessel prior to its arrival in Sydney and were able to identify high risk passengers.”The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Canadian Border Services Agency helped identify the three people arrested as “high-risk passengers.”
Among the stops the boat made were layovers in Cartagena, Colombia; Manta, Ecuador; Lima, Peru; and Valparaiso, Chile. Colombia and Peru are two of the largest cocaine producers in the world. Ecuador is believed to be a major trafficking hub and Chile is a major transit point for cocaine headed to Australia.
Australian Border Force officers brought drug-sniffing dogs to the cabins of the three suspects. A suitcase in the cabin shared by Lagace and Roberge “contained approximately 35 kilograms (77 pounds) of cocaine,” Fitzgerald said.
“During a second search of a cabin where a Canadian male national was residing, again officers interdicted and identified a number of suitcases that were locked in that particular cabin,” Fitzgerald added. “Subsequently, opening those suitcases, we detected 60 kilograms (132 pounds) of cocaine. So as a result, there was three arrests.”
The drugs are valued $23 million.
Working Off a Debt
Lagasse, a high-school graduate who had enrolled in a business and restaurant hospitality course in 2008, found a new job in 2016, possibly involving risqué modeling or movies. Lagace described the job as “a new work environment allowed me to borrow money from certain people for a new start in life.”
She borrowed $20,000 from an undisclosed source, spending $15,000 on a new car and paying off debts, leaving her with $5000 at the time she embarked on the cruise.
When she was unable to pay back the loan, she was offered the chance to make good on her debt by taking the cruise and delivering the drugs.
“I was to provide my bag to another passenger who would insert what I understood to be an illegal substance,” she said in her affidavit.
Judge Kate Traill decided Lagace displayed “contrition and remorse,” at her trial, and had “very good prospects of rehabilitation,” but rejected Lagace’s claim that she had no option and acted under duress.
The judge pointed out that Lagace still had $5000 which she could have used to defray her debt, and also had a supportive family which might have assisted her.
“I have embarrassed my family, my friends myself,” Lagace said in her affidavit. “It pains me to know my most defining years of womanhood will be spent in jail … I feel remorse and anger at myself about being involved with people who are part of a dirty, dirty drug trade.”
Lagace was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in jail, but with good behavior, she could be out by 2021.
Crown Prosecutor Lincoln Crowley told the court that although the Crown case against Roberge was circumstantial, it seemed unlikely that the two young ladies could have traveled so many thousands of miles in the tiny cabin with a suitcase packed with millions of dollars worth of cocaine and never mentioned it to one another.
Added to this was the fact that Roberge apparently had very little other luggage, but had a mobile phone and a Blackberry. Roberge allegedly told investigators “you won’t be getting that” when they asked for its password, the Sun reported.
The Court will decide on Dec. 21 whether to try Roberge. Andre Tamine is set to go to trial in February, 2018.