How dating scam duped Aussie mum
WHEN Yoshe Taylor first connected with a man in Cambodia named Precious Max she had been single for four years and hoped to make a connection online, just like thousands of other Australians.
But it wasn't until the Queensland mother-of-two was arrested for being part of an international drug smuggling syndicate that she realised how thoroughly she'd been tricked.
She wasn't the only one. Three other Australians, another two women and a man, were duped by the same dating scam and were also arrested after flying to Cambodia in the hopes of finding love.
Now Ms Taylor has told the disturbing story of how she was tricked into trusting someone she thought was a businessman who genuinely cared for her and ended up in a Cambodian jail.
In a two-part episode of ABC's Australian Story, Ms Taylor reveals she met Precious on the dating website Tagged in 2013 when she was 41 years old. The two exchanged sweet messages but she had no idea that he was also grooming another 44-year-old Australian woman at the same time.
"I was talking to him for a long time; I thought I got to know him and he seemed very nice," Yoshe told ABC.
Precious told Ms Taylor and another woman "Kay Smith" that he was a South African-born businessman and urged them to come and visit him in Cambodia, even offering to buy them plane tickets.
Ms Taylor treated his offer with scepticism, asking him to send a copy of his passport and to pay for the tickets in cash because she wanted to make sure she was meeting a real person. He agreed and soon she was on her way to Cambodia for a week.
When she arrived Precious looked exactly like he did in the photos online and Ms Taylor spent a happy week on holidays.
While Ms Taylor told Precious she thought he was too young and they were better as friends, he managed to reel her in with a business offer to start a shop for his friend, selling Cambodian arts and crafts in Brisbane.
The offer seemed to be a lifeline for Ms Taylor, who had been struggling with employment as a single mum.
On her third trip to Cambodia to settle some of the business details, Ms Taylor was asked to carry a backpack full of fabrics back to Australia. Before the flight she dutifully inspected everything in the bag to make sure there wasn't anything suspicious in it.
But the Cambodian authorities, following a tip-off from Australian authorities, searched Ms Taylor's bags at the airport and found just over 2kg of heroin sewn into the lining of the backpack.
Without the money to hire a good lawyer or other people to help her, Ms Taylor faced a Cambodian court, in some cases without a translator.
"I knew I wasn't important so I didn't think anyone would do anything to help me," she said. "I was a mushroom I didn't know what was going on."
She was devastated to find out she was found guilty of drug trafficking in 2014 and sentenced to 23 years in a Cambodian prison.
"I did not want to spend 23 years away from my children," she said. "I actually thought the death penalty was a much better idea than being in jail for 23 years."
During the first few weeks of her incarceration she shared a cell with 99 other women. There were three toilet bowls at one end of the room but no curtains or plumbing. Eventually she was moved to a different prison.
She stopped eating because she "didn't feel hungry".
"I didn't feel anything, I just had no hope."
An appeal in 2016 was not successful and she may have been left to rot in jail except for the help of Australian lawyers who stumbled on to her case.
Barrister Moya O'Brien first heard of Ms Taylor's situation from the woman who wishes to remain anonymous and is known only as "Kay Smith". Kay had also been duped by Precious but the case against her had been dropped by prosecutors in Australia because the evidence pointed to her being an innocent agent. She had mentioned to Ms O'Brien that she'd heard of another woman in jail in Cambodia. Ms O'Brien couldn't find anyone who was representing this woman and that she had seemed to have "fallen off the radar".
Ms O'Brien wanted to look into this woman, who turned out to be Ms Taylor, but didn't know where to start. She mentioned the story to a friend, Philip Dunn QC who happened to bring along his mentee Luke McMahon
Mr McMahon was a former investigative journalist and decided to look into the case. Eventually he flew to Cambodia to visit Ms Taylor and was shocked to find out the Australian authorities had not passed on information about related cases in Australia.
Unlike Ms Taylor, three others had been arrested in Australia for smuggling heroin linked to Precious and their cases had had very different outcomes.
Prosecutors had dropped the charges against two women and another man was acquitted by a jury.
"They (the AFP) were aware it was the same guy, Precious Max, yet nothing got back to Cambodia," Mr McMahon said.
"I don't understand. They (the AFP) had a liaison officer in Phnom Penh."
The Australian Federal Police told Australian Story it was not its role to update international authorities about court results.
"The basis of police-to-police assistance is sharing operational policing information to contribute to investigations and any subsequent prosecutions," an AFP spokesperson said in a statement.
"Court results are not usually considered operational information for the purposes of initiating prosecutions."
By the time Mr McMahon had tracked down Ms Taylor, she had already been in jail for about three years.
She needed help and eventually they found Melbourne lawyer Alex Wilson, who agreed to work on Ms Taylor's case for free.
In 2018, the highest court in Cambodia ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove Ms Taylor knew the drugs were in the backpack.
But the case was still referred back to another court for a verdict. On April 19 this year Ms Taylor was finally told she was "not guilty and free", having spent almost six years in prison.
Mr Dunn QC said without the intervention of the Australian lawyers, Ms Taylor would still be in jail.
"This woman would rot and die in jail," he said. "It shouldn't be a chance conversation that leads to someone being helped.
"We shouldn't abandon our citizens."
Ms Taylor finally landed back in Australia in May this year and was reunited with her children, who were nine and 14 when she was arrested. Her daughter is now 17.
The former primary school teacher said she heard some say Australians were easy to scam and while she doesn't want people to be scared, she hopes they will protect themselves.
"If one person is protected because they've seen the story, if it can save one other Australian, I'll be really happy," she said.