9 Dec 2023

Elderly Kiwi caught carrying 2kg of heroin released from Australian prison

7:54 am on 9 December 2023

By Troels Sommerville of Stuff

The New Zealand national's suitcase that allegedly contained 2kg of heroin.

The New Zealand national's suitcase that contained 2kg of heroin. Photo: Supplied / Australian Federal Police / Australian Border Force

A 78-year-old Kiwi who claimed he was duped into unkowingly trafficking two kilograms of heroin has been given his freedom by an Australian court.

Aucklander Eric Chang spent the better part of five months - including his 78th birthday - in a remand centre in Melbourne's west while awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges.

He was nabbed at the border with Class A drugs stitched into the lining of his bag.

Eric Chang's suitcase found with heroin in during airport check

Australian Customs and Border Protection Service officers found about 2 kilograms of heroin in Eric Chang's bags. Photo: Stuff / Australian Federal Police

He was facing a possible 25-year sentence, but throughout his time behind bars, Chang maintained his innocence and claimed he was the victim of a scam.

On December 1, he struck a deal at the Melbourne Magistrates Court which saw him released from custody that day.

"He survived this ordeal knowing his innocence and trusting in the justice system," said his lawyer Annamiek van Loon.

"Ultimately, there was not enough evidence in support of the drug importation charge," she said.

According to court documents obtained by Stuff, the Aucklander said he believed he was flying to Thailand to pick up an honour from the United Nations for the country's response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He was also promised US$23 million.

About 18 months before his arrest, Chang was contacted through WhatsApp by a man who called himself George, telling him he needed to be in Bangkok to sign a certificate.

Instead, he was duped into taking drugs in his luggage.

While he was in Bangkok, a woman met Chang at his hotel and gave him a black carry-on bag to "carry gifts for officials he would be meeting in Australia", the court documents said.

He told police that inside the bag he had only seen soap and clothing wrapped in plastic.

After taking the gifts to the "officials" in Melbourne, Chang would then receive US$23 million and the certificate, he believed.

Chang's lawyer said his family claimed the man had previously fallen for online scams, but this one had far more severe consequences.

He landed in Melbourne on July 26 where Australian Border Force officers found "white powder", which later tested positive for heroin, hidden inside the lining of his suitcase.

But after his health deteriorated behind bars, Chang eventually saw the importation charge withdrawn and instead pleaded guilty to giving false/misleading information to a customs officer, as he said he packed the bags he was travelling with himself.

Chang was placed on a six-month bond with the condition of good behaviour and no conviction was recorded.

It has been a long ordeal for the semi-retired Auckland man, with his family saying it had been a "joyous reunion".

He is now back on New Zealand shores, van Loon said, and his family is planning a big dinner to celebrate his return home.

- This story was first published by Stuff