Sad ‘love’ story behind teacher’s drug bust
A FAILED marriage, major health problems and crippling bills resulted in a United States woman smuggling 756 grams of pure cocaine worth around $235,000 into Australia.
When Denise Woodrum, 51, of Missouri, landed in Sydney in August last year, she was detained by Australian Border Security.
After inspecting her luggage, the customs officials found just under one kilogram of white powder stuffed into a wallet, makeup products, a set of buttons and the heel of a shoe.
In January, she pleaded guilty to importing a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug which has a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail and a $1.4 million fine - or both.
The former high school teacher, who is due to be sentenced next month, told authorities she was tricked into carrying the drug-filled items by a man she met online - but had never met - known as "Hendrik Cornelius".
During a previous hearing at the New South Wales District Court, Prosecutor Ben Dunstan urged Judge Penelope Wass to find that Woodrum knew she was smuggling cocaine into Australia.
However, Woodrum's Legal Aid lawyer Rebecca Neil argued that a set of tragic circumstances and immense personal hardships pushed the convicted drug mule - who believed she was the victim of a catfishing operation - towards this earth-shattering low in her life.
Everything had been turned upside down by whirlwind couple of years which had left Woodrum vulnerable and desperate for love. And it all began with her divorce.
Before it all fell apart, the 51-year-old, a devout follower of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, was living in central California with her husband where she was happily married and teaching at a local school.
But after the marriage took a turn for the worse, she gave up her teaching certification and retreated to the couple's house in Montana.
It only got worse from there. After a year, Woodrum had to liquidate her assets and move in with her father, Tom Rozanski, who told The Washington Post she began to suffer serious health problems.
She was working as an administrator at the local YMCA and substitute teaching at the high school occasionally, when her medical issues forced her to get a partial hysterectomy.
It was a long and difficult recovery which left her drowning in debt from mounting medical bills. When Woodrum returned to work, she was told she wasn't needed anymore.
The desperate marketing graduate took up work as a sales assistant in a health store and worried herself sick over her dad's depression.
However, things were about to get even worse for Woodrum when she was targeted in a suspected catfishing operation which would see her locked up here in Australia just months later.
After a court hearing last week, Fairfax reported that Woodrum's lawyer cited hundreds of texts over four months as evidence that she had been duped by a man calling himself "Hendrik Cornelius". She had never met him face-to-face.
However, Woodrum had told the man that he was her "Only and First True Family" and asked him, "Can you promise you will never leave me?" less than a month before her arrest.
She had also texted him in May 2017, saying her father had agreed to help her out with the $US50,000 that she needed to get out of debt, and she was going through bankruptcy.
Woodrum's lawyer argued her client thought she was bringing Mr Cornelius artefacts on a trip which took her from Suriname in South America, Trinidad and Tobago, Miami, Los Angeles and finally to Sydney in the a space of just a few weeks.
However, on August 4, she was stopped at Sydney International Airport where she was pulled aside for additional screening by border force officers who found 756 grams of pure cocaine stuffed into a wallet, makeup products, a set of buttons and the heel of a shoe.
Representatives for Australia's Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions told The Washington Post that Woodrum passed herself off as a tourist who had come to Sydney to see the Harbour Bridge and the aquarium, and claimed the shoes in her suitcase were a gift for her mother.
She will be sentenced on September 6.