When Australian customs officials pulled Denise Woodrum aside for additional screening, the 50-year-old Missouri woman was already going through a rough period.
First, there was her divorce, her father, Tom Rozanski, told The Washington Post on Monday night. She had been living in central California with her husband and teaching grade school, but when the marriage went sour, she gave up her teaching certification and retreated to their house in Montana.
After a year, though, they had to liquidate their assets, and she moved into her father’s condo near the Lake of the Ozarks and started over in Missouri, finding a job as administrator at the local YMCA and substitute teaching at the high school from time to time. Then medical problems forced her to get a partial hysterectomy, and she had a long, difficult recovery. When she was finally cleared to move back to work, she was told they didn’t need her anymore. By then, her medical bills had left her deeply in debt. Despite her master’s degree in marketing, she found herself doing clerical work for an HVAC company and hawking vitamins at a store at the mall. On top of all that, she had struggled with what her father recognized as bouts of depression, although she didn’t like to call it that.
Things were about to get much worse. On the morning of Aug. 4, 2017, Woodrum was stopped at Sydney International Airport when Australian Border Force officers inspected her luggage and found just over one kilogram of cocaine stuffed into a wallet, makeup products, a set of buttons and the heel of a shoe. She was arrested and charged with importing a marketable quantity of a border-controlled drug, which carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison, a fine of $1,050,000, or both, the federal prosecutor’s office told The Washington Post.
She may have been the unwitting victim of an international catfishing scheme. In a court hearing last week, Woodrum’s lawyer cited hundreds of texts over a span of four months as evidence that she had been duped by a man calling himself “Hendrik Cornelius,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The two had reportedly met online and formed an intimate relationship without ever meeting face to face.
“She was groomed to provide a financial gain for this person, Hendrik Cornelius, whatever person or persons it was behind this identity,” her attorney, Rebecca Neil, said. “There are fraudsters out there who are relying on women who are vulnerable.”
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, the Morning Herald reported. She had also texted him in May 2017 to say her father had agreed to help her out with the $50,000 that she needed to get out of debt, and she was going through bankruptcy. An online search of federal bankruptcy courts show no record of her filing, and Rozanski says he’d never promised her the money and didn’t find out about her financial troubles until after she was arrested.
Woodrum, now 51, pleaded guilty in January. Her sentencing is scheduled to take place on Sept. 6.
Legal Aid New South Wales, which is representing Woodrum, declined to comment on the case given the ongoing proceedings. But according to the Morning Herald, Neil, Woodrum’s lawyer, described her client as a deeply religious and socially isolated woman during last week’s hearing.
Woodrum is an associate of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, a term which refers to individuals who are inspired by the spirituality of a particular religious group and try to follow that same spirituality in their private lives, Cheryl Wittenauer, the religious order’s communications director, told The Post on Tuesday. She was not a nun, a sister or a vowed member of the order, as has been reported elsewhere. Woodrum had been known to the group for about five years, and had looked into becoming a member, though nothing ever came of it.
“Nothing that they knew about her would ever lead them to suspect this type of behavior,” Wittenauer said, adding that one of the sisters had described Woodrum as vulnerable, and thirsting for attention.
Exactly how much Woodrum knew about the contents of her suitcase is the subject of an ongoing dispute. In court last week, Neil said Woodrum had thought she was carrying artifacts. Federal prosecutors argued that she knew she was smuggling cocaine.
According to the Morning Herald, Judge Penelope Wass said she was “less than convinced” by Woodrum’s explanation, and called her account “inconsistent and at times unbelievable.”
The prosecution and defense agree on certain key facts, the paper reported. Both sides agree that Woodrum flew to Suriname in July 2017. While she was there, she texted Cornelius, telling him, “Riding in his car to get stuff no signature needed.”
She also texted someone named Stacie, telling her, “This whole trip is paid for and will get additional payment for work.”
From Suriname, she flew from Trinidad and Tobago to Miami to Los Angeles to Sydney. “It’s been a pleasure serving together,” she texted Cornelius after landing.
Representatives for Australia’s Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions told The Washington Post that Woodrum had passed herself off as a tourist who had come to Sydney to see the Harbour Bridge and the aquarium, and claimed that the shoes in her suitcase were a gift for her mother. Despite her recent trip to Suriname, she answered in the negative when asked if she had been to Africa, South America, Central America or the Caribbean in the past six days.
While inspecting her three suitcases, Australian Border Force officers noticed something concealed in a pair of gold high-heeled sandals.
“How much did they put in the shoes?” Woodrum allegedly asked while the heels went through the X-ray machine, before telling the officers, “Sorry, just talking to myself.”
After the inspection, federal prosecutors say, Woodrum changed her story. She told the Border Force officers that the shoes were a gift for her friend, and she was supposed to meet him at the airport. The officers asked to frisk her. “Why, how much did you find?” she allegedly asked.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Woodrum later told Australian officials in a taped interview that she had been given gifts and clothes in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, and told to deliver them to people she would meet in Sydney. After her flight landed, she was supposed to go directly to a hotel and then let them know that she had arrived.
When she was taken into custody instead, she tried to call Cornelius, who had been texting her.
“Are you ok?”
“What are you doing honey?”
It’s unclear if the person with whom Woodrum had been corresponding was actually named Hendrik Cornelius or if that individual could potentially face criminal charges as well.
“The Commonwealth Director of Prosecutions (CDPP) is not an investigative agency and has no information on any investigation relating to ‘Hendrik Cornelius,’” officials from the federal prosecutor’s office wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
A search of court records in Missouri shows that Woodrum had only one traffic ticket from January 2017. She didn’t even drink alcohol and had never used illegal drugs, her father said.
When he got a call from the U.S. Consulate in Australia telling him that his daughter had been arrested at the airport, he didn’t believe it at first, he said. As far as he knew, his daughter was at home in Osage Beach, Mo.
“I said, this is a hoax, this is a scam,” Rozanski said. “I hung up. He called back.”
Before her arrest, Rozanski had talked to his daughter over the phone about once a week, he said. But she never mentioned Hendrik Cornelius, and he didn’t know that she was seeing anyone, although they didn’t usually talk about that aspect of her life.
Woodrum calls him from jail once or twice a week, but he’s been careful not to ask her about what happened because their calls are monitored and anything she divulges could potentially affect the sentence she receives, he said.
“When she gets out, she’s going to have to sit down and explain to me what she did and why she did it,” he said. “If she knowingly went into this, it wasn’t fair for her to do what she did to her family.”
Without knowing her side of the story, Rozanski said that he can’t say for sure if a stranger who she met online took advantage of her vulnerability.
“I can’t believe that she was that gullible,” he said. “You hear so many things about the Internet.”
He’s also not sure whether to side with the prosecution or the defense about whether Woodrum understood what was in her suitcase. The news of her arrest was such a shock, he says, that he’s found himself at a total loss.
“I know she’s a good person,” he said. “She’s conscientious about other people’s feelings and she tries to do her best. I think she just got involved in a situation she couldn’t handle and didn’t share the problem with her family, and the first we heard about it was when she was down there in Australia.”
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