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Elderly Fil-Am acquitted of trafficking 1.5kg of cocaine

29 July 2021

By Vir B. Lumicao

The High Court jury acquitted the defendant by a unanimous verdict

An elderly US citizen of Filipino descent who came to Hong Kong expecting to inherit a US$10.5 million fortune promised by a Nigerian man he met online, was acquitted today, Jul 29, of trafficking in dangerous drugs.

The High Court jury returned a unanimous verdict after a trial that dragged on for 18 days.


Rogelio G. Purugganan, 78, had been detained since he was arrested by Customs officers at Hong Kong International Airport on Jul 12, 2019, upon his arrival from the United States on a long trip that included a stopover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Purugganan, who refused help from the Consulate shortly after his arrest, saying he was a US citizen, pleaded not guilty at the opening of the trial on Jul 2 to one count of bringing into Hong Kong 2.08 kilograms of suspected cocaine concealed in his suitcase.

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The slab contained 1.54kg of pure cocaine with an estimated market value of $2.3 million.

Defense lawyer Michael Arthur told the jury at the close of the trial on Monday that his client, who was 76 at the time of his arrest, came to Hong Kong to claim what the Nigerian, David Boyce, said was his inheritance from a deceased wealthy man.


Boyce reportedly told Purugganan in email exchanges the money was already in a Hong Kong bank. Boyce sent the defendant three fake certificates purportedly from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and a Nigerian bank about the fund’s authenticity.

Arthur said the defendant was a victim of scammers preying on the elderly mostly in the US and Europe to use them as drug couriers.

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“There is no indication in the prosecution evidence that Rogelio knew he was carrying the drug in his suitcase,” Arthur said in his closing argument on the 15th day of the trial that was originally scheduled for 14 days.

He cited cases in the past decade where 10 mostly European retirees were enticed by crime syndicates to join an investment meeting here. Once here, the retirees were told to go to Australia and New Zealand to meet their sponsors.

They were arrested at HKIA when it turned out the suitcases issued to them by the syndicate had crystal methamphetamine hidden in secret compartments.

In November 2015, six duped “drug mules” who had been detained for seven years were acquitted by Justice Zervos, who said the elderly detainees had no knowledge of the drug in their luggage. He scolded the prosecution for not going after the perpetrators instead.

Arthur said it has been widely reported in media that the scammers befriend unsuspecting elderly retirees on social media or by telephone and offer them free overseas travel on various pretexts, including investment opportunities and other scams.

The 2kg of cocaine found on Purugganan was concealed in this suitcase

In an overseas phone interview with the defendant’s wife and his son last week, Arthur and prosecutor Anthony Sherry were told that since about 10 years ago, Purugganan had received thousands of emails about huge fortunes left by deceased people that were waiting to be transferred to trustees abroad.

They said he entertained the emails because he had then just retired from government service as a paralegal and Internal Revenue Service staff and seemed to be bored.

They said he was fond of replying to the email senders, while his family had been warning him those were so-called Nigerian 419 scams that had been preying on gullible elderly people. So they were surprised when he told them he was leaving for Hong Kong.

Arthur said the defendant’s itinerary took him from New York to Addis Ababa, where a man on Boyce’s instruction replaced his suitcase for the trip to Hong Kong. He said it was the man who packed the suitcase for him.

Boyce also assured the defendant the money was already in Hong Kong, the lawyer said.

“Are you sure I’m going to get the money?” the defendant reportedly asked Boyce when he was in Addis Ababa and the Nigerian replied, “Yes, the US$10.5 million you get already in the bank.”

Arthur said the jury knew that they are supposed to acquit a defendant if there is no evidence to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt. In this case, there was no proof Purugganan knew that cocaine was concealed in his suitcase, the barrister said.

Judge Audrey Patricia Campbell-Moffat told the jury about a report on scams published Wednesday by the South China Morning Post. She expressed her concern they could have read the report and influence their verdict.

She told the jury to decide on their verdict based on the evidence they had and what they heard from the prosecution and the defense.

Prosecutor Sherry, in his closing address to the jury Wednesday, pressed his case that the defendant came to Hong Kong to deliver the cocaine to a drug syndicate that is controlling the illicit trade in the city.


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