Quebec's 'cocaine babes,' imprisoned in Australia, may have been pawns in a much larger game
Radio-Canada's Enquête finds man who claims to have tipped off authorities
Mélina Roberge sits in a prison in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, 16,000 kilometres from the little Quebec town where she grew up.
She is 25 years old and homesick. Even if she makes parole, it will be at least two years before she gets out.
When Roberge addressed a Sydney courtroom at her sentencing hearing for drug smuggling last March, her long brown hair pulled back into a bun, she admitted that she did it for the likes.
She loved her Instagram account. So when her "sugar daddy" offered her a free luxury cruise around the world in 2016, the prospect of selfies in New York, Cartagena and Lima was just too hard to resist.
All she had to do in exchange was to act the part of a traveller in what turned out to be an international drug-smuggling operation.
The operation ended in Australia with the seizure of nearly 100 kilograms of cocaine, one of the country's largest drug busts.
It's estimated that much cocaine would have sold for $60 million Cdn on the Australian black market.
Roberge, her cabinmate Isabelle Lagacé and a third Quebecer, André Tamine, were arrested. All have since pleaded guilty to drug-smuggling charges.
"I know that I have made really poor choices. All I was seeing was how much attention and 'likes' I would get from my pictures," Roberge said in a statement to the court.
Lagacé, 30, is serving a seven-year sentence in a different Sydney prison.
"The most defining years of my womanhood will be spent in prison more than halfway around the world," she said at her sentencing hearing.
"This will haunt me for the rest of my life."
The Australian tabloids called the women the "cocaine babes," revelling in details about the seemingly lavish lifestyle they enjoyed before their arrests.
But an investigation by Radio-Canada's investigative program Enquête has revealed new information about the case, including the identity of the man who might have tipped off the authorities, details about Roberge's mysterious "Sugar Daddy," and a suggestion that Roberge and Lagacé were simply pawns in a much larger game.
Roberge meets 'Sugar Daddy'
Roberge spent her childhood in Granby, a town of 60,000, 80 kilometres east of Montreal. She moved to Montreal not long after finishing high school.
By day, she worked in a jewelry store. By night, she was a fixture in the big city's nightclubs — outings dutifully recorded on her social media accounts.
It was at one of those clubs that Roberge, then 20, met an older man who appeared to run several successful online businesses. She later learned he also ran an escort service.
They struck up an "intimate" relationship, she said. But this man, who Roberge refers to only as "Sugar Daddy," also introduced her to other men.
She had intimate relationships with some of those men, as well, Roberge said in a sworn statement to the court. Sometimes she was paid or given gifts, other times not.
In May 2016, Sugar Daddy offered Roberge a week-long trip to Morocco. She worked as an escort, earning $15,000 during the trip.
While in Morocco, Sugar Daddy and his acquaintances offered her the chance to make more money by playing a role in a drug-smuggling operation aboard a cruise ship.
"I was not interested and told them I was not interested," she said in her court statement.
But Sugar Daddy didn't let the matter drop. A few weeks later, he asked Roberge again if she wanted to take part.
Someone dropped out at the last minute, he told her. She'd have the chance to take a $22,000 cruise to some of the most exotic locations in the world.
He even offered her an additional $6,000 in spending money. Consider it an early birthday gift, Sugar Daddy said.
Roberge asked him if drug smuggling would be involved. He said yes, but she figured the amounts would be small, perhaps just a kilo or two of cocaine.
Besides, she later acknowledged, she was lured by the chance to "take photos of myself in exotic locations for 'likes' and attention."
Smuggle cocaine or face the music
The Sea Princess, a 2,000 passenger ocean liner, left Dover, U.K., on July 9, 2016. Roberge was sharing cabin P312 with Lagacé, whom she'd met only a few times.
Lagacé, who is five years older than Roberge, had been working as a waitress in a suburban bar on Montreal's South Shore.
She wanted to give herself a new start in life and borrowed a reported $20,000 from an acquaintance.
The terms of the loan were soon made evident. She told the court she learned she'd have to take part in a scheme to smuggle cocaine into Australia — or face dire consequences.
"I was presented with an ultimatum which entailed paying the loan immediately," Lagacé said in her statement to the court.
"I knew they were threatening me and my family, so I had no choice."
Also embarking on the Sea Princess in Dover were four men who all obtained their tickets, paid for in cash, from the same Montreal travel agency.
Their names are contained in Australian court documents and Quebec search warrants related to the drug smuggling case: Stéphane Chevrier, Michel Chiasson, Nicolay Kolev, and André Tamine.
As the ship headed for Nova Scotia, the two women noticed the four men; their paths crossed at breakfast and on deck.
Chiasson disembarked when the Sea Princess docked in Nova Scotia. There he met Canadian border officials, according to police documents.
When the Sea Princess left Nova Scotia, Chiasson was not aboard.
Unbeknownst to the two women, he had told the authorities to keep an eye on them, he said to Enquête when reporters tracked him down recently.
"Of course, there was no one better placed than me," he said, denying he was part of the operation but sounding as if he knew a lot about it.
Aboard the Sea Princess
Roberge and Lagacé settled into life aboard the Sea Princess, a high-end liner equipped with a spa, casino, restaurants and a gold-decked atrium.
They took full advantage of their time at the ship's ports of call: Lagacé saw New York City for the first time. The women marvelled at the blue-green waters of the Caribbean, took selfies near the equator and rented ATVs in Peru.
In French Polynesia, Roberge got an ankle tattoo of two intersecting lines, meant to offer protection for travellers. Her Instagram account was swelling with likes.
"I used to be afraid to get out of my little town, and now I feel like I don't want to see that little town anymore cause it's beautiful out there and it's sooo worth it," she wrote on Instagram.
At a zoo in Colombia, they spotted two men they recognized from the ship. The men — possibly Italian, according to Roberge — approached them and said they, too, were part of the smuggling operation.
For the rest of the cruise, the four hung out regularly, suntanning and taking meals together.
When the Sea Princess docked in Peru, Roberge noticed the Italians joined the three Quebec men, making several trips to the same building in Lima.
She told the court that's where she suspected the cocaine was brought aboard.
The Sea Princess was two days out from its final destination —Sydney — when one of the Italians told Roberge to stay out of her cabin.
Lagacé gave her room key to someone she later refused to identify to authorities. While they were out, their luggage was stuffed with 30 kilograms of cocaine.
Lagacé was told to pass through customs with the drugs and was assured her luggage was unlikely to be checked because she was a young woman.
At 6:50 a.m. on August 28, 2016, the cruise ship docked in Sydney. Australian law enforcement was waiting, making a beeline for cabin P312.
As they opened the cocaine-filled luggage, Roberge became hysterical and began to hyperventilate.
The officers moved on to the cabin of one of the other Quebecers aboard, André Tamine.
There they discovered 65 kilograms of cocaine in three suitcases, one bearing Tamine's name and another bearing the name of Michel Chiasson, the man who had disembarked in Nova Scotia.
Roberge, Lagacé and Tamine were arrested. Roberge and Tamine initially intended to contest the charges but entered last-minute guilty pleas.
Lagacé will be eligible for parole in February 2021.
"I feel hurt knowing my family will not be able to come visit me, and I will undergo my incarceration without the support of my loved ones, who are all in Canada," she told the court.
Roberge was given an eight-year sentence. In handing it down, New South Wales District Court Judge Kate Traill singled out her obsession with social-media fame.
"This is a sad indictment on her relative age group in our society," Traill said.
"It is sad they seek to attain such a vacuous existence, where how many 'likes' they receive is their currency."
Roberge told the court that since her arrest she's reconsidered what's important to her.
"I miss my family, and I am incredibly homesick," she said. "It shows me how a single decision can affect a lot of other humans."
Tamine, who is in his mid-60s, is scheduled to be sentenced by the end of the year.
'100 times bigger than you think'
Police officers in Quebec consulted by Enquête speculated that the two women were used as bait, possibly to distract authorities from a larger drug operation.
Chiasson himself suggested Australian law enforcement only seized a fraction of the total shipment.
"It's 100 times bigger than you think," he told Enquête this month. "There was a tonne that was unloaded before."
But despite claiming extensive knowledge of the operation, Chiasson said he wasn't involved and doesn't know any of the other Quebecers on the cruise or the identity of Sugar Daddy.
The Enquête team attempted to track down the other Quebecers on the cruise, none of whom was charged.
Stéphane Chevrier declined to comment. Nicolay Kolev offered to sell his story. That offer was declined. They found no trace of the Italians.
And what about Sugar Daddy?
Roberge refused to identify him in open court. "I feel like I would be endangered if I did mention his name," she said during her sentencing hearing.
Enquête has revealed that RCMP officers asked friends of Roberge and Lagacé about Henry Soussan.
In many ways, he matches the description of Sugar Daddy available in court documents: a night owl who runs online businesses.
He called Roberge a "good friend" and said he considered Lagacé a "little sister." Lagacé, he said, also acted as an administrator in 2013 for a jewelry company he used to own, which has since shut down.
"I know a lot of people were speaking about me because I knew both of them," Soussan said.
"When they went out to the clubs, they were always with us, with lots of friends."
Soussan denied being involved in the drug-smuggling scheme. He understands why people would see many similarities between himself and the Sugar Daddy description offered by Roberge.
But, he said, that's not what he does for a living, nor ever has: "It's not the image I would want to have."
In June, Soussan was spotted by the Enquête team in a Montreal bar. He was in the company of another young woman.
Based on reporting by Radio-Canada's Julie Dufresne. Written by Jonathan Montpetit.