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I Launched a Company While Serving Time for Coke Smuggling

First I was a drug mule, then I started a business. 'Cons & Kernels' aims to employ everyone, including former inmates.

by Emily O’Brien; as told to Sarah Krichel
Nov 18 2019, 5:45pm

Photo courtesy Oh Sierra

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

In St. Lucia, I got into a car—we were on our way to a house that stores narcotics. I was with “Noah,” I’ll call him, and some of his friends. We were there so we could take cocaine back to Canada.

I got my measurements taken by a woman in the house, and we then all headed to the mall. We were there to get a dress for me that would conceal the drugs. “I’m going to shop, but I’m shopping for you. You’re going to be pretending to pick out dresses that you like, but I’m going to have the final say,” she instructed me. While she held onto my passport, we pretended to be friends.

I didn’t become a drug mule on purpose. It started with a romantic connection, and it happened fast.

In the late fall of 2014, I was running a social media company for businesses out of Toronto’s Liberty Village. One day I was promoting a new service that would connect clients to target audiences faster, and I was getting followers to test it out. I messaged Noah, a client, for the first time that day, and he said yes. I went to North Toronto to meet him, and we ended up having so much fun at his business’ headquarters with his friends, ordering pizza and hanging out. Noah became a loyal client of ours and the two of us became good friends.

Over that winter, we started dating. Noah would do nice, genuine things for me, like taking time off work to help me move my things to Hamilton when I moved condos. Then, the gifts started pouring in. He bought me wine, a television, a Michael Kors watch, and a sound system.

But I started to suspect the gifts were out of the back of a truck, since there was always something off about them. The wine was a cheap, nasty dessert wine. The watch had no batteries in it. And the sound system (that I never opened because I never needed it) was eventually opened by my mother, which turned out to have cement inside of it.

Noah refused to e-transfer, so I'd spend an entire morning traveling from Liberty Village to north Toronto to pick up the $600-$700 checks. But after a few months, the checks started to bounce.

The next gift was a car, and that’s where the manipulation became evident. Noah told me I deserved a new ride. That would be cool, I figured. Who doesn’t want a sweet deal? So I trusted him. The 2008 white BMW was soon to be mine. “But you have to pay in full, right off the bat,” he told me.

After I gave him the money, I didn’t get the car. He kept luring me, keeping me occupied while I waited for it. Two months went by. “Don’t worry, baby, I’ll make up for it,” he would tell me. He gave me excuse after excuse about where this car was. Every time I wanted to see it at the shop, there was some reason I couldn't go, like a flat tire or a bad paint job.

June came around when Noah said, “I gotta talk to you.” Over wine, he asked me to go to the Caribbean with him the following month and help bring drugs back. I said absolutely not, and then he left. But that night when we went out partying, he begged me again to come on the trip, and told me if I didn’t want to bring drugs back with me, I didn’t have to. I wanted that car so badly, and I had to keep jumping through hoops to get it. So, I went.

I never ended up getting the car.

***

Noah knew how to get me to do what he wanted. I was scared of him, but I also trusted him. I was threatened but enthralled by him. While in St. Lucia, he brought up the drugs again, and I knew bringing them home with me was unavoidable. Once it became time to leave St. Lucia with the drugs, I knew I’d have to do it. I was drunk a lot on that trip, and I slowly convinced myself to do it. Once I sobered up, I started to lose faith—so I just got drunk again so I wouldn’t chicken out.

The time came to get onto the plane. The woman from the narcotics house had sewn the packages into the dress. You could hardly tell that inside my spaghetti-strap, blue and white floral dress, I was carrying 2 kilogram of cocaine, one in the front and one in the back, in my Spanx, like I had stuffed Kleenex in my underwear. It felt soggy and squishy.

One of the things that calmed me about the prospect of entering the airport with drugs in my underwear was that Noah told me I could take the drugs off in the bathroom and he’d carry it through customs for me. I wasn’t calm, per se—I knew the number of decisions I had already made on that trip meant it was too late to go back. I’m also a terrible liar, but, like I said, Noah calmed me.

But when we got off the plane in Toronto, Noah just hit me with a “It’s too late!” to go into the bathroom to have him take the drugs. So, I went through customs with the drugs still in my underwear.

I was trying to act to the best of my ability when customs agents asked me those security questions: Where did you go? Why were you there? How long were you gone for? Do you have anything to declare? By the end of the interview, they scribbled a number on the customs sheet, and I walked down the final corridor to pick up my suitcase. I could see the cars picking up passengers. I was almost there.

But once the final agents saw that number scribbled on my customs sheet, they asked to take me to a secondary screening. That’s when I knew: It was over. And I wasn’t even surprised. This was never going to work. Noah was just too desperate and too convinced it would.

When security started questioning me, it started simply: “Hi Ms. O’Brien, what do you do for work? How do you do your taxes?” Noah didn’t give me any coaching on who we were, what to say, what to do if something went wrong—nothing. So I had no idea who I was supposed to be: Am I Noah’s girlfriend? Who am I right now? were the thoughts running through my head.

Then, they went into questions like, “Ms. O’Brien, do you party?” I said yes. They asked if I had drugs in my suitcase, and told me they’d be checking. I wasn’t worried about the suitcase though—I was worried about how obvious it was that I was carrying them on my body. I was wearing a cardigan—already a warning sign to customs security when you’re coming from a hot country.

Then, they asked me if I had drugs on me. I took 10 seconds of silence, and then some sort of common sense kicked in that there was no way out of this. I said yes. They detained me for a couple hours while RCMP tested the drugs, after which they formally arrested me in the airport on July 4, 2015.

***

Growing up, I went to Catholic school. We went to church every Sunday as kids, and my family was close. So, when I was arrested, it was extremely hard on them, especially for my mother. We weren’t exactly familiar with the justice system. It was the not knowing that was killing us. Knowing my sentence of four years after two-and-a-half agonizing years of house arrest was the first feeling of relief I’d felt for a long time.

I wasn’t excited to go to prison, but I was ready to go. When you’re arrested, they treat you like you’re the worst person in the world. A lot of people in my life were more scared than I was. But I was scared of being sober over the thought of actually going to prison. I’d been drinking for 10 years—not an alcoholic, but just too much partying. My thought was: Prison is going to be so boring.

But once I got to prison, I made use of my time. I sobered up and got inspired. One night on a wholesome Superbowl viewing night, I noticed inmates putting their spices on their popcorn. I thought, what if I started a business around popcorn? Their idea of using spices was so smart, and I wanted to capitalize on it. Besides, I had no distractions. No incoming calls, texts, or appointments. But I had time. What else was I going to do?

So, I contacted some friends outside of prison to bring me resources from the internet around food trends and popcorn. I read a lot of books about marketing before I went to prison, then put together my own branding.

For good behavior, I got out after 10 months.

You’re supposed to see successful reintegration like me all the time, but you don’t. When I went to prison, I knew I was going for a reason. A popcorn business was a way to show everyone that anyone can do what I did. But I also wanted to create a place for everyone to grow from their mistakes. The more you accept people, the more easily you can forgive others and yourself.

Now, my self-started company, Cons & Kernels, aims to employ everyone, including former inmates like myself. We’re made up of a team of three part-time employees, volunteers, plus my business partner. Building soft skills, working in a safe environment—the fact that they went to prison isn’t going to be held over their head. You can laugh and talk about things here, or be taught how to start your own business. Now, mine is blowing up, and there’s even a short YouTube series about my story: Criminally Acclaimed.

They say prison is correctional work, but successful reintegration is still an issue due to social barriers for low income people or people experiencing homelessness. On top of that, while you’re in there, you see why others are in there as well. I constantly heard stories around issues like poverty, trauma, addiction, having had crimes committed against the inmates like domestic abuse, attempted murder from their partners. Being “tough on crime” doesn’t resolve those underlying issues that cause the crime in the first place. You would have so much less crime if you focused on things like mental health, power dynamics, and addiction rehab.

Smuggling cocaine is like the lowest hanging fruit in the drug trade. It was too easy to arrest me. But, it was still wrong. That’s why I'm turning this into the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

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