Canadian Isabelle Lagace jailed in Australia for smuggling 30kg of cocaine on Sea Princess cruise ship

There are not many 51-day holiday cruises that end with almost five years in an Australian prison.

But for Isabelle Lagace, the unhappy ending became all too real on Friday, when she was sentenced for importing almost 30 kilograms of pure cocaine with a street value of up to $21.5 million.

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On Friday, the NSW District Court heard that Lagace, 29, agreed to transport a suitcase containing the drugs to Australia to clear a $20,000 debt.

When she set off on the Sea Princess cruise ship on July 9, 2016, things looked bright for the Canadian national.

Boarding the ship in Dover, England, before cruising to Ireland, the US, Bermuda, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile, it was all blue skies and coconuts, as documented in more than two dozen social media posts along the way.

But the holiday cheer came to an abrupt end when the Sea Princess docked at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal, where Australian Border Force officers were waiting.

A search of Lagace’s cabin 3P12, which she shared with travelling companion Melina Roberce, revealed a large black suitcase under the bed.

Inside that suitcase was another suitcase, in which there were 30 individually wrapped packages of pure cocaine, each weighing about one kilogram.

The amount was almost 12 times the threshold for a commercial quantity of an illicit substance; the largest drug bust of its kind on board a cruise ship.

Lagace, along with Ms Roberce and Andre Tamine, 64, was charged with importing a commercial quantity of a border controlled drug, which carries a maximum life imprisonment.

Ms Roberce and Mr Tamine are yet to stand trial.

At her sentencing hearing in the Sydney Downing Centre on Friday, Lagace was composed and showed little emotion.

She was born in Quebec in 1988. She graduated from high school in 2005 and enrolled in a business and restaurant hospitality course in 2008.

By 2016, Lagace had left two “emotionally abusive relationships”, and began working in a hospitality job, where she said “a new work environment allowed me to borrow money from certain people for a new start in life”.

She borrowed $20,000 from an undisclosed source, spending $15,000 on a new car and paying off debts, leaving her with $5000 at the time she embarked on the cruise.

The court heard Lagace chose to journey to Australia on the cruise ship when her loans were called in.

“I was to provide my bag to another passenger who would insert what I understood to be an illegal substance,” she said in her affidavit.

Judge Kate Traill found Lagace knew there were illicit drugs in the suitcase in cabin 3P12, but she said she could not be satisfied Lagace knew precisely the drug or the amount, noting there was “no evidence … of any fingerprints on the bag”.

Judge Traill ultimately determined Lagace’s role “was central to the importation”, finding it to be “pivotal and essential”.

“I am satisfied the motive was profit, whether the forgiving of a loan or financial reward.”

She rejected claims by Lagace that “she had no choice” or acted under duress, in fear of her safety or her family’s.

“At the time she had a job and still had $5000 left [from the loan] … she made no attempt to pay that back … and she had an apartment and a supportive family,” Judge Traill said.

In her affidavit, Lagace expressed frustration at media coverage of the case in her native Canada.

“The ugly things that have been said in the [media] … I have embarrassed my family, my friends myself,” she said.

“It pains me to know my most defining years of womanhood will be spent in jail … I feel remorse and anger at myself about being involved with people who are part of a dirty, dirty drug trade.”

Judge Traill found the accused presented “contrition and remorse”, with “very good prospects of rehabilitation”.

Lagace was sentenced to seven years and six months jail, but Judge Traill ordered for her release after a non-parole period of four years and six months, to be backdated to August 28, 2016.

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Henry Sapiecha

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