By day, she was a dedicated school teacher, suburban mom and grandma. By night, she was a criminal who said she got involved in drug dealing to hold on to her younger “trophy” husband.
Nicole Benjoino admitted she helped her bodybuilder beau import and sell drugs from China, including the party drug GBL - known on the street as “liquid coma” - as well as the generic form of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
Benjoino, 48, who was fired from her job as a special education teacher for the Palm Beach County school district after her arrest, pleaded guilty last year to one federal charge of possessing illegal drugs with intent to distribute. She admitted the couple ran the business from her home in Wellington.
Handcuffed, shackled and dressed in sky blue jail scrubs, the former head of the special education department at Lake Worth Middle School wept quietly Tuesday after she was sentenced to 2 1 / 2 years in federal prison for her role in the offense.
Her husband, Emerson Benjoino, has been declared a fugitive from justice after authorities said he fled to his native Brazil when he was arrested on state charges. The investigation later became a federal case. Brazil does not extradite its citizens to the U.S.
When investigators searched the Greenview Shores home last summer, they found a note that read: “2 million and we are DONE!”
As part of her plea agreement, Nicole Benjoino agreed to forfeit $407,000 in cash that was found in the home as well as her $130,000 interest in the house, which will be sold.
The case involved at least 24,000 generic Xanax pills and about 16 1 / 2 liters of GBL, which gives users a high that is similar to the effects of the drug Ecstasy. Experts say it’s easier to overdose on GBL than on heroin. If the drug is not diluted exactly right, it can cause violent muscle spasms, put users in a coma or very easily kill them.
Nicole Benjoino became embroiled in the crime because she was obsessed with her controlling, younger husband, her defense attorney, Donnie Murrell, said during the sentencing hearing Tuesday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
“She literally became obsessed with him and he seduced her into this conspiracy,” Murrell told the judge.
Saying the story sounded like something from the plots of daytime TV shows, Murrell said Benjoino’s husband preyed on her low self-esteem and poor body image.
“He exploited those things to keep her close to him and bend her to his will,” the attorney said.
Benjoino struggled with her weight for her whole life and weighed 300 pounds when she and her first husband divorced around 2002, according to the defense. Jail records list her current weight as 160 pounds.
After the divorce, Benjoino began an intensive regimen of dieting and exercising. She started dating an attorney and seemed happy - until Emerson Benjoino walked into the gym and she dropped the lawyer “like a hot rock,” friends said.
“To this day, more than 14 years after they met and after years of marital turmoil, Nicole still gushes when describing him,” Murrell wrote in court records.
The Brazilian native is a former competitive body builder who is 10 years younger than his wife. He was working as a bus boy at a local restaurant when they met, then briefly worked as a painter, records show. Before too long, they started dating, moved in together and married in 2009.
Along the way, Benjoino discovered her husband was using steroids, which she said were mailed to him from Brazil, and that he was selling them to friends.
As that illegal business thrived, he built a secure office in the garage of the home on Yarmouth Drive and stored his steroids there, behind a locked door that was opened only by his fingerprint, the defense said.
He later started selling GBL, which the defense said is popular with bodybuilders and weightlifters, because it creates a sense of euphoria, reduces soreness and helps muscle recovery and repair.
“Nicole Benjoino did not just wake up one day and decide to become part of a drug conspiracy. … Little by little, she was sucked into Emerson’s schemes and became a part of his conspiracy. … The illegal activity was something she participated in to remain with her ‘trophy husband,’” the defense wrote.
It all fell apart on June 14 last year, when the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office arrested Emerson Benjoino after he picked up three liters of GBL that had been shipped from China to a UPS store mailbox in Wellington.
A search of the couple’s home uncovered the $407,000 in cash; guns; a ledger of drug sales for the prior year or more; supplies of fentanyl, a synthetic drug similar to heroin; pain pills; and the other drugs, authorities said.
Prosecutor Anthony Lacosta said there was no evidence the wife knew about the guns or fentanyl but they had texts and other evidence that made it clear she was involved in the other drug crimes.
Emerson Benjoino was released on bond after he was charged with state crimes.
He cleaned out his bank account and fled to Brazil on June 19 last year, before federal authorities took over the case and indicted him on drugs charges.
Nicole Benjoino listed the house for sale and withdrew $25,000 in cash before the feds arrested her in October and she began cooperating, according to court records. Authorities said they suspect she was planning to flee to be with her husband in Brazil. The couple’s 10-year-old daughter has since been sent to live with her father and his family in Brazil, the defense said.
Nicole Benjoino blamed much of her misconduct on what she called her addiction to food, which the defense said she claims is worse than an addiction to heroin because “abstinence is not an option.”
U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas skeptically, and rhetorically, asked if she’d ever been addicted to heroin. She said she had not.
“I’m imploring you to please consider my entire life book and not just this one unfortunate chapter,” Benjoino told the judge in court.
The judge said he accepted that she had done a lot of good for children in her 25 years of teaching but weighed that against her participation in a serious drug offense that went on for several years.
“But for the length of this crime, it could almost be considered an aberration,” the judge said. He said a 2 1 / 2 year federal prison term was sufficient punishment and would deter others from committing similar offenses.