Durban headmistress has been sentenced to almost five years imprisonment in a British court after confessing to smuggling class A drugs into the country.
Annabella Momplé, 46, the former headmistress of Carrington Heights Primary School in Durban, was arrested at Heathrow Airport in December 2011 by UK Border Agency officials after being intercepted by sniffer dogs. 2.5kg of cocaine with a street value of £355,000 were found hidden in her rucksack. Momplé displayed no emotion as the verdict was read out at Isleworth Crown Court in west London, which sits directly beneath the flight path of the airport at which she was seized. Her arrest and imprisonment left school colleagues and her family reeling in shock. The headmistress, who has an unblemished career in teaching underprivileged children, had reportedly told colleagues she was attending her uncle’s funeral in Northern Ireland – the country of her birth – where she lived in Belfast up unto the age of 10 before moving to South Africa. Meanwhile she told her family she was travelling to the UK for a conference arranged by the education department. It transpired in court that she had actually become embroiled in an international drugs courier operation after her second husband, a gambling addict, had racked up huge debt that had plunged them both into deep financial trouble. Her incarceration for the offence was of particular concern to her family, of whom the spokesperson has been her brother, journalist Paddy Harper. He said, “My sister is a respected, committed educator who has made a significant contribution to the lives of hundreds of children. “She has an impeccable reputation as a school principal. Even the Education Department holds her in high regard.” He added that her teenage son from her first marriage was shattered and that the rest of the family were taking it badly, particularly their father, who recently survived a battle against cancer. They were unaware of the financial difficulties she had been experiencing. Defence counsel Dominic Chandler explained to the court how a significant amount of gambling debt was owed to criminals, for whom Momplé’s husband was forced to work to repay the cash, while also taking his wife’s money to cover it. Momplé, who suffers from high blood pressure, arthritis and depression, was asked twice to undertake an international courier operation to help clear the debt but refused. The court heard that it was only after Momplé’s doctor changed her prescription for her depression medication that Momplé changed her mind, citing the change of medication as a possible cause for her U-turn, also that she was told her house was about to be repossessed and that her husband would be seriously injured or killed if she didn’t agree to do it. The headmistress-turned-drug-mule claimed she did not fully know it was drugs that was to be transported, only that she suspected it, and had no idea of the full scale of the operation. It had reportedly become clear to her criminal associates that she was a particularly useful courier as she was in possession of a British passport, meaning she would arouse less suspicion at airport terminals. She was placed on a flight first to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where she picked up the package – white towels that had been impregnated with large amounts of cocaine to be later processed with a solvent – before travelling to Dublin via London to meet her contact. She was intercepted by drug dogs at Heathrow Airport and arrested by border officials. She was remanded in custody at the nearby top-security Bronzefield Prison, the only purpose-built private prison for women in the UK and the largest in Europe. Serial killer Rose West was one of the most notorious prisoners housed there before having to be moved after a campaign of violent threats against her. The family’s shock over Momplé’s imprisonment was echoed by teaching colleagues, many of whom have written letters of commendation to the judge. Momplé was a scholarship student at Durban Girls’ College before commencing her career teaching underprivileged township children in the city, eventually becoming the headmistress of Carrington Heights Primary School. She is credited with transforming the lives of some of its poorest pupils, in particular an isolated child whose fees she paid for a year after teaching him English. The court heard how Momplé, while in remand at Bronzefield Prison, had even begun to teach and assist fellow inmates who themselves were victims of drug-related problems, after she realised the true extent of her crime and those it affects. The judge, in summing up, took the mitigating reports of her good character and conduct into consideration before deciding on her sentence. He said, “You are an intelligent woman, and despite your claimed naivety you knew exactly what you were doing. I need not dwell on the harm that would have been caused by the drugs you attempted to bring into the country. “Your offence is serious, and one that warrants imprisonment.” He added that he had taken into account the many glowing testimonies of her career and character, as well as the reports of her horror at what she had seen in prison and the steps she had taken to tackle it. The original starting tariff of eight years was reduced by a third owing to her guilty plea, then reduced by seven months due to her good character and her having no previous convictions, and finally reduced by the 101 days already served in custody. Four years and nine months was the final sentence. Momplé’s arrest last December came a week after two other South African women had made news headlines for drug-trafficking offences. Janice Linden, also from KwaZulu-Natal, was executed in China for attempting to smuggle 3kg of methamphetamine into the country in 2008. Meanwhile Nolubabalo Nobanda was arrested in Thailand after 1.5kg of cocaine was found concealed in her dreadlocks. The UK Border Agency emphasised in a statement its own tough stance on drug smuggling. “Border Agency officers are on constant alert, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to keep class A drugs and other banned substances out of the UK. We are determined to prevent this terrible trade, which can have such a destructive impact.” Momplé was invited to comment after the sentencing but declined to do so before being taken away.