A Durban headmistress has been sentenced to almost five years’ imprisonment in a British court after confessing to smuggling cocaine into England.
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. Two-and-a-half kilograms of cocaine with a street value of £355 000 (R4.3 million) were found hidden in her rucksack.
Momplé displayed no emotion as the verdict was read out at Isleworth Crown Court in west London on Thursday.
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 until the age of 10 before moving to South Africa.
Meanwhile, she told her family she was travelling to the UK for an education conference arranged by the education department.
The court heard that she had actually become embroiled in an international drugs courier operation after her second husband, a gambling addict, had racked up huge amounts of debt which had plunged both of them into deep financial trouble.
Her incarceration for the offence was of particular concern to her family, her brother and family spokesman, journalist Paddy Harper 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 very 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.
Momplé claimed she did not fully know it was drugs that would 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 because she had 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. It was at Heathrow Airport that she was intercepted by sniffer dogs and arrested by border officials.
Since then she has been remanded 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 starting 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 at Bronzefield Prison, had even begun to teach and assist fellow inmates who were victims of drug-related problems, after she realised the true extent of her crime and those people 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 naivete 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 then 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 because of 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. Nolubabalo Nobanda was arrested in Thailand after 1.5kg of cocaine was found concealed in her dreadlocks.
Momplé declined to comment after her sentencing.