Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Michaella McCollum Conolly begins jail term clutching self-help book and wearing religious bracelet... a far cry from the life party girl once enjoyed

Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum Connolly
Michaella McCollum's mother Norah McCollum and sister Samantha McCollum vist the Peru prison
Michaella McCollum's mother Norah McCollum and sister Samantha McCollum vist the Peru prison
Michaella McCollum Connolly in one of her club hostess outfits

Michaella McCollum arrived at court clutching a well-thumbed self-help book and wearing a religious bracelet.

The more casual look and apparently calmer demeanour was a far cry from the fashion-conscious nightclub dancer and high-spirited party girl look of just three months ago.

The book she carried like a Bible, Secrets About Life Every Woman Should Know: Ten Principles For Spiritual And Emotional Fulfilment, was published in 2009 by American writer Barbara De Angelis and may well have come from the prison library.

On the book's back its author, a self-avowed "relationship consultant and personal growth adviser", promised: "How to create the happy and fulfilled life you always dreamed of."

One reviewer wrote of the tome: "It was this book that started this big change inside me... and one I would recommend to anyone who is having a hard time in life!" which certainly fits Michaella's predicament.

Equally ironically, one of De Angelis' other books is titled: "How Did I Get Here?"

That happy and fulfilled life that Michaella wants has now been postponed for almost seven years.

As well as carrying written advice, on her right wrist next to her handcuffs, the 20-year-old wore a bracelet adorned with images of religious icons such as the Virgin Mary, Sacred Heart and Saint Padre Pio, perhaps sent from home and possibly also indicating a more spiritual approach to her plight.

The type of bracelet – worn by many young men and women as a fashion statement as well as a religious one – may have helped her adopt a positive attitude to get through the sentencing.

The part-time model and dancer from Dungannon certainly physically looked like a different person to the woman who made her first court appearance in September.

Casually and plainly dressed in a khaki shirt and jeans, she looked a million miles from some of the more glamorous shots taken of her in various nightclub dance outfits.

Gone was the high hair bun that was widely ridiculed on social media.

Instead, she wore her hair in a simple chignon, which, along with her paler than normal skin, made her look like any other young woman of her age on a down day.

Even her distinctive eyebrows seemed softer and she appeared to have gained just a little weight, which has softened the angles of her face and figure.

The only sign of her former well-groomed look was her french-tipped nails.

While she looked unlike the toned and tanned dancer photographed in daring outfits, no doubt her family and friends will recognise this as the real Michaella.

With her sentence of six years and eight months in prison – four months of which she has already served – that dream of a good life is still possible.

However, now as a convicted and sentenced drugs mule, it's fair to say that Michaella McCollum went into prison as a girl and will come out as a much wiser woman.

The court gave her and co-sentenced Melissa Reid the same minimum sentence without benefits – namely time off or getting to serve part of the sentence at home, but they may still be considered for an earlier release for good behaviour, or be allowed to return home to serve some of their time.

She will still only be 26 or 27 when she is released from the Peruvian prison sentence, easily young enough to rebuild her life.

Her attempt to help smuggle £1.5m worth of cocaine from the world's top producer of the illegal class A drug has turned the world upside down for this young woman.

Dr Jennifer Fleetwood, a lecturer in criminology from the University of Leicester, who did a study on British prisoners within the South American penal system, said last night that the sooner that Michaella accepted the duration of her sentence the better for her.

"She is young enough to come out of prison and still have a good life ahead of her," Prof Fleetwood said.

"Her story of being coerced to carry drugs is quite typical of the 30 prisoners that I have worked with, mainly in Ecuador.

"It's not a case of having a chance to plead your case.

"You have been found with drugs and you get sentenced, even the ones who claimed that they were forced.

"Those that accept what has happened usually do better in prison and have a better outcome on release."

Eleanor Griffis, editor and publisher of the English language Peruvian Times, was not sympathetic towards the two young women.

"Most drug mules do this because of the money, and the 'no risk' story they are told.

"Maybe they were even told 'you're pretty and they won't notice, they'll only be looking at your legs'.

"We see these sentences every week. It's no big deal to us.

"The tragedy is that often the minor shipments, maybe a kilo or two, are being taken by people who are used as bait for the police, and the police usually get a tip-off phone call or something, while someone else on the same flight is carrying the big shipment and gets through."

The young part-time model and dancer first came to public notice through a missing person Facebook appeal launched by her sister Stephanie in early August.

She – just like Reid – had left in mid-June to work in the bars and clubs in Ibiza for the summer.

Somehow, the fun holiday in the sun – which was heightened by a brief romance with Englishman Brad Houston – went horribly wrong.

Eager to help, the Facebook appeal was passed around thousands of social media users in Northern Ireland before going worldwide.

One concerned friend, Sophia Taylor from Carrickfergus, at the time described Michaella, or Kayla as she was known to friends, as "a lovely girl, very fun-loving and independent".

The Belfast Telegraph published three stories attempting to reunite Michaella with her family before a helpful Air Europe counter clerk in Peru spotted the Facebook appeal.

Calling our offices, he informed us that Michaella McCollum and Melissa Reid had been arrested at Jorge Chavez International Airport, Lima, for their part in attempting to smuggle nearly 11 kilos of cocaine packaged as food items.

That they were clearly caught with the drugs in their suitcases was never in question.

But the two young women were soon to be shown on police-issued video protesting their innocence, with Michaella clearly stating: "I was made to do this."

However, within weeks, their story began to unravel.

The young women, who said that they didn't previously know each other, were both approached and befriended by a stocky Cockney man in Ibiza who brought them to a house where a gang of Latin American men then detained them.

The women claimed that they and their families' lives were threatened as they were coerced into making the trip from Ibiza to Majorca en route to Peru, before attempting to return with the drugs.

Just like the Peruvian justice system, many Northern Ireland people failed to accept their stories, making the decision to work in Ibiza one they will likely regret for the rest of their lives.

While Michaella has had visits from two of her brothers, Keith and Glenn, and from Stephanie, it's believed that she hasn't seen her mother since she left home. She has a new niece that she has not had the opportunity to cuddle.

It will no doubt be a sombre McCollum household in Dungannon as the much-loved "baby" of the family faces the first of her six Christmases in a dank Peruvian prison.

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