Schapelle Corby: Life after Bali
Locked up in a fetid, rat-infested jail cell in Bali, Schapelle Corby would fantasise about feeling angry about the price of petrol or bananas in Australia.
"I want daily life responsibility, normal life problems," Corby says in My Story, her 2006 memoir co-written with Kathryn Bonella.
She pictured herself on a "cosy couch", watching a pub-size flat screen TV, or cooking in her kitchen. There would be a big bedroom – which "with any luck" would turn into a parents' retreat – a vegetable garden, an in-ground swimming pool and a granny flat for her dad.
But Corby, who was arrested at Bali's international airport with 4.2 kilograms of cannabis in her boogie board bag in 2004, wrote the mere thought of getting on a plane made her hands tremble and her eyes fill with tears.
"I've got such an acute fear of flying that I'm pretty sure that when I do finally go home I'll be sailing back," she wrote.
Fast-forward 11 years and the most controversial thing about bananas is that major supermarkets refuse to sell them if they are the wrong shape and up to 40 per cent are thrown away.
Unleaded petrol in Brisbane costs about 122.9c at the pump, up from 61c the month before Corby was arrested.
There will be no granny flat for Corby's father, Michael, who died of cancer two years after My Story was published.
And Corby won't be sailing back. But the woman dubbed either the Ganja Queen or "Our Schapelle", depending on whether you read the Indonesian or Australian media, will finally be coming home on May 27.
HUGE INTEREST REMAINS
She will have more to contend with than bananas and the price of petrol.
Celebrity agent Max Markson believes public demand for Corby stories is undimmed. She will be photographed and filmed leaving Bali – and arriving in Australia – but that will not diminish appetite for a tearful tell-all.
"After that, there will be all the milestones," Markson says. "Her first Christmas home, her first birthday, her first holiday: people will be interested."
If Corby was not limited by proceeds of crimes laws, he estimates she'd earn "hundreds of thousands" through media and sponsorship deals.
Now 39, Corby has spent the last three years on parole in Bali after serving almost 10 years of her original 20-year jail sentence in the resort island's notorious Kerobokan prison.
She insisted she was innocent until the end.
Corby has lived quietly since her release from jail, abiding by her parole conditions. She's been largely left alone aside from paparazzi shots of her – more voluptuous than in her prison days – running along the beach. (Was she, gasp, pregnant, the tabloids screamed? Or just "sexier", as her parole officer sweetly put it?)
But as the days tick down to her deportation, Corby is once again a prisoner. This time it's in her own home, as the media swarms around the modest villa down a Kuta laneway that she lives in with her brother Michael and boyfriend Ben Panangian.
Not since Lindy Chamberlain claimed a dingo ate her baby has Australia been more gripped by the plight of a young woman in trouble with the law. ("My heart bleeds for you," Chamberlain wrote to Corby after her guilty verdict.)
When the Gold Coast beauty student was arrested in 2004, polls showed Australians overwhelmingly believed her innocent, a victim of corrupt baggage holders who planted the dope.
Her guilty verdict, broadcast live on channels Nine and Seven, averaged 766,000 viewers in the five major capitals alone – three times the normal daytime audience.
Tourists began to have their suitcases cling-wrapped at airports.
An unauthorised remix of Michael Buble's song Home, featuring quotes from Schapelle Corby, was played on local radio stations. (Instead of objecting, the Canadian crooner said he was glad supporters were using the song and he hoped she could find her way home.)
There were Free Schapelle T-shirts and bumper stickers. Australians called for a boycott of Bali, and for Indonesia to hand back the tsunami aid money.
"It turned into a matter that affected the bilateral relationship," says Tim Lindsey, the director of the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society at Melbourne University.
He recalls talkback show host Malcolm T Elliott comparing the trial judges to monkeys: "The judges don't even speak English mate, they are straight out of the trees if you excuse my expression."
"This was one of the first really big cases where an Australian woman was facing serious punishment over major drugs charges," Lindsey says. "It was of particular interest because it transformed the image of Bali from the standard idyllic holiday location. It played into really dark, deep racist expressions of white Australians abroad."
In June 2005, powder sent to the Indonesian embassy in Canberra – in an apparent reprisal against Corby's jailing – sparked fears of an anthrax attack. "It's not an innocent white powder, it's some kind of biological agent," then prime minister John Howard said. (The powder was later found to be flour, and FOI documents revealed the federal police never called it a 'biological agent'.)
"It was like a national emergency … I thought it was a complete overreaction," recalls Matthew Moore, then Fairfax Media's Indonesia correspondent. At the time, the Australian government was under siege for "not doing enough" to help Corby. The cynic in Moore wonders whether the government's hyperbolic response to the anthrax scare was deliberate.
"[The message] was basically some of Schapelle's supporters are so mad they will try and declare chemical warfare on Indonesia. If you side with Schapelle backers, that's the side you are on."
THE CORBY PHENOMENON
The name Schapelle didn't exist before Corby's mother, Rosleigh Rose, made it up while giving birth. "She heard a French woman in the next bed saying, 'Schapelle, Schapelle'. Between contractions, Mum thought 'Mmmm, that's a nice name'," Corby recounts in My Story.
But by 2005, "schappelled" was a verb, meaning, according to the Urban Dictionary, "to be screwed over – brutally".
"The name is no longer mine alone," Corby wrote. "There is the yacht Schapelle, the racehorse Schapelle, and a few people have even named their babies Schapelle. Then there are the dogs, cats, birds and goldfish called Schapelle. It's a very strange feeling to get letters from people saying they have named their goldfish after you. I guess when I finally do go home I won't have to say my name twice or spell it out anymore."
Fiona Connolly, editor of Woman's Day, says Corby remains fascinating to her readers more than a decade later. This week's edition features an interview with Corby's fiercely protective sister Mercedes. The article claims Corby has made a new life for herself and is "heartbroken" at the idea of leaving Bali, her boyfriend and dogs Luna and May.
"I was the first person to put Schapelle on a magazine cover," Connolly says. "My publisher said, 'Are you joking me?' But that issue sold its socks off. She's a profitable cover star."
Woman's Day would have its "best people following her as she touches down ... I'd be sitting next to her on the plane if I could."
How to make sense of the Corby phenomenon?
"To be really blunt about it – this sounds very sexist – a pretty girl, a highly emotional family, who really played it up to the media," says Ross Taylor from the Perth-based Indonesia Institute.
Corby was undoubtedly telegenic, with her haunted blue eyes behind the prison bars beseeching Australia to help her.
Macquarie University's Dr Anthony Lambert went further than what he called "the partial insights gained from equating Schapelle's excessive media attention with physical attractiveness".
He suggested in a 2007 research paper that she "occupies the place of the mythical Australian beach girl (the daughter who is Australia) now trapped in a 'strange' land ... at the mercy of foreign systems and institutions".
"The question at the centre of this saga and anchoring the Corby image has always been, 'What if this happened to your daughter?'"
"WE HAVE NO IDEA WHY SHE IS SO FAMOUS"
But the frenzied attention Corby still receives baffles many Indonesians. Ketut Kesumajaya is the head of the Kuta banjar (neighbourhood) where Corby's brother-in-law and parole guarantor, Wayan Widyartha, lives with his extended family.
Corby stayed at the house for a few weeks after she was released from jail until the media scrum staking out the compound caused too much disturbance. Ketut stresses it was journalists – not Corby – who created the problem.
"Honestly, we have no idea why she is so famous," Ketut says. "It's all big-time politics – the president of Indonesia and prime minister of Australia got involved. We are just simple people here."
Indeed in 2012 former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono approved a five-year cut to Corby's sentence, ostensibly because of her precarious mental health. It was a decision that came at a considerable personal cost. SBY was derided domestically for being "weak" and seen as kowtowing to Australian lobbying.
Remarkably, the Australian government facilitated a prisoner called John Ford, who was awaiting trial in Melbourne, to fly to Bali to give evidence he had overheard conversations in jail that suggested Schapelle was innocent. "In Australia that evidence would never be allowed because it was hearsay and inadmissible," says Melbourne University's Tim Lindsey.
By 2014, only 19 per cent of Australians thought Corby was innocent, according to a poll by UMR Research.
These include a band of zealous online activists, who believe the Australian government covered up Corby's innocence to protect Australia's relationship with Indonesia.
Law firm Sydney Criminal Lawyers says on its website that while some will label it a conspiracy theory, the case made by the group on the website "The Expendable Project" is compelling to many.
"As Ms Corby prepares to fly back to Australia on 27 May, she may very well be looking forward to seeing those who supported her from the start. But with Australian authorities having failed her at the highest level, it may be an uneasy return," says a piece entitled The Political Sacrifice of Schapelle Corby, co-written by Ugur Nedim, a principal at the firm.
The Expendable Project highlights what it sees as anomalies in Corby's case. It is particularly critical of former AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty claiming there was little evidence to suggest baggage handlers were using innocent people to traffic heroin or other drugs between states. At the same time Operation Mocha was investigating a cocaine smuggling racket, which also involved airport baggage handlers.
Melburnian Julie Cameron is among those who is convinced Corby is innocent. She cites a happy snap of a beaming Corby, her brother James and two friends taken at Brisbane airport before the fateful trip to Bali.
"Mainstream media's 'fake news' reports of Schapelle's guilt felt incongruent with the photo," she says. "The photo is Schapelle's voice. It's a moment, frozen in time, before her life is shattered and changed forever. Expendable TV provided the evidence that cemented my position."
The Expendable Project's Facebook page "People for Schapelle Corby" has more than 23,000 likes.
"Corby truthers", as they are sometimes known, can be vituperative online to those they believe are complicit in the "cover up", including journalists.
Ross Taylor, then the vice president of the Australia Indonesia Business Council, became a target after casually mentioning Corby – "nothing derogatory," he insists – at a Perth symposium.
Before long he was accused on the Women for Schapelle blog site of a "flow of filthy lucre from Indonesia … including importing low-wage workers to compete with Australians".
"I thought, 'What the hell?' Perhaps I should have sued them," he says ruefully. "But I thought better of making an already highly emotional situation worse."
The woman in the eye of the storm remains an enigma. One of the conditions of her parole is not to speak to the media. Corby also has an acute phobia of photographers and cameras. In her book she describes cowering under a small wooden desk as the media pack charges towards her. "They might well have been psychos with axes instead of journos with cameras."
Who knows what the future will hold. "We don't talk about what will happen when Schapelle is finally home," Mercedes told Woman's Day.
Corby repeated often in My Story that she yearned for a child: "It is life's most precious gift and I don't want to miss my chance."
"I'm not sure about me when I do go home," she wrote back in 2006. "Will I still be me, Schapelle, with a little side-effect of trauma from the Kerobokan experience that will subside within a few months of normalness, or me, Schapelle, scared, non-trusting, tearful, institutionalised?"
- Sydney Morning Herald