Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bar mat mum heads home from Thailand

 Karen Percy for AM

Posted Thu May 21, 2009 5:41am AEST 
Updated Thu May 21, 2009 7:58am AEST

A Melbourne mother of four is on her way home to Melbourne after fighting theft charges for nearly three weeks in the Thai resort town of Phuket.

What started out as a practical joke by some friends on a holiday turned into a frustrating and frightening ordeal for Annice Smoel, who was charged with stealing a bar mat.

She has consistently denied stealing the rubber souvenir bar mat from the Aussie Pub in Phuket on May 2. But yesterday she pleaded guilty, after a Thai court finally heard her case.

She received a six-month suspended sentence and was fined the equivalent of $40.

The governor of Phuket says he paid the fine for the sake of good relations between the two countries.

It was a tense few hours after the court hearing, especially at the immigration centre, where police Colonel Chantphol Yongbunjerd was going through the deportation process and invited the cameras in.

"If she could not get a ticket today, we have to keep her here until they got a flight to go back," he said.

In recent days Mrs Smoel has had her husband Darren by her side.

"Yeah, not the best thing I've ever had to deal with," he said.

"Talk to our solicitor. He'll tell you how it's been."

When it became clear they would make it out last night, their thoughts turned to their daughters, including one who has had her appendix out in the time Mrs Smoel has been gone.

"Hopefully we'll see youse real soon," Mr Smoel said.

"Hopefully Mum will be home soon girls, and we're trying really hard, and it's looking good," Mrs Smoel said.

The Aussie Pub where it all began has come in for harsh criticism, although the manager there says he did not pursue the case.

But the bar has attracted visitors like Ron, who arrived from Australia less than a week ago.

"I don't think it's too good, especially a family," he said.

"You let your hair down a bit, don't you? But I mean, you still have to be a bit responsible and respect the culture of the country."

In a further face-saving effort, the governor of Phuket invited the couple to visit his office as they were leaving.

Mrs Smoel has told Fairfax Radio he played a major part in her release.

"He apologised profusely for the trouble that his country had caused," she said.

"He said his minister had been in touch with him and explained the situation. I had to plead guilty, and I had a personal guarantee from him that I wouldn't go to jail."

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