By Mark Forbes
September 5, 2005
"IT'S like jumping into the lion's den and everybody trying to take
a piece of you," says model Michelle Leslie to Norah Cullen, amid a
legal and physical nightmare in a Bali police cell.
In happier times: Norah Cullen (pictured), a friend of model Michelle Leslie, says Leslie was enjoying a successful career in Australia and Asia before her arrest for carrying drugs in Bali.
Photo: Jason Childs
Ms Cullen, as much mother as friend, flew to Denpasar the day after Leslie was arrested for carrying two ecstasy tablets.
The Lebanese-born Sydney businesswoman was confronted too by the media circus that has enveloped her friend in the past fortnight. She found Leslie jammed into a cockroach-infested cell little more than two metres square with 12 women.
"She just grabbed me and said, 'Oh, Baj (the pair's nickname), please just take me home, I can't bear this'," says Cullen. "I just held her and she howled."
Every day since, Cullen has arrived at the police station at 8am carrying food and water and sits with her friend until sundown, holding her hand during police interrogations and escorting her through the media crush — her arms and back bear vivid blue welts from tussles with local photographers. She has been Leslie's link to friends and family at home and a key player in the tumultuous legal manoeuvres that have beset the case.
In her only newspaper interview, Cullen speaks about Leslie's conversion to Islam, frustration at false promises of release and how her first lawyer coached her initial confession of ecstasy use and addiction. She, too, seems scared, eyes brimming with tears and voice choking at the plight of the 24-year-old model who came to stay in her spare room four years ago and remains part of her family.
Today Leslie sits in a cell covered with graffiti, scrawled reminders of other Australian victims of Indonesia's tough anti-drug laws. One reads: "Bali 9, caught with nine kilograms. Innocent, Ha! Ha! Ha!" Another is a faded plea: "Please don't judge me, just help me."
Cullen says: "It wouldn't have meant anything to me six weeks ago, it breaks my heart now."
It has been an emotional weekend, with Cullen's seven-year-old daughter wanting her home and Leslie pleading with her not to leave.
"I've got my children back home and I've got someone I adore like my own daughter sitting in a jail. "The other thing really mentally torturing her is the rumours, and all the other inmates have a chuckle, the police say, 'You were in the paper today'. It's like a soap opera, like, stay tuned for tomorrow."
The pair are distressed at the controversy provoked by Leslie donning the Islamic hijab, in part a reaction to the aggressive media surrounding the daily walk from the cell to interrogation room. "That really bothered her, because I'm Islamic. She knows the religion.
"She's been part of my family for a long time and she wanted to convert. Big deal. People say she is modelling or whatever, but Islam says God is within you, it's what you choose. No one can judge you except God."
A year ago Leslie converted to Islam in a private ceremony at Cullen's home. "She didn't say to everybody, 'I've converted', it was a very personal thing for her." The publicity about her partner, Scott Sutton, heir to a car dealership fortune, has also provoked antagonism and complicated release efforts. "He's helped, but only so much," says Cullen, dismissing rumours of a $600,000 slush fund and saying Leslie is paying for most of her defence.
Sutton's and Leslie's parents have stayed in Australia at her and her legal team's insistence. "She doesn't want them to see her like this, she doesn't want them to endure the pain she's going through."
Cullen, who was in the room at the time, concedes Leslie did make a confession, but is emphatic she never claimed to be addicted to ecstasy.
She says the changes within the legal team and confused strategies have been devastating for Leslie.
"Your life is hanging in the hands of this legal team," she says.