Cocaine Cassie’s amazing transformation inside jail
World Exclusive: Smiling, healthy, happily teaching prisoners to speak English and shaving months off her Colombian jail sentence, this is Cassie Sainsbury as we have never seen her before.
The 24-year-old Australian drug mule has turned herself around over the past year, overcoming sickness, losing weight and finding her calling as a teacher who is so valued by a local language school that they have offered her a job.
Should that happen, Ms Sainsbury could walk out of prison by February, according to her lawyer and criminal justice experts in Bogota.
"Cassandra is a blessing because she is a native speaker, who is inside, and she wants to turn her life around. We're very lucky to have her,'' said Carlos Carrero, the director of the Michigan School in Bogota.
Ms Sainsbury's arrest with almost 6kg of cocaine in South America's drug capital in April 2017, and the subsequent excuses and various explanations she gave for her behaviour made international headlines.
Sentenced to six years jail after a high profile trial, she has overcome a series of early health difficulties and clashes with other prisoners, settling into a relatively peaceful life in El Buen Pastor prison, according to her lawyer Orlando Herran.
News Corp Australia did not speak to Ms Sainsbury for this article, with previous requests for access referred to her manager, Max Markson, who requested payment for a story.
But from interviews with those who have almost daily contact with Ms Sainsbury, News Corp Australia has been able to build a picture of her life and transformation from a former brothel worker and failed business owner with a loose concept of the truth into a respected member of the sprawling women's jail.
Although El Buen Pastor is Bogota's biggest female jail and enjoys a fearsome reputation because it holds some of Colombia's toughest drug smugglers and murderers as well as political prisoners and former paramilitary fighters, the inmates have tried to create some havens inside. These include a beauty parlour which employs some of the women and which prisoners can access with small amounts of money and through bartering goods, as well as a library.
After some early run-ins with other prisoners and being moved through several different wings of the prison, called patios, for safety reasons, Ms Sainsbury has now established a daily routine, teaching English for two hours a day, studying Spanish and taking classes from volunteer groups who visit El Buen Pastor.
Mr Herran said he had recently noticed significant mental and physical changes in the young South Australian woman after not seeing her for more than a year.
"She's grown up a huge amount," he said.
"Prison has changed her. She's more mature. She has a different perspective of herself and her position in the world.
"Cassandra looks healthier and she has lost weight. She looks much better. She's adapted to Colombian food and prison food is sitting better with her.
"She's also taking exercise very seriously and lost lots of weight. She's looking after herself. Colombian women look after themselves a lot. They are very groomed and she's definitely picking up the aesthetic. So they do exercise classes and they all participate."
Mr Herran represented Ms Sainsbury until the end of her trial and sentencing in November, 2017, but has only just returned as her counsel, after funding for her defence stopped coming from the Australian government under its serious offenders support scheme. Mr Herran says he believes he is still owed money from Australia but doesn't believe he will be paid.
''From a legal perspective, she was completely abandoned," Mr Herran said.
"She's been without a lawyer for so long, without someone to give her advice and hold her hand. In the jail there are some law school students, but it's not the same as having a lawyer watching your back.''
Mr Herran said he was working pro-bono, because ''neither Cassie, nor her family have the means to pay me, and the Australian government doesn't have the will to pay me. If they didn't pay for some of the work before, they definitely won't now. I see it as humanitarian work, a favour to help Cassandra.''
Criminal lawyer John Penagos from Servicio Legal in Bogota explained that Ms Sainsbury would likely be released once she has served three-fifths of her sentence - or 43.5 months of a 72-month sentence - with extra time off for good behaviour.
He said she would eligible for parole or more restrictive home detention, as long as she could "demonstrate 'arraigo', that is, that they have familial or social roots in the country".
"This last requirement is always very hard for foreigners to fulfil. If the foreigner doesn't know anyone in the country, has no family, no permanent address it is very hard, but not impossible," he said.
Mr Carrero said he would happily support Ms Sainsbury's parole and employ her at the non-profit he is expanding into other prisons.
''She has excellent pronunciation, and such patience. She's really been an asset to the program,'' he said.
MORE CASSIE SAINSBURY STORIES:
''If she can stay in Colombia once she gets out on parole, I'll hire her. We'll give her work definitely."
Ms Sainsbury has completed 27 months in jail and has been granted a seven month sentence reduction from the jail authority, IMPEC. This means she has just 10 months until she is eligible for a parole, during which time Mr Herran will start the paperwork.
"She'd need to write the parole request, provide evidence, certificates of education, testimonies, and then she'd have to personally make the request in front of the judge, who decides whether it is viable or not," Mr Herran said.
"It's impossible without a lawyer, you need to know criminal law.''
Ms Sainsbury is currently living in Patio 5 where many "small scale" drug dealers are housed, after previously being held in the high security, isolation-area Patio 7.
She also spent a few days surrounded by former paramilitary and rebel prisoners in Patio 9, but Mr Herran said: "'That was a complicated patio for her. It's full of people that have committed serious crimes and people who have lived in rough environments and, therefore, are difficult people. Cassie didn't feel comfortable in there at all.''
Mr Herran said that after several run-ins with other prisoners, ''Other inmates don't bully her anymore, because she isn't the new kid on the block, she's no longer at the bottom of the food-chain.''
''But at the beginning, the international gang she'd been working with allegedly contacted someone in Patio 5 to intimidate her and to scare her into not speaking. So we quickly got her out of there, but I also advised her to not get involved because her security guarantees weren't adequate. If someone wanted to seriously harm her, they'd find a way independent of which patio she was in.''
He said Ms Sainsbury, who he believes is not in a previously reported relationship with a prison guard at the jail, was extremely lonely.
''The hardest thing for her is being cooped up, locked away, everyday the same. She says it drives her mad. And of course she has no visitors to soften the blow of it. On Saturdays and Sundays when the other inmates can leave the patios and share a meal or some time with family and friends, Cassie has nowhere to go,'' he said.
"She misses her family a lot. She never mentioned her boyfriend so I think she's over him. But she speaks a lot about her mum and her stepdad. Communication is very difficult in jail, she doesn't have a cell phone or internet. And she doesn't have the money to pay someone to smuggle one in. It's a luxury to have a phone in there, a luxury Cassandra can't afford.''
Mr Herran said Ms Sainsbury felt she had been "very much abandoned" by the Australian government.
''She also misses Australia, but her relationship with her county is complicated," he said.
"The help that she receives from the embassy here is very minimal. It's very much in the vein of ''You're not dying, right?'', ''You're not being tortured, right?'' and there isn't much interest beyond that. There is no affection, no sense of her feeling like an Australian in foreign lands. It's very different.''
This has left her with a desire to spend more time in Colombia even after her parole is finished.
"She has no concrete plans for the future. She's focusing on studying and working hard with the objective of being granted parole. But she does know that she doesn't want to leave Colombia straight away. She wants to get to know the country and its culture, to travel," Mr Herran said.
''Her objective is to be granted parole, so all her energy is going in that direction. Once that happens she can think about the future, sort out her legal situation and then her life.''
INVESTIGATION INTO CASSIE'S CASE STILL OPEN
Police have made no other arrests in connection with Cassie Sainsbury's smuggling case, and her lawyer believes she was used as a decoy by a sophisticated drug ring.
Despite interviews with the Australian Federal Police and local police, in which she offered assistance, authorities have never identified key players in her case.
These include the mysterious Angelo, who was pictured with Sainsbury at the rundown Bogota hotel where she stayed and who she testified threatened her with a gun if she didn't comply with their demands to carry drugs back to Australia.
''The investigation is still open, but it's inconclusive. Her testimony hasn't led to any arrests in Colombia and they never identified the elusive figure on the CCTV footage," lawyer Orlando Herran said.
''The Australian police interrogated Cassie in jail, but it was a very irregular interview. They didn't go in with the Colombian police, they went alone. We never found out what their intentions were or what they were looking for. It was all very haphazard. They should have spoken to the Attorney General's office and Cassie should have had a lawyer present. They also should have given her certain security guarantees and none of that happened.
''It was an international gang that coerced Cassandra. We don't know anything about them but we do know that it was an international gang. She wasn't contacted by someone in Colombia, she was contacted in Australia. Her plane ticket was bought in Hong Kong. It was an international operation, not a small group here in Colombia. The plane ticket was paid for in cash.'
"When she arrived at the airport in Bogotá, there was already a series of alerts against her. Interpol had already sent an alert. Because let's be clear here: an Australian passenger, the origin of the flight was Australia, the destination was Colombia, but the ticket was purchased in Hong Kong. The flight never went through Hong Kong. It's a red flag. It's was very suspicious. She had all of the alerts on her.
"In my personal opinion, the international gang knew that she was travelling with all those alerts on her person. They aren't idiots, they know how things work. They knew that she'd be caught. She was used as a decoy for other people to get through. That's why they didn't even really hide the drugs. Her drugs were hidden in some headphone boxes on top of her clothes.''
HOW CASSIE'S WORLD FELL APART
Cassie Sainsbury is arrested at a security checkpoint at Bogota's El Dorado airport after a tip-off from the DEA and an x-ray shows 18 packages of cocaine in her suitcase.
News breaks of Sainsbury's arrest after her Australian sister launches an online plea for support.
Cassie gives the first of many versions of what happened, claiming she thought the packages were headphones she was taking home for engagement presents for bridesmaids at her upcoming wedding.
She later says she was threatened at gunpoint to smuggle the drugs after a drug syndicate tricked her.
Sainsbury's lawyers suggest a plea deal but the judge rejects it when she refuses to take responsibility for the drugs, maintaining she was threatened.
In a rambling paid interview with 60 Minutes, Sainsbury says she can't remember the code to unlock her phone, which would prove her story about being threatened by the mysterious Angelo on a WhatsApp message.
Her lawyers strike a plea deal of six years in jail.
Sainsbury is sentenced to six years for trafficking cocaine.
Sainsbury is reported to be in a relationship with a prison guard.
Sainsbury posts a Mother's Day message to her mother Lisa, saying it's the last Mother's Day they will spend apart.