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Public outcry over jailed lakeball man

For 10 years, John Collinson made a modest living diving for lost golf balls and selling them for 15p each. But after police caught him on a midnight expedition, a court frowned on his unusual job and jailed him for six months for theft.

The sentence provoked a public outcry, made the 36-year-old father of two a cause celebre, and prompted lawmakers, celebrities and the British media to campaign for his release.

``He is just an ordinary bloke who would do anything for anyone, a doting father who loved his kids,'' said Collinson's mother, Sheila, adding that lawyers had filed an appeal.

``Now he is in prison. He hasn't got a clue what is going on and he just wants to get out and come home,'' she said.

Police caught Collinson, equipped with a rubber diving suit, in August at Whetstone Golf Course in Leicester, central England. He and colleague Terry Rostron, 24, had fished 1,158 balls from Lily Pond -- the bane of hundreds of golfers playing the difficult par-3 fifth hole.

Collinson, who made roughly £15,500 a year collecting balls at courses throughout the country, claimed in his defense they didn't belong to anyone. He told a jury at Leicester Crown Court last week he even filled out tax returns on his earnings.

But Judge Richard Bray jailed him for six months, saying, ``It is obvious you show no remorse and no intention of quitting.''

Rostron, also found guilty of theft, was given a conditional discharge, which means he must stay out of trouble for two years.

Lawmaker Lindsay Hoyle, who represents Collinson's home town of Chorley, northern England, raised the case in the House of Commons on Wednesday and urged Prime Minister Tony Blair to look into it.

The diver's girlfriend, Annette Jolly, has given interviews pleading for his release.

``It is amazing. People mug grannies, steal, attack others and get less (jail time) than someone who is making a legitimate living for themselves and hurting no one,'' she told The Daily Telegraph.

``Rough Justice'' read an editorial in the same newspaper. ``On the scale of human wickedness, John Collinson's crime registers barely a blip.''

Colin Montgomerie, defending Collinson, was quoted in The Daily Mail as saying that balls lost in lakes were ``finders keepers.''

Gavin Dunnett, managing director of UK Lakeballs -- a firm that buys balls from hundreds of divers and sells more than a million worldwide every year via the Internet -- said Thursday that Collinson had supplied the company for more than three years.

He insisted recovered balls were not stolen, but abandoned property and said more than 2,000 people had signed his online petition to ``Free the Whetstone One.''

David Raitt, resident pro at Whetstone, said the men had been caught ``accidentally'' when an alarm in the clubhouse went off, unconnected with their activities. He said they had not asked permission to fish out the balls, but that nobody at the club wanted to see Collinson jailed.

``The sooner he gets out of prison, the better,'' Raitt said, adding that the sentence was ``ridiculous.''

The Crown Prosecution Service defended its decision to prosecute the two. A spokeswoman said they had been advised that an early guilty plea would win them a lighter sentence, but they had elected to be tried by jury.

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