Real Life

The Family: How a survivor helped to bring down the infamous cult

Survivor Leeanne Cress and former detective Lex De Man tell The Australian Women's Weekly how they helped
bring down an Australian cult.

By Tiffany Dunk
The night Operation Forest task force leader Lex De Man learnt the FBI had arrested Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill at their US bolthole, he was overcome with emotion.
"I walked out of the room and I broke down for about 10 minutes," he tells The Weekly of the moment it had taken him almost four years to realise.
"I threw chairs everywhere, because that was four years of memories of the police officers who'd been damaged by it, the pressure they'd been under to move it forward and get it done and the admiration I have for the survivors, the children, who came through what most of us would find an absolutely abhorrent way of growing up. It all came out in that moment."
Formed in the 1960s by yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne (born Evelyn Edwards) and renowned physicist Raynor Johnson, The Family was an apocalyptic sect following the teachings of Anne, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
Members were recruited by Raynor, who referred them to Anne's yoga classes at his home in Melbourne's outskirts. They were also sourced through a private psychiatric hospital owned and managed by one of Anne's disciples. It was there, it's alleged, that LSD was administered not only to patients but to members of The Family – some as young as seven.
Some of the children from the cult. (Image: Supplied)
Along with her husband Bill, Anne had 14 children stashed away on a remote property in Lake Eildon, all passed off as their own.
Dressed in identical outfits, many with their hair dyed blonde (or red, Anne's natural colour), between 1968 and 1975 they were obtained either by illegal adoptions or from followers who gave their own offspring up.
Those children say both Anne and the "Aunties" tasked with their care brutally beat, starved and abused their young charges. Leeanne Cress was one.
"Some of what I endured as a child were beatings on a constant basis, my face being beaten with Anne's fist, open hand or a shoe, the feeling of being starved my entire childhood life, the deprivation of food for up to a week at a time for punishments, pushing our heads into buckets of water until we could no longer breathe," she recounts.
"The mental torture, the use of drugs to sedate us and then, later on, the use of LSD and magic mushrooms to initiate us. The feelings of isolation from the rest of the world, the desperate want to be dead so the suffering would end and the pain would go away."
Despite several local police visits and a growing number of negative media reports on The Family, there had been no action taken by law enforcement.
The children all donned identical outfits and dyed blonde hair. (Image: Supplied)
But that changed when Leeanne made an escape attempt – her second – in 1986. Two years earlier she was returned by the police officer she spoke with. This time was different.
"I told him I was never going to go back there and he couldn't force me as I was now 17," she recalls, ahead of the three-part documentary series The Cult of The Family airing on ABC.
Still, guilt ate away at Leeanne as she grieved for the brothers and sisters she'd left behind. The following year, Leeanne – who had just found out that, despite what was written on her birth certificate, Anne and Bill were not her natural parents – made a second brave decision. And it was one which led to the beginning of The Family's downfall.
Along with fellow survivor Sarah Hamilton-Byrne and another child from the cult, Leeanne approached Child Protective Services. After taking their statements, a raid was co-ordinated to rescue the children left behind at Eildon.
"It was decided I would enter the house with the police as I was the strongest girl mentally at the time," she says of the raid, which took place on August 14, 1987. "During the rescue at one point Bill confronted me on the stairs and screamed to me that I was a traitor. I was petrified that he was going to kill me with his bare hands."
WATCH NOW: Ben Shenton speaks out about Australian cult The Family.
It was around this time that Lex was made aware of the activities of the secretive cult. "It sparked an interest in me," he says.
After meeting with local police as well as several survivors, in June 1989 he was asked to make a report.
As a result, task force Operation Forest was formed. At first the investigation struggled as not only were they having trouble untangling the children's true parentage, but they were unable to find any adults to corroborate the shocking abuse claims made by the sects' children, not helped by the passage of time.
"What we did was look at documentation because documents don't lie, people lie on documents," he says. The Family's former lawyer, Peter Kibby, would prove to be the missing key that was needed to bring Anne and Bill – who had swiftly fled the country after the raid – to court.
For three months Peter and Lex pored over each and every document until they could lay charges of conspiracy to defraud and to commit perjury by falsely registering the births of three unrelated children as their own triplets.
And with the help of police in the US and UK, in June 1993 Anne and Bill were extradited back to Australia.
Leeanne pictured with Anne Hamilton-Byrne. (Image: Supplied)
"Someone once said to me you'll never find them, and if you do you'll never charge them. If you do charge them, you'll never get them back here. If you do get them back here, you'll never get them before a court and you'll never get a conviction," Lex says with satisfaction.
"But we found them, we charged, them, we brought them back, we put them before the court and they said the word 'guilty'."
Anne and Bill escaped jail time and were fined just $5000 each. Bill passed away in 2001. Today, Anne is 97 and in a nursing home, where she suffers with dementia.
"The happiest day of my life will be when Anne dies," says Lex, bluntly.
"I find it abhorrent that she is still breathing. I'll get closure and so, hopefully, will others."
The Cult of The Family debuts March 12, 8.30pm, on ABC.
To read more stories like this, pick up a copy of the March issue of The Australian Women's Weekly. On sale now.

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