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Real Life

Real life: My daughter joined the Truth Fellowship cult, then she disappeared

I knew my daughter's partner was an oddball, but I had no idea what he was capable of...until it was too late.

Catherine McDougall, 66, Baranduda, Vic.

I smiled as my four-year-old granddaughter, Leela, rose onto her tippy toes and twirled like a ballerina.
"Look at me, Nanny!" she giggled, prancing across the stage.
I was her only audience, but she leapt around the small amphitheatre stage in her town of Nannup, WA, as if it was a packed house.
Afterwards, we walked home, where Leela lived with her mum, my daughter Chantelle, 26, and her dad, Simon, 45.
My husband, Jim, and I lived in Victoria but had flown over for a quick visit.
"Simon still in his room?" I asked Chantelle when we got back.
"You know how busy he is," she sighed. "He's got a whole community of people on the internet relying on him."
Jim and I exchanged a glance but kept quiet. Even before Simon's work as an online 'life guru', he'd been an oddball.
Chantelle had been with Simon since she was 19.
As far as we knew, he'd never treated her badly or given us reason to be alarmed. He was just… strange.
I'd first met him after Leela was born. He greeted me warmly, then the weird questions started.
"What planet are you from?" he asked with a straight face.
I looked at Chantelle in confusion.
Chantelle and Leela, just before they vanished. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
"Simon has radical beliefs," she explained proudly. "He's going to change the world."
Later, I offered to take a photo of the two of them with Leela.
"No!" Simon urged. "The camera will take away my spirit."
I smiled politely, but my mind was racing.
He's a nutter! I thought, worried.
Over the years, Jim and I got used to Simon's strange behaviour.
When Leela was five, we visited them, but this time, something seemed off. Simon suddenly made my skin crawl.
We were all sitting around the table when a package arrived. Inside was a passport for Leela.
"Are you going on a trip?" I asked Chantelle.
Before she could answer, Simon grabbed the passport and rushed upstairs. Chantelle quickly changed the subject.
"Wasn't that odd?" I said to Jim later that night.
"Maybe they're going away," he shrugged.
Soon after we returned home, Chantelle rang.
"We're going to Brazil," she announced excitedly. "We're living in a commune near the Amazon to do charity work."
Picturing my daughter and grandchild deep in the South American jungle made my heart race with worry.
But Chantelle had always wanted to help people – how could I ruin her happiness?
Leela and Simon. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
"Send us a letter so we know you're safe," I pleaded.
She said they were leaving right away and promised to get in touch.
"Be careful," I warned her. "I love you."
"Love you too, Mum," she said before hanging up.
Over the next three weeks, I nervously checked the letterbox.
But after a month, I had an overwhelming feeling that something was wrong.
Jim emailed the Australian consulate in Brazil.
This is a big country, came the response. They'll be hard to find.
I imagined Chantelle and Leela being held hostage in the Amazon. It was terrifying.
Worried sick, we reported them missing. Days later, an immigration officer rang.
"We've looked at security footage from the airport," he said. "Chantelle, Leela and Simon never left Australia."
"But… that doesn't make sense," I stammered, confused. "Chantelle wouldn't lie."
I'd been scared she'd fallen victim to foul play in Brazil, but what if she'd been hurt much closer to home?
Chantelle, Leela, Simon and Tony. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Two months passed before an officer contacted us.
"Is this Chantelle's writing?" he asked, handing me a note.
Gone to Brazil, was written in Chantelle's messy scrawl. It looked like she'd scribbled it in a rush.
I nodded.
"Chantelle left her wallet next to this note on the kitchen table," he said gravely.
He explained that the last confirmed sighting of Chantelle was on the day she went missing, in Busselton, where she'd sold her car for $4000, then got into a waiting vehicle.
"That cash was deposited into her account," he said. "But no-one's touched it."
Chantelle and Simon's close friend, Tony Popic, had also disappeared.
Fear overwhelmed me. I just wanted Chantelle and Leela safe in my arms.
Jim and I barely slept after that.
Jim and I miss Chantelle and Leela terribly. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Whenever I woke from a brief doze, I'd have a few seconds of peace, then my heart sank remembering my girls were missing.
Two years passed before police found some new information.
I gripped Jim's hand anxiously as two officers sat us down.
"Simon had a false identity," one revealed. "His real name is Gary Felton and he's the leader of The Truth Fellowship, an online cult."
I felt like I'd been winded. A cult leader?
"The real Simon Kadwell was a colleague of Gary's 15 years ago," he added. "Gary stole his identity years before he met Chantelle."
I leaned against Jim in shock.
All those years Chantelle thought she'd known the father of her child. But she'd been living with a total stranger.
I blinked back tears as the officer explained that Simon published manifestos to his online followers, prophesying Judgement Day.He claimed Earth was nearing the end of its cycle and only people who believed in his lessons would be saved.
His jibberish had always baffled me, but I'd thought he was just a harmless weirdo.
What if he was actually totally insane?
Simon believed that, in order to free your spirit, you had to kill yourself.
An age processed image of Leela. (Image: Supplied)
"Under his guidance, a few of his overseas followers have died by suicide," the officer confirmed.
I knew Chantelle couldn't have taken her own life.
"She loved Leela too much to hurt or leave her," I said.
When the police left, Jim and I broke down. Now, we just had more questions.
Years passed and nothing happened. Every time I heard on the news that a body had been found, my heart lurched.
I needed Chantelle and Leela to be okay, but I also wanted answers, whatever they may be.
A decade after they disappeared, an inquest was held. One of Simon's followers was questioned, but refused to say anything.
The judge declared there wasn't enough evidence to conclude whether they were alive or dead.
Surely someone knows something! I thought.
Now, it's been 12 years, and police are hoping professional hackers can search Simon and Chantelle's old accounts for information.
Chantelle would be 39 now, and Leela 17.
I know in my heart they've probably passed away, but I can't give up hope. Jim and I will search for them until the day we die.
If you or someone you know is struggling to cope, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au.

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