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To some, Anne Hamilton-Byrne was a yoga teacher with a penchant for plastic surgery. To others, she was the evil leader of The Family — an apocalyptic cult with about followers and more than 28 children. Some were the children of cult members, others were newborns that came from unwed mother tricked into thinking their babies were going to good homes, a few were out and out stolen, investigators say. The children believed they were brothers and sisters and thought Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne were their parents until they were rescued by police and the cult was broken up.
He is here to retrace the steps of the biggest case of his career — hunting down a dangerous fugitive cult leader. Former Det. Lex de Man and Peter Van Sant. Peter Van Sant: Lex, for a man who has been emotionally as well as professionally involved in this case for so many years, to see this house for the first time, what has this day been like for you?
Innocent victims — children who had no choice — and true believers who de Man says fell under the spell of Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a one-time yoga teacher-turned-cult leader who convinced followers she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ. Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: If you would learn how to tread the path of attainment, you must go to the one who has successfully passed through it.
It still exists. There are still followers. Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: It is possible to make contact with the secret source of life, of the most high. Each week, hundreds of her followers gathered at a lodge to worship Anne. I love them in their little smocks and jeans. The long hair and ribbons, it was beautiful. There were 28 children in all, ranging from toddlers to teens.
They only learned the truth of their lives much later. Sarah Moore : The cult doctor arranged for my biological mother to be … drugged and made to an adoption form. Sarah Moore, who had believed Anne Hamilton-Byrne was her birth mother, only learned the truth when she was an adult.
Sarah Moore : During my birth a pillow was put over her head, she was given major tranquilizers and as soon as I was born I was taken away instantly. Anne Hamilton-Byrne did have one child of her own; a daughter, who was a young adult by the time Hamilton-Byrne started her cult.
The children who were adopted by Anne were all given the last name of Hamilton-Byrne and believed they were brothers and sisters. Anne even groomed them to resemble one another. Sarah Moore : I think she simply set about it as a project. Adam Lancaster : We all did look the same. We all had blonde, bleached hair. Not all of us. Some had red hair … because Auntie Anne was actually naturally a red headed [sic]. Steve Eichel, a psychologist and an internationally recognized cult expert, says at its peak, The Family had branches in the United States and in multiple countries in the world.
Steve Eichel: Anne Hamilton-Byrne was the leader of what we would call a hybrid new age cult. How about this one? Steve Eichel : To me that represents children who are clearly being controlled who are having their individual identities destroyed. How could this group possibly be evil? Anouree Treena-Byrne : So much effort to get that scene on film. It looks idyllic — mmm. Happy children with beautiful singing voices. And Auntie Anne promised us that this was our last life if we stood by her. Sarah Moore: I think she believed that the world would end in some sort of apocalyptic event and we would be so perfectly trained and so disciplined that we would be able to lead what was left of the world into the next epoch.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: Those who are devoted to me, they are united with me. The adopted children lived apart from the adult cult members in an isolated compound near Lake Eildon, about three hours outside Melbourne. The stark reality behind the images of a carefree childhood, the children say, was a constant fear of the woman they called mother, and the cult women she ased to take charge of them.
Leeanne Creese : The women that looked after us were called Aunties … They starved us. They beat us. They did all sorts of horrible things to us. Ben Shenton : One of the boys … had asthma … he was wheezing, and sniveling. Anouree Treena-Byrne: One could never be sure what could happen next … we were frightened for each other all the time.
Michael Stevenson-Helmer : Anne was waiting for me, and just welcomed me, and took me in … Looked at me and I was numb right through to my toes. Adam Lancaster : When Auntie Anne walked into a room, you knew she was there … she had the airs and the graces of the Queen of England.
Adam Lancaster: …we, as children, thought she was beyond the Queen of England. There was one … time where Mum said that she even spent time with the Queen, having cups of tea. So, we just assumed that Auntie Anne was … in the same league as the Queen of England. Leeanne Creese: …we all believed as children that she had … the perfect childhood.
Sarah Moore : Her mother was psychotic … and the father worked on the railways and was absent a lot of the time … She came from an extremely impoverished and horrible background. Leeanne Creese : I think that she was trying to portray this perfect life and this perfect family. I had to start it. That was divine orders. That was my mission. That was the divine vision. She created a new persona — a new age guru available to those in need of spiritual guidance.
But she needed credibility and zeroed in on a highly respected British physicist and author, Dr. Raynor Johnson, who had a large following. Sarah Moore : He was a very kindly old man. Very clever, but very, very, very gullible. So gullible, he believed Hamilton-Byrne was Jesus Christ. Johnson bought it. Sarah Moore : …she appears at his door in the middle of the night saying that she knows that he is going to go to India with his wife and the wife is going to get sick over there and that she is the messiah and after that he was hers.
Convinced Anne was a messiah, Johnson began sending her referrals — students and friends, some of whom were suffering personal crises. Fran Parker : This lovely voice answered me. It was an enchanting voice full of depth and love and encouragement. They were just lovely people who were sincerely looking for the spiritual dimension in their lives. Sarah Moore : In Australia there was a huge interest amongst upper middle class people in alternative spirituality. With her newfound credibility, courtesy of Raynor Johnson, she began to attract more and more followers and the cult known as The Family was born.
Lex de Man: The cult was made up professional people — architects, solicitors, barristers, nurses — professional people in society. Peter Van Sant : How do you get someone so smart to do something that the rest of the world perceives as just so stupid? Lex de Man says Anne targeted anyone who could help her amass power and money. She set her sights on Bill Byrne, a successful and married local building contractor. Leeanne Creese : I think that he was captivated by her charm just like everybody else was.
Bill Byrne divorced his wife and married Anne. They became the unquestioned leaders of The Family, sharing the new last name which would become known around the world: Hamilton-Byrne. Anne had a sure fire way to keep many of her followers under her thumb: the mind-altering drug LSD. Sarah Moore, taken from her unwed mother at birth, grew up watching Anne manipulate her disciples — children and adults — with unquestioned power, combining love with fear.
But there are also stories of Anne winning over converts by allegedly performing miracles. Ben Shenton, who grew up in The Family, describes how Anne won over his mother Joy after a life-changing encounter. Lex de Man : And once … they … were … administered … the LSD in a dark room, the door … would appear open and here would be Anne standing there in a flowing white gown … behind her was a bucket of dry ice which permeated like smoke … and under the hallucinogenic drug LSD, they were actually convinced that they were seeing the Almighty, that they were seeing Jesus Christ.Female disciplinarian Hurleyville United States
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