A former detective who investigated one of Australia’s most infamous cult leaders has revealed why she was never convicted.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne who ran a cult known as The Family in the 1970s and 80s died on Thursday never seeing the inside of a prison cell despite claims of child abuse.
She along with her husband raised children on a rural Victorian property that they had obtained through adoption scams and cult followers handing their own children over.
‘Unfortunately, we couldn’t really bring the evidence to the court,’ former detective Lex De Man told Weekend Today.
Hamilton-Byrne spent her final years leaving in a Melbourne nursing home with dementia
She gathered young boys and girls and raised them as her own in the 1970s and 1980s
‘There were a number of reasons for that. In the case of the allegations of the administration of LSD to children we didn’t have the drugs so we couldn’t physically present that.’
He also said there were concerns a trial would further damage the children’s mental health after so many years being held in the cult.
‘The children were held in captivity. They were ill-treated and beaten and there heads were put into water when they misbehaved,’ he said.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne died on Thursday night aged 98, following a 12 year battle with dementia.
She ran the cult in central Victoria from the early 1970s until 1987, when two children managed to escape and alert police.
Identically dressed with bleached blonde hair shaped into the same bob, the children were bashed, starved and injected with LSD by Hamilton-Byrne and other cult leaders in terrifying sect initiation rituals.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne (pictured with cat Tiffany) was the glamorous, charismatic and delusional leader of notorious Australian sect dubbed The Family. She has died aged 98
‘You wouldn’t normally say that about a 98-year-old woman … From my perspective upon hearing the news of her death, no-one is sad,’ Mr De Man said.
‘Those who survived, some justice has been served. Today is not a sad day but a day to celebrate … may she rot.’
He hopes her death will mark a fresh start for survivors and said his one regret was that she never faced justice for the serious crimes.
‘She left a trail of broken lives, ruined people and the one good thing I’ve seen is that the former children who were victims of some horrible things have moved on with their lives and they’re good people,’ Mr De Man told AAP
‘I think of them today and what they went through.’
Identically dressed, the children were allegedly bashed, starved and injected with LSD by Hamilton-Byrne and other cult leaders
Survivor Ben Shenton, who was just 18-months-old when he went to the cult, was relieved to hear about Hamilton-Byrne’s death.
‘I feel for the many families and people who suffered at her hands over the years and I’m just glad that a chapter’s closed,’ Mr Shenton told The Australian.
He was horrified to discover devotees were visiting her when he visited Hamilton-Byrne in her nursing home in 2012.
‘To see that perpetrated and to see the damage that it caused in people’s lives is more of an issue to me. Her death closes a chapter on that,’ Mr Shenton said.
Hamilton-Byrne convinced herself and up to 500 followers she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
Under the influence of LSD, she believed an apocalyptic war was imminent and that she had a duty to collect children from birth in preparation for a new world.
She gathered young boys and girls and raised them as her own on a property in Lake Eildon in central Victoria in the 1970s and 1980s.
Some children were obtained through questionable adoptions, others were born to cult members and some were even handed over by compliant sect parents.
Survivor Ben Shenton has expressed his relief over the death of the notorious cult leader
Anne Hamilton-Byrne (pictured) convinced herself and up to 500 followers she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ.
Victims have attempted to pursue Hamilton-Byrne through the Supreme Court in recent years to get justice for the abuse of more than 20 children.
Despite police raids on the Lake Eildon property and a massive investigation, the only penalties ever imposed on Hamilton-Byrne and her husband and sect co-founder Bill Hamilton-Byrne were $5000 fines for falsifying a statutory declaration.
In a chilling interview featured in the 2017 documentary The Family, she describes her twisted affection for ‘her children.’
‘I wanted them to look like brothers and sisters – I must admit this,’ Hamilton-Byrne said.
‘I loved them in their little smocks and jeans and the long hair and ribbons. It was beautiful – it was lovely to see.’
Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill (left) with a teen who was brought up in the cult
Asked why she imprisoned 28 children over two decades, she responded: ‘I love children.’
The Family documentary director Rosie Jones said Hamilton-Byrne lured many of her victims in with her charm and good looks.
‘She was basically Jesus Christ reincarnated in the view of her followers, and I think in her own view,’ Ms Jones told ABC Radio Melbourne.
‘She was charismatic and gorgeous and she knew how to reach people’s weak spots.’
Anne Hamilton-Byrne as Evelyn Edwards in Sale in rural Victoria in 1921
Born as Evelyn Edwards in Sale in rural Victoria in 1921, Hamilton-Byrne barely knew her father and her mother was mentally ill.
She was a yoga teacher when she met highly-respected English physicist Dr Raynor Johnson in 1963.
Together they founded the sect and began to ‘adopt’ and acquire children to create a ‘master race’ while teaching a mixture of Christianity and Hinduism.
In total, 28 children spent time at the Eildon property, 14 of which Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill were thought to be biological parents.
Former Lake Eildon children give harrowing descriptions of their traumatic ordeal in the upcoming film.
They open up about being forced to take drugs and recall violent physical and sexual assaults.
In 2009, The Family founder Anne Hamilton-Byrne mistreating the children at the property
Holding back tears, Ben Shenton relived the moment he witnessed Hamilton-Byrne’s ‘favourite daughter’ being beaten to a pulp.
‘Sarah was thrashed,’ he says, holding back tears.
‘I was watching her being belted with a buckle and she’s being beaten to the point where she’s wriggling out of her clothes.
‘Hearing her body smash across the balustrades – it was horrendous to know they had the power to do that and would it.’
It wasn’t until Victorian Detective Lex De Man learned that children as young as 13 had been injected with LSD that a task force to investigate the sect was established.
Asked in a 2017 documentary why she imprisoned 28 children over two decades, Hamilton Byrne (pictured right) responded: ‘I love children’
In 1987, authorities dramatically rescued six traumatised children from the sect property after two managed to escape and alert police.
Because of legal complexities, Hamilton-Byrne and her husband were only ever convicted of fraud offences in relation with forged birth certificates.
They avoided jail and were fined $5,000 each.
In 2009, Hamilton-Byrne told the Sunday Herald Sun she was ready to die after reconciling with Sarah, the ‘daughter’ who had exposed the cult to the world.
But she denied mistreating the children, saying, ‘They were normal children and they could be disobedient to a point, but not all the time.’
The first group of children destined for Lake Eildon. In all, 28 spent time there under the cult
‘THE FAMILY’ CULT TIMELINE
- 1963 Yoga teacher Anne Hamilton meets English physicist and writer, Dr Raynor Johnson and they found a sect known as The Family.
- 1968 The Family begins to ‘adopt’ and acquire children to create a ‘master race’.
- 1974 An official school is set up for the ‘master race’ children at the Lake Eildon property.
- 1978 Anne Hamilton marries William (Bill) Byrne and they take the surname Hamilton-Byrne.
- 1983 Police visit the Lake Eildon property to search for a missing girl. She is not found on the property.
- 1987 (14 August) Combined police raid on sect property at Lake Eildon. Anne is overseas. Bill is present at the raid but is not charged.
- The children are removed from the sect and placed into care.
- 1987 (Oct/Nov) Bill flees to Hawaii to meet Anne.
- 1987 (12 December) Monbulk School fire – Detective Lex de Man is called to investigate. He learns about The Family.
- 1989 (about June) Lex de Man writes a report recommending Victoria Police commence a criminal investigation into The Family.
- 1989 (11 December) Operation Forest Task Force commences.
- 1993 (4 June) Anne and Bill are arrested in the Catskill Mountains, Upstate New York.
- 1993 (17 August) Anne and Bill are extradited to Australia.
- 1993 (31 August) Anne and Bill appear in the Victorian Magistrates’ Court, charged with conspiracy to defraud and commit perjury by falsely registering the births of triplets.
- 1994 In the County Court, Anne and Bill avoid prison and are fined $5000 each.
- 2001 Bill dies, leaving Anne to lead a diminishing group of followers.
- 2017 At 96, Anne lives in the dementia wing of a suburban Melbourne nursing home.
- 2019: Anne dies in the palliative care of a Melbourne nursing home aged 98