The Family: Stories from inside the cult led by self-proclaimed mystic Anne Hamilton-Byrne

FAN Editor

This story first aired on April 29, 2017

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 500 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.

Now, some of those children are speaking out about Hamilton-Byrne’s attempt to build a perfect race through a collection of children — some of whom were forced to have their hair bleached blonde, were home-schooled on an isolated property, and were injected with LSD as part of an initiation ritual.

The harsh treatment was carried out by some of the women known as “Aunties,” loyal cult members who lived with and taught the children. 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.

“The Family” is also the story of the incredible determination of a detective in Australia and an agent at the FBI who joined forces to bring the Hamilton-Byrnes before a judge.

“My whole life was wrapped up in this investigation,” says Lex de Man, a former detective with the Victoria Police Department in Melbourne, Australia. He tells “48 Hours” correspondent Peter Van Sant, “She is the most evil person that I’ve ever met.”

In the Catskills region of New York State, Lex de Man is far from home. He is here to retrace the steps of the biggest case of his career — hunting down a dangerous fugitive cult leader.

Lex de Man: It’s incredible, absolutely incredible that I’m standing here … unbelievable feeling.


Former Det. Lex de Man and Peter Van Sant. “It’s incredible, absolutely incredible that I’m standing here … unbelievable feeling,” said de Man.

CBS News

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?

Lex de Man It’s been a tough day. …it brought back memories for me of some of the victims.

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.

Her cult was known simply as The Family.

Peter Van Sant: The Family still lives.

Lex de Man: Well, even today, The Family still lives in Australia. It still exists. There are still followers.

Now, some of the cult’s children are telling their stories of what life was like inside The Family’s fenced-in compound in Australia with its leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon:  It is possible to make contact with the secret source of life, of the most high.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne

Anne Hamilton-Byrne

At the core of that life were Hamilton-Byrne’s mystical teachings. Each week, hundreds of her followers gathered at a lodge to worship Anne.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon:  We get ready to enter the next universe.

Adam Lancaster: Under the influence of LSD, she had this vision that she’s got to collect all these children from birth.

Dave Whitaker: Because the end of the world was coming.

Adam Lancaster: Most of the population of the world’s going to perish … She was preparing us … to re-educate the world. What’s left of it.

Adam Lancaster grew up in the cult. Dave Whitaker had parents who were senior cult members.

Dave Whitaker: Only one rule — do absolutely everything she tells you.

Children of the Family

Anne Hamilton-Byrne TV interview: “I wanted them to look like brothers and sisters, I must admit this. I love them in their little smocks and jeans. The long hair and ribbons, it was beautiful.”

Ann Elphinstone

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 sign 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. She wasn’t even allowed to see — look at me.

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. Later on, when Anne was in her 50s, she’d sometimes explain the arrival of new children by telling followers that she was their mother, and even took to wearing maternity clothing. She once told a young Dave Whitaker that she’d given birth to triplets.

Dave Whitaker

“She’s not somebody you argue with,” Dave Whitaker said of Anne Hamilton-Byrne

Church Street Films

Dave Whitaker: She’s just looked me straight in the face and said, “I had these three children” and I’m thinking, “You didn’t have those three children. You must think I’m a bloody idiot to tell me that.” [Laughs] But I just said, “Oh yes, OK,” agreed with her. She’s not somebody you argue with.

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. You know, I’ll collect as many kids as I can …  Once she became the leader of the cult I think she could get whatever she wanted, I think one thing that she wanted was lots of little children. …little perfect little children in perfect little dresses, with perfect little blond hair.

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.

Childen of The Family cult

Children of The Family

Peter Van Sant: I wanted to show a couple of pictures from The Family. How about this one?

Steve Eichel: That’s a really harrowing picture.

Steve Eichel: To me that represents children who are clearly being controlled who are having their individual identities destroyed. …The average person though … would think, “What lovely children. How could this group possibly be evil?”

The cult’s home movies made it seem like a paradise, but Sarah Moore and Anouree Treena-Byrne say they were carefully orchestrated.

Sarah Moore: …she’d sometimes brush our hair herself … or put us in curlers the night before the photographs and stuff were to be taken.

Anouree Treena-Byrne:  So much effort to get that scene on film. …Why wouldn’t you want to be part of this? It looks idyllic — mmm.

Peter Van Sant: In some ways, this is like a marketing campaign?

Steve Eichel: It’s absolutely a marketing campaign.

Leeanne Creese: Anne showed them to her followers … showing off to the world that she’s normal with lots of children — lots of happy children.

Happy children with beautiful singing voices. Hamilton-Byrne — who would never be mistaken for Julie Andrews — nonetheless dreamed her children could one day become Australia’s version of the Von Trapp family from the film “The Sound of Music.”

Adam Lancaster: We were brought up that we’ve had many millions of lives. 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. Those who are not devoted, they don’t know 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 assigned to take charge of them.

Leeanne Creese lived in the cult from her birth until she was 17 years old.

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.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: The Aunties were to be avoided at all costs.

Ben Shenton: …if someone wet the bed, they’d get … cold showers … one of the youngest girls … did not speak until I think she was 5.

At the age of 18 months, Ben Shenton was sent by his mother — a grateful cult member — to live at the children’s compound.

Ben Shenton: One of the boys … had asthma  … he was wheezing, and sniveling. …So these nurses would put him outside in the cold at night.

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.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s magnetism and command always seemed to hypnotize some of her followers.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer:  It’s hard to put into words, but it’s was the most … amazing, wonderful feeling … It was just a feeling of being known, and understood.

Like true believer Michael Stevenson-Helmer, who was 19 years old when he met Hamilton-Byrne.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: She just radiated out, don’t you know that? Haven’t you experienced that?

Even those who later broke away from The Family are still awed by Anne’s seductive strengths.

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.

In fact, Hamilton-Byrne told her devoted believers that she had descended from royalty.

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.

 But Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s childhood was far from perfect … as the children would learn years later.

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.


Children of The Family cult

Ann Elphinstone

Which may explain why she tried to create her own Von Trapp family.

Leeanne Creese: I think that she was trying to portray this perfect life and this perfect family. Something that she didn’t have.

As an adult, Hamilton-Byrne turned to yoga and began studying eastern religions.

Voice of Anne Hamilton-Byrne: I had been teaching yoga quietly, because that was my master’s last utterance. 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. Anne had received some inside information after having sex with Johnson’s gardener, but pretended she was clairvoyant and Dr. 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.

Fran Parker was an early follower.

Fran Parker: We didn’t think of ourselves as a cult … everyone there seemed to be on a similar wave length. 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.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s teachings struck a chord. 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?

Steve Eichel: That’s a question that haunts all of us all the time … one can be extremely highly educated and yet have a real psychological naiveté. …And a lot of times people who are really smart, are really educated, mistakenly believe that they are now invulnerable to any kind of influence. …Because I’m too smart … to be conned.

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.


Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne

Church Street Films

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’s adult followers agreed to live by her rules; “unseen, unheard and unknown” was the cult’s motto. They kept their jobs and congregated on one street, miles from the children’s compound.

Adam Lancaster: In the ’70s and ’80s the majority of The Family owned the whole street … every house on the street because they wanted to be near Auntie Anne … and Auntie Anne wanted them to be near her.

Anne had a sure fire way to keep many of her followers under her thumb: the mind-altering drug LSD.

Adam Lancaster: I just remember being in this world of color … purples, to pinks, to reds, to greens, to blues … and it was as if I’d walked into jelly.


In Australia, locals would call Detective Lex de Man a “copper” and investigating Anne Hamilton-Byrne had been this “copper’s” life’s work.

Lex de Man: Anne Hamilton-Byrne is the most evil person I’ve ever come across and I’ve come across quite a few evil people in my life. …when you look at what she did to children — what she did to young mothers, taking children … breaking marriages up, taking money off people, she is an evil, evil person.

Sarah Moore: She’d just change your whole world. She’d turn it upside down overnight.

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.

Sarah Moore: They’d have a marriage, they might be in love with someone or they might have a kid or whatever, and she’d just take that away overnight and say … “No, you’re with this person now,” or, “No, you’re having this kid now, not that one,” and that was the way it worked.

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.


At the age of 18 months, Ben Shenton had been sent by his grateful mother, a devoted cult member, to live at the children’s compound.

Church Street Films

Ben Shenton: Joy is completely bedridden, she’s been that way for months. Scoliosis, a calcified spine, she’s on death’s door … Anne knocks on the door. My eldest brother gets up, opens the door and Anne comes in … and she says to Joy… “Joy if you serve me … I will heal you.” …within six weeks, Joy is up and walking around.

Ben Shenton: And from that moment, Anne was, as far as she’s concerned, exactly who she claimed to be — the reincarnation of Jesus with the power to prove it.

By the 1980s, the family’s membership topped 500. Lex de Man says Anne began ordering her followers to take LSD in bizarre ceremonial rituals she called “clearings.” 

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.

Peter Van Sant: So all Anne needed was a bucket of dry ice, some LSD … and this production and she could convince some of the smartest people in Australia to follow her.

Lex de Man: Professionals, absolutely … it’s a bizarre story, but it’s a fact.

Peter Van Sant:  is this crazy or what?

Steve Eichel: Well, it certainly looks crazy to anybody outside of the group, outside of a cult.

Steve Eichel: In a cultic group, typically there’s a separate reality… And through a process of brainwashing … individuals basically come to believe that the leader is the ultimate arbiter of truth. …The purpose of purifying individuals was to increase their belief in Anne Hamilton-Byrne as Jesus, as the messiah, as a pure spiritual being.

And that’s exactly what happened to Dave Whitaker, who was a teen when his father — also a cult member and a doctor — injected him with LSD.

Dave Whitaker: Anne would come in every now and again and … sat down beside me and whispered in my ear, ‘Who is Jesus?’…and then somehow the thought popped into my head, “you’re Jesus.” …and she goes, “that’s right David, you always knew I was the Lord.”

Over time, some members grew disillusioned, left the cult and dared to speak out. 

Phillippe de Montignie is an investigative journalist.

Phillippe de Montignie: We were contacted by one of the members who had become disaffected …  the people who were disaffected … they referred to things like brainwashing … husband and wives swapping all the time … children who didn’t know who their parents were … no matter which way you looked at it, it seemed wrong.

He confronted Anne’s mentor, Dr. Raynor Johnson, about all those rumors.

Phillippe de Montignie: It’s been suggested that drugs are used within your group. Can you see any basis for this?

Dr. Raynor Johnson: Well this of course, I deny, I deny absolutely. We’re respectable citizens as I’ve tried to indicate to you.

Those obedient “citizens” included Fran Parker.  Anne turned her life upside down one day by unexpectedly giving her a baby boy.

Fran Parker: She said, “Frances, your little baby has arrived.” …And I just fell in love with that baby at first sight. I took him home and I was just so happy. He was gorgeous.

But her joy was short-lived when Anne ordered her — for no apparent reason — to divorce her husband.

Fran Parker: She said, “Why don’t you just go home and leave a little note.”

Anne succeeded in ending the marriage. No adult dared cross her in part because one of her cult members ran a local psychiatric hospital.

Fran Parker: There was always the threat of the mental hospital.  She said it only takes two Psychiatrists to commit you. 

Anne could be ruthless and was greedy as well, says Adam Lancaster who lived in the cult for decades.

Adam Lancaster: Auntie Anne sucked as much money out of people as what she possibly could … Anybody who joined The Family had to pay dues. …She was offering them, um, a way into heaven.

With those “dues,” Anne’s critics say she began enriching herself, buying up properties in England and New York State. She and Bill began to travel more frequently, sending back short gushy films to her followers and the children.

At one point, the father of Michael Stevenson-Helmer met Anne and asked how she made money.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: Dad asked Anne, ‘Where does all your money come from?” And Anne said, “That’s my private business, I don’t ask where your money comes from.”

As Anne accumulated money and property, she began traveling more but her “collection” of 28 young children was getting to be in the way. So Anne often left them at the compound with those so-called Aunties. And the Aunties carried out Anne’s instructions with brutal efficiency.

Leeanne Creese: The philosophy behind that was it was better to have a dead child than a child that lied to you.


Anouree Treena-Byrne was a child of The Family cult. Now, she’s revisiting her childhood home, back where her nightmares began.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: Anyone who saw this house … would think it would be a lovely holiday house. …For us, of course, Eildon was … a dreadful place to live.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: It was very hard to relax. I don’t know if I even knew what that meant I don’t think. It was just a terrible place to be. … I uselessly dreamed of going to Mars, and living there.

Anouree was actually Bill Hamilton-Byrne’s biological granddaughter. As an infant, she was given to Anne and Bill. As she grew older, she wondered about the outside world, sometimes sneaking off the property.

Anouree Treena-Byrne

“One could never be sure what could happen next … we were frightened for each other all the time,” said Anouree Treena-Byrne

Church Street films

Anouree Treena-Byrne: We did go for midnight walks … And we’d peer into people’s houses. And we were very curious as to what exactly it was they were doing.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne has always insisted the children were well cared for. 

Voice of Anne Hamilton-Byrne: It was love. Just love, started it.

But Anouree and the other children say that’s a lie; that day-to-day life swung from the fear of severe discipline to mind-numbing boredom.

Sarah Moore: Usually every single day was the same, to the exact minute.

Ben Shenton: …5:30 in the morning we would be woken up…

Anouree Treena-Byrne: Always too early for me.

Ben Shenton:  …there would be the hatha yoga meditation.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: …and then set up the boys’ room for school.

Journalist Marie Mohr. 

Marie Mohr: These children were registered for home-schooling so there were the occasional education department checks.

Anouree Treena-Byrne:  There was these wonderful equations on the board … to make us look advanced and sophisticated. …you know, above our level, which was never true.

Marie Mohr: And the children certainly were too frightened to tell outsiders anything that was going on.

Anouree says she fantasized about telling the education inspector the truth but never got the chance.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: He was never in the room with us by himself. …The Aunties were always around.

Behind the mask was a harsh reality.

Ben Shenton: The rules change. And you just work out what they are and decide how you’re going to play the system to get what you need to survive. … The aunts were the disciplinarians.

But the Aunties were just following Anne’s orders.

Leeanne Creese: You never questioned her because you’d be slapped across the face.

Leeanne Creese: There were times when she would want to hear us scream for being naughty over the phone.

Ben Shenton: She’d ring up and ask to listen to us receiving beltings.

Leeanne says the children suffered other terrifying tortures — similar to waterboarding.

Leeanne Creese: They used to fill up buckets of water … and one by one they would hold us down and put our heads in the water and ask us questions and pull your head up and ask the question again and put it down in.

Ben Shenton: You remember absolute terror. That’s the horror, when it was uncontrollable, which is what Bill would do.

Leeanne Creese: He used to have a very, very bad temper.

Ben Shenton: Sarah was thrashed [emotional pause] …excuse me, yeah it was … watching her being belted with a buckle, being beaten to the point where she’s wriggling out of her clothes — just horrendous.

Worst of all, Leeanne says, Anne starved the children. Sometimes, she withheld food to punish them and padlocked the fridge. But her cats and dogs had all they could eat.

Leeanne Creese: Oh [laughs] the animals were fed so much better than we were.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: It was of interest for some of us to perhaps try some of their food, every now and then.

Leeanne Creese: I remember loving the bacon [pork] bones. So I would watch for them for when they put them out for the animals and I would go and scavenge. Pretty awful, but …

Even more appalling was what happened when one of Anne’s pets died. Leeanne says Anne honored them with a macabre memorial, making the children share their bedrooms with the decomposing animals.                                                 

Leeanne Creese: A white sheet would be put on the bed and the dog would lay on the bed for three days and then we would have a burial for it — a burial service and it would be buried in the garden.

But the most important ceremony happened when a child turned 14 — the initiation into The Family — which meant getting that hit of LSD, sometimes by injection, sometimes by mouth.                        

Sarah Moore: Well, she had me under LSD for days. …She’d just come in like every 12 hours or so and give me another piece because I wasn’t working hard enough. …I just more or less flipped out into some sort of psychotic state.

Sometimes the children screamed into the night. Neighbors across the lake called police. But Anne was prepared. Her Aunties welcomed the officers in and served tea, distracting them while the children hid.


“And through that hole right there is where we all managed to fit,” said Anouree Treena-Byrne.

Church Street Films

Leeanne Creese: They didn’t even know we were there because we were stuffed into this little hole … At one point I think there were 28 children thrown on top of each other into this space, and then they put the covering back over the wall and then a painting on top of it. …and we were too scared to make any noise whatsoever.

Sarah Moore: We were taught that everyone out there was evil … and police you know, would put you in a bag and beat you.

One time, Sarah says, the children couldn’t hide in time. Still, Anne had a backup plan. The kids stuck closely to her script, reciting rehearsed lines that nothing was wrong.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: I do remember one question the police people asked us and that was … “Are you being fed properly?” Well that — that’s — that’s, um, a very difficult question … you know, I was surviving, I was alive. Yeah, sure, I’m being fed properly. You know, well how much are you supposed to have? You know? I — I had no idea [laughs].

Leeanne Creese: We were all very protective of our parents, and of what was happening at the time. Nobody would dare say anything. …As a child of course you love your parents, it doesn’t matter what they do to you, you love them.

But as the horrors wore on, Sarah and Leeanne finally had had enough. They were determined to find a way out. The children’s futures were about to change forever.

Sarah Moore:  I agreed to talk to the police even though I knew that was betraying her. …And I didn’t think that, you know, it would tear the whole thing apart.      


Leeanne Creese: …as children Sarah and I … used to talk about … escaping.

Sarah Moore: From … 14 or 15 age, you see the hypocrisy … I don’t want to be part of her cult.  I don’t want her to be my guru.

Fed up with the hunger, abuse and psychological torture of life under cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne, Leeanne, now 15, found the courage to confront her face to face.  She says Anne responded with violence. 

Leeanne Creese: She had attacked me quite viciously … had slapped me … I was very angry with her so I actually slapped her back. And I thought, “Oh God, I’m not going to hang around for this.”

Leeanne Creese:  So I jumped out the window… and ran down to the lake… Kept running as far as I could possibly get away from them. …And I saw a light in a house and I thought, “Oh well, I will go to them and ask them to go and get the police.” …they were a lovely couple, old couple… I remember the wife being very concerned … she said, “Oh, are you one of those children from around the lake?” All I could say to them was just, “Please get me the police.”

Leeanne Creese

“…we all have mental scarring … we all have suffered and we all have something that we take with us,” said Leeanne Creese

Church Street Films

When an officer arrived, Leeanne told him about the horrors. But instead of rescuing her, the officer called the Aunties at Lake Eildon, who convinced him that Leeanne was unstable. 

Leeanne Creese: I think that if you’re confronted by a story like that, you don’t actually want to believe it, so he actually took me back.

Remarkably, Leeanne wasn’t punished. It would be two more years before she got the nerve to run away again. 

Leeanne Creese: Quite by chance, I ended up in exactly the same house. …the husband was there … and he said to me, “Oh, you’re the same girl that ran away those few years ago.                                                             

Incredibly, the police even sent the same officer.

Leeanne Creese: This time … I said to him … “I will sleep in the gutter if you don’t do something … You didn’t believe me the first time, and I don’t care if you don’t believe me this time, but I’m not going back there.” …So he said, “no, that’s OK” … he said, “I’ve got someone I’ll take you to.”

The officer brought her to a local foster family. But Leeanne wasn’t prepared to turn her back on the cult just yet. She clammed up about her past, instead focusing on her future in the real world.

Leeanne Creese: We weren’t taught anything about the outside world, I didn’t even know how to cross a road.

Leeanne Creese:  I remember going to the bank and asking them if I could borrow $50 to go and buy clothes. So, I mean, they must have thought I was really weird because no one asks to borrow $50.

Meanwhile, Sarah was 17 and still living in the cult. Until, she too, had a fallout with Anne.

Sarah Moore: I was excommunicated and asked to leave the cult. …At that stage, I could have groveled to her and apologized and said “sorry great master” and all that…. I just said “OK. I’ll go and die in the gutter like you’ve told me to.”

Leeanne Creese and Sarah Moore

Leeanne Creese and Sarah Moore

Leeanne Creese

Sarah was quickly taken in by some friendly locals and reunited with Leeanne. The two couldn’t stop thinking about the other siblings they’d left behind. 

Sarah Moore: The kids were suffering so much … that I couldn’t see it going on a moment longer.

Leeanne Creese: I actually was seeing a counselor … and one day … she … said to me, “Well, what are you going to do?” …and I said, “Well, I think I’m going to go to the police.”

Now, police were hearing firsthand how the cult children were starved, beaten and given LSD.

In the police interviews, the girls are, understandably, emotional:

Leeanne Creese: I feel as though Anne and the other members of the sect stole my childhood.

Leeanne Creese: I resent not being allowed to go to a normal school and not being allowed to form normal relationships.

Sarah Moore: We wanted so much for her to love us, and I don’t think she really ever did.

Sarah Moore: Once I betrayed her I was the Judas … every messiah has to have a Judas, I guess.

Sarah says there was a price to pay for spilling Anne’s secrets. Anne wrote her enemies’ names on slips of paper and put them in ice. They were forever damned. 

Sarah Moore: I thought I was cursed to die.

Police officer: How did you believe you’d die?

Sarah Moore: Um…                             

Police officer: By what means?

Sarah Moore: I don’t know. Um, I just knew that I was going to ’cause you can’t sort of betray your master and expect to sort of live.

Journalist Marie Mohr, who was investigating the cult, experienced Anne Hamilton-Byrne’s wrath firsthand.

Marie Mohr: I also had a long period of time where I’d be lucky to get a night’s sleep without the phone going through the night. Hang up calls, hang up calls.

But Mohr wouldn’t quit. The more she learned, the more she worried about the rest of the children.

Marie Mohr: The stories I was told from day one were horrendous. It wasn’t just manipulation of their lives. It was also being subjected to cruelty on an unimaginable level.

Leeanne Creese: We needed to save the rest of the children that were in the sect .

With Sarah and Leeanne’s chilling statements, cops now had an overwhelming mass of evidence and a sinking feeling the children’s lives were at risk. Finally, they hatched a rescue plan — a raid on the compound at Lake Eildon.



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 is possible to make contact with the secret source, of life of the most high.

The world first became aware of the Australian cult known as The Family on Aug. 14, 1987, when the Victorian and federal police staged a dramatic pre-dawn raid to remove children living at an isolated compound near Melbourne. The cult was led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a self-appointed mystic who controlled her followers for decades.


Woman: OK everybody, I’ll explain to you what’s going to happen.

Voices of children: They’re taking us somewhere … where are we going?

Woman: We realize it’s going to be very stressful for you…

Voices of children: We’re going to children’s court, we are…

Woman: Great big deep breaths — I know you’re scared.

By day’s end, news was spreading about Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a yoga teacher turned cult leader who, investigators say, had been collecting children for years. At one time, there were 28 kids in all, ranging in age from toddlers to teens.

Dave Whitaker’s parents were senior cult members and knew Anne well.

Dave Whitaker:  She was a very charismatic sort of person … she had a huge presence about her.

As many as 500 adults followed Anne Hamilton-Byrne willingly, but the children had no choice. Some were the offspring of cult members; others were taken from unwed mothers who were strong-armed into giving up their babies by cult doctors and nurses. Now those children are speaking out about their ordeal.

Sarah Moore: There was a child that was nearly dying from malnutrition and was only three foot tall … and was 12 years old.

Sarah Moore, who lived in the cult from birth until she was 17 years old, says the children were supervised by cult women who home-schooled them. They were known as Aunties and, Ben Shenton says, some resorted to torture.

Ben Shenton: You going to be dunked in … a bucket filled with water, and … have your head held under that for a period of time … to the point where you are asphyxiated, you’re close on blacking out.

When the children became teens, they told police that some of them were forced to take LSD in a ceremony that helped reinforce the cult’s fundamental belief that Anne was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ — raising a master race of children.

Dave Whitaker: Anne … whispered in my ear, “Who is Jesus?” …and then somehow the thought popped into my head, “you’re Jesus.” … and she goes, “that’s right David, you always knew I was the Lord.”

But Anne did not embrace the humble life of Christ. She traveled extensively to properties she owned in Kent, England and New York State, sometimes with her children.

Investigators say the homes were mostly paid for with the millions Anne extracted from her wealthy followers, many of them well-educated, high-earning professionals. 

By the time of the raid in 1987, only seven children — ranging in age from 11 to 18 years old — were living at Anne’s special compound. Of the rest, some were living with their cult parents and others were in boarding schools in England. Anne happened to be overseas on the day of the raid, but her husband Bill was there and so was Leanne. She had run away months earlier but had gone to police and told them her story.  

Leanne Creese: I actually went in with the police when the raid happened because I thought it was best that one of us was with them so that the children realized that it was OK, because it would have been very, very scary for them.

Leanne Creese: Bill came out of his room and saw me and he said to me, “How could you betray us like this?”

Incredibly, not a single adult was arrested. Police allowed Bill and the Aunties to leave the compound as the investigation continued. Meanwhile, the suddenly free children were taken to a group home where they found normal life — even a simple meal — bewildering.

Anouree Treena-Byrne:  I think we had breakfast. We had something to eat. …and you know, they said you can eat as much as you want, and, well I said, “My stomach’s only a certain size.” [Laughs]

Ben Shenton, then 15 years old, was one of the rescued children.

At the age of 18 months, he had been sent by his grateful mother, a devoted cult member, to live at the children’s compound.

Ben Shenton: I’m lying in bed at the end of that night, thinking through what had happened through the day. What I’d said, what I hadn’t said, and realizing I no longer have to check what I say. I’m not going to get into trouble if I say something wrong and I think, to me [emotional pause] … that’s probably when I’d realized the prison doors had opened, for good.

Behind closed doors, the adult members of The Family were shaken by the police raid. Many left, including Bill Hamilton-Byrne, who vanished overseas to join Anne.  Some of the devoted continued to assemble weekly at The Family’s special lodge, where they listened to Anne’s audio tape-recorded messages:

Anne Hamilton-Byrne sermon: I’m looking right at each one of you. You are the initiate. You’re staring into the awakening.

It was clear more needed to be done and the children were about to get the champions they deserved. Investigative journalist Marie Mohr tracked down senior members of the cult.

Marie Mohr: “Marie Mohr’s my name Dr. Mackay. I’m wondering if you’ve got any comment to make?

It was around the same time that police detective Lex de Man came on the scene to investigate the biggest case of his career. 

Lex de Man: Anne Hamilton-Byrne is the most evil person I’ve ever come across … and I’ve come across quite a few evil people in my life.


Marie Mohr: You couldn’t hear those stories without it affecting you if you had any heart at all.

Back in the 1980s, Marie Mohr was a tough as nails investigative reporter hot on the trail of cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne. But once she bonded with cult children Sarah and Leeanne, her hard-edged attitude softened.

Marie Mohr: I do remember one of my bosses saying to me at one stage, “are you a social worker or a journalist?” and I said, “well at the moment it seems I’m a bit of both.”

Leeanne Creese: Marie was the one, ultimately the first person that we actually grew, all of us to trust …and she was a bit of a bulldog in the fact that she wanted justice for all of us for what had happened and she’s always been there.

Eager for answers, Mohr tracked down one of The Family’s psychiatrists, Dr. John Mackay.

Marie Mohr: I’m wondering if you’ve got any comment to make now about what happened to the children…

[Dr. Mackay hits Mohr and the camera with a briefcase]

Marie Mohr: Why won’t you have? Is that all you’ve got to say?

She had questions about an autistic baby boy Dr. Mackay had adopted and given to Anne to raise.

Marie Mohr: I wanted to ask him if he knew, after he handed that child over, what had happened to that child, the brutality that he experienced.

Mackay later admitted to another reporter that he had indeed given his adopted baby to Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne:

Dr. John Mackay: I think that they’ve been able to provide a stable environment with a lot of help, a lot of love, a lot of dedication.

Reporter: Something that you weren’t able to do?

Dr. John Mackay: I think, you know, that’s true. I wasn’t able…

In 1988 and 1989, prosecutors built a case against eight cult members. Three were Aunties who allegedly abused the children physically. But because there were no photographs of bruises and no police or hospital reports, those Aunties were not charged with child abuse. Instead, all eight women were charged with applying falsely for government benefits — money they turned over to Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

One of the Aunties charged was Helen Buchanan, who Leeanne Creese says, “would beat us with anything she could get her hands on.” Buchanan denied abusing anyone. 

Auntie Helen Buchanan: I suppose you’d call it a little bit old-fashioned nowadays because the values were those of high standards of dress, behavior, speech … although the discipline was firm, it was very loving.  

Buchanan pleaded guilty of Social Security fraud along with the others. Some received a few months in jail. All were hit with fines and ordered to pay back the $223,000 they had stolen. Sarah Moore, a child of the cult, felt horribly cheated.


“She had me under LSD for days … she’d just come in like every 12 hours or so and give me another piece because I wasn’t working hard enough,” said Sarah Moore

Church Street Films

Sarah Moore:  They didn’t go to jail for beating us nearly every single day and starving us, you know, for three days at a time. …and you know, all the other things that happened up there.

Enter Police Detective Lex de Man. Four months after the raid, de Man was investigating an arson fire and one of the suspects was teenager Adam Lancaster, who’d been adopted by a cult member when he was 2 weeks old. Adam was a self-described troublemaker.

Adam Lancaster: I was a little bit of a ratbag, you know. I was just being a kid. … I was doing some things that really – like, for example, cutting people’s car brakes that went for a walk into the forest … I’d started lighting fires.

One of de Man’s colleagues alerted him to Adam’s involvement in The Family and told him to steer clear.

Lex de Man: his first words were “Don’t get involved. If you get involved, it will be with you for a lifetime.”

Lex de Man did not listen.  In 1989, he teamed up with five other detectives to launch “Operation Forest” — a special unit assigned to target The Family. It’s mission: investigate allegations of physical abuse and whether any of the children had been given LSD.

Lex de Man: Right at the start of it, we didn’t know much about the sect, about the cult, apart from what we’d been told by the then-children.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne was de Man’s No. 1 target. But he had a big problem.

Lex de Man: We didn’t know where Anne was. We were told that Anne was in the UK. We were told that Anne was in the United States. …We were told that Anne was here and there, but never in Australia.

Wherever she was, she was casting her spell over true believers like Michael Stevenson-Helmer who still thinks of Anne as a kind of sun goddess.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: A pale blue color just went straight through me and through to every part of my body and ended up in my toes, yeah.

But Lex de Man wasn’t feeling the vibe, blue or otherwise. He kept hearing horrific tales of abuse, but with no hospital or police reports backing up the children’s claims, it was hard to build a case. Then he caught a break—he heard that Anne’s lawyer, Peter Kibby, had left the cult.

Lex de Man: Peter was the key to the door.

De Man knew how to get to Kibby, who had a condition that made the thought of living behind bars in a dirty jail cell inconceivable.

Lex de Man: Peter suffered from the disease of compulsive obsessive disorder … it would take him, to have a shower, sometimes two to three hours and three or four bars of soap, and so he never got to the office.

De Man had Kibby arrested on fraud charges. When he made bail, Kibby surprised the detective with a phone call.

Lex De Man: A week or two later the phone went in the office. This really animated and I have to say delightful voice gets on the end of the phone saying, “Lex, Peter Kibby.”  “Yes, Peter.” “I’d like to have a cup of coffee with you.”

Kibby slowly opened up and eventually admitted he’d helped Anne forge birth certificates for the children she claimed were her triplets.

Lex de Man: I look at Peter as, as someone who had the guts to actually stand up and say, “No, what we did was wrong.”

De Man finally had the first tangible evidence to arrest Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne. He could only pursue them on a minor charge — conspiracy and perjury for falsifying birth certificates, but it would be enough to bring them back to Australia — if only de Man could find them.

Marie Mohr, meanwhile, had tracked down the couple in Hawaii:

Marie Mohr: Hello Mrs. Hamilton-Byrne. Marie Mohr from Channel 9.  …Have you got any comment now about why you kept those children locked away for so long?

Bill Hamilton-Byrne: No comment.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: No comment.

Marie Mohr: When are you going to tell the children the truth about who their parents are?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: I don’t know.

Marie Mohr: You’re not going to tell them? 

Anne Hamilton-Byrne soon vanished again and for three years managed to stay one step ahead of Lex de Man – until she made a disastrous mistake.


The scenic and secluded town of Hurleyville, New York, was about to take center stage in an international drama much to the surprise of Australian detective Lex de Man.

Lex de Man: Who would have thought Anne would have been in this house, two hours north of New York City, in a remote part of upper New York State – 10,000 miles from Victoria?

Peter Van Sant: It’s like the dark side of the moon, right?

Lex de Man: To me it is … And seeing it today, I’m amazed that we were actually able to find her.

For four-and-a-half years, cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband, Bill, had managed to elude the detective.

Peter Van Sant: How did they end up here? 

Lex de Man: They knew that … there were warrants for their arrest. And they also knew that we thought at the time they were in Kent in the United Kingdom.

But Anne, whose cult members believed was clairvoyant, didn’t see that her future was about to dramatically change.

Lex de Man: We had luck on our side.

Anne Hamilton-Byrne had called one of the children back in Australia, Sarah Moore, even though she knew Sarah was cooperating with investigators.

Sarah, now knowing Anne was not her real mother, had come to realize her entire life had been a lie. 

Sarah Moore: We’d rock ourselves to sleep at night … calling out “mummy, daddy…” As I got older I realized that it was her creation and that she dictated the laws … It wasn’t to do with religion. It was to do with just power, money, and control.

When Sarah told Lex de Man about the call, he traced it, discovering Anne was at her New York property — a moment almost too good to be true.

Lex de Man: Had she not made that phone call, she may well still be there today.

But that still leaves the question of why Anne Hamilton-Byrne, with millions at her disposal, ended up in a house in the Catskill mountains? The answer goes back to the 1970s, when the area was a mecca for hippies in search of enlightenment.

Joan Bridges:  In the 70s and a little bit before that, there were quite a few yogis coming over to the West and attaining a lot of money, and fame and power.

Joan Bridges was a Georgia prom-queen-turned-hippie back in that golden age of gurus.  While the Beatles followed their Maharishi, Bridges followed another celebrity guru, Swami Muktananda, to upstate New York … as did someone else.

Joan Bridges: Anne Hamilton-Byrne showed up. And she had her whole entourage of these small children with dyed blonde hair and identical bows in their hair. …It was one of the strangest things I’d ever seen.

Anne appeared to be one of Muktananda’s faithful disciples.  but she was actually anything but that.

Joan Bridges: I think Anne’s design for being with Muktananda was to figure out how he did what he did … obviously she was trying to take people.

Peter Van Sant: In some ways was this like the ultimate field trip, a business trip for her? She came here to study him, learn his techniques?

Lex de Man: That would be a good way of describing it…and also bringing the children along here to … get the confidence of Muktananda with her as a loving mother.


Anne Hamilton-Byrne with Leeanne Creese

But behind closed doors, Leeanne says the abuse never stopped — even when Anne would take some of the children along on her travels.

Leeann Creese: She beat me so badly that I could hardly move. I was black and blue all over. …I mean, that was just part of life but that was probably the most horrific time.

Over the years, Anne Hamilton-Byrne gave several television interviews:

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: Over 21 years, 28 young people went through our hands.

Reporter: Why did you do that?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne:  I love children.

Now, decades later, Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne were on the run and the children they professed to love were left behind half a world away.  With his prey unaware that he had tracked her down, Lex de Man’s next move was to alert the FBI.

Lex de Man: When the agent picked the phone up in New York, the first words were now, “I’m from Victoria. I’m an Australian police officer. Don’t think I’m mad, but I’m gonna tell you this story about Jesus Christ reincarnated in the female form.”

Agent Hilda Kogut:  Most of the investigations I had were weird.

Dedicated FBI special agent Hilda Kogut was assigned the case.

Agent Hilda Kogut: This is what we do; this is what the FBI does.

Peter Van Sant: What did you know about this group? And were there any concerns about whether they could be a potentially dangerous organization?

Agent Hilda Kogut: We were concerned … based on allegations that some horrible things had been done to children that they had kidnapped and abused.

To lay the groundwork for an arrest, Kogut  first needed to verify that Anne and Bill were at their Hurleyville home.

Agent Hilda Kogut: The House was isolated on a very  quiet country road. There would be really no good place to sit and watch that house for 24 hours.

Peter Van Sant: What do you do?

Agent Hilda Kogut: My method was, I think the failsafe method. You go to the post office because everybody knows that the mailman knows all. And I guess I can say this. My father was a postal worker, so I know he did.

Agent Kogut did her reconnaissance while riding around with the mail carrier, confirming Anne and Bill were at the house.   

Agent Hilda Kogut:  I took a good look at the front entrance and the back entrance. Taking every bit of it in.

Peter Van Sant: What are your concerns, what are you worried about?

Agent Hilda Kogut: Well, you wanna make sure that you have enough people to surround the house. …I mean, there’s two people you’re taking into custody. But you don’t know who else is in that house. …We’re looking at a cult. … You never know.

It was June 4, 1993. Hilda Kogut and her team of agents swung into action, arriving at the Hurleyville house at dawn. 


Lex de Man: This so-called Jesus Christ … was nothing more than a heinous criminal. …I don’t think Anne Hamilton-Byrne was evil; I know that Anne Hamilton-Byrne was evil.

Lex de Man’s dogged pursuit of Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her husband had led to this moment in upstate New York.

Agent Hilda Kogut: I say “FBI. Open the door. We have arrest warrants for Anne Hamilton-Byrne and William Hamilton-Byrne. Open the door.”

Special Agent Hilda Kogut didn’t know what she would find behind that door.  

Agent Hilda Kogut: I see a look of shock…

Instead of a commanding cult leader, she saw a sad-looking 71-year-old woman.

Agent Hilda Kogut: A very frail-looking old woman.

Peter Van Sant: Did she look like Jesus Christ to you?

Agent Hilda Kogut: No. …She looked like a woman that had had a lot of reconstructive surgery, including a hairline that pretty much started in the middle of her head. That’s how many facelifts she’d had.

While the cult leaders gave up peacefully, Anne did complain on the ride to jail. 

Agent Hilda Kogut: She asked how long it would be. She hadn’t eaten breakfast.

Peter Van Sant: Anne Hamilton-Byrne was hungry, you’re telling me, right?

Agent Hilda Kogut: Could be … We didn’t stop.

No doubt the irony was lost on Anne. Remember, she routinely withheld food from the cult’s children.

Leeanne Creese: We were always starving… One of the punishments for us was to take away our meals, so the longest I ever went without food was for a week.

The FBI found no children in the Hurleyville house and Anne had not adopted any in the U.S. Ten-thousand miles away in Australia, Sarah Moore waited with mixed emotions at police headquarters for word of an arrest.

Sarah Moore: It was so hard to betray her at the end, to talk to the police. …But I knew that the kids were suffering so much.

Hamilton-Byrne mugshots

Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne arrest photos

U.S. Dept. of Justice

Finally, a six-year international manhunt was over. Hilda called Lex.  

Lex de Man to Peter Van Sant: And the words she said to me on the phone was “we’ve got the son of a bitch.” … And I just lost it.

Lex de Man: And I screamed out and I picked up the nearest chair and I threw it.

Agent Hilda Kogut: And I could hear this scream from him and everybody else in the room. …It was like a football game; everybody was screaming.

Peter Van Sant: What a moment, huh?

Agent Hilda Kogut: Exactly. It was great.

Anne and Bill remained behind bars in New York for two months.

Lex de Man: I was desperate to meet Anne Hamilton-Byrne from day one.

It was now August 1993 and the detective would get his wish. Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne were to be extradited to Australia. Lex de Man flew to New York’s JFK airport to escort them back home.

Lex de Man: And I’ll never forget the first words she ever said to me. She said, “So you’re Mr. deMan. You’re a lot younger than I thought.” … And I thought to myself, “and you’re the bitch that has destroyed people’s lives.”

Agent Hilda Kogut:  If his eyes would’ve allowed him to drill a hole into her, it would’ve happened; he was that focused.

Reporter: “Just before 9 o’clock this morning Victorian police had Anne and William Hamilton-Byrne back on Australian soil…”

Lex de Man hoped that in capturing Anne he’d convince cult members to see her as he did.

Lex de Man: She was basically a very cunning crook.

Still, not all of them could.

Adam Lancaster: I was devastated when she was put into jail. … Yes, I know that they’ve all done wrong. Ah, but what can you do, they’re your family.

After so many lives left in ruins – what would justice look like for the victims of the cult?  The case was about to take another dramatic turn.


When Anne Hamilton-Byrne finally set foot on Australian soil for the first time in six years back in August 1993, she did not look like the glamorous cult leader her followers had come to expect.  

Sarah Moore: Anne … being shown on national television without her wig — that really was a blow to her narcissism.

 A year later, with her wig back in place, Anne and her husband were hauled before a judge.

TV report: Anne and Bill Hamilton Byrne appeared confident when they arrived at court.

It was a moment ex-cult child Sarah Moore just had to see firsthand.

Sarah Moore: I still wanted there to be justice and for there to be some sort of acknowledgment that something bad had happened to us children.

The children of The Family, some of whom had been brainwashed, physically and emotionally abused, and even given mind-altering drugs, thought that Anne and Bill Hamilton-Byrne would face charges that could put them in prison for decades.

TV report: Anne and William Hamilton-Byrne registered the children in 1984 as their own triplets…

But a child’s story is not proof of a crime. There was no physical evidence proving the children had been abused; no photographs, no police or hospital reports. So prosecutors ended up charging the world’s most notorious cult couple with a single paltry charge: conspiracy to make a false statement. They still each faced five years in prison and $60,000 in fines, but the judge had other ideas.

TV report: Judge David Jones said he took into consideration the couple are in their 70s, have no previous convictions and are not in good health.

Marie Mohr: They said, “Oh, she’s quite an elderly woman.” That’s just so much nonsense. There was nothing wrong with her. She was as healthy as an ox.

Shockingly, neither Anne nor Bill would spend a single day in an Australian prison. Instead, the couple who had ruined countless lives would each pay a fine of only $5,000.

Marie Mohr:To me, that wasn’t justice. I’m bitterly disappointed it ended like that.

Sarah Moore: She didn’t get anything. Nothing. And it seems like in Australia, society doesn’t care about children that are abused.

Leeanne Creese: I think it’s absolutely disgusting what the government did.

But Detective Lex de Man and prosecutors decided not to pursue any other charges in order, he says, to spare the children.

Lex de Man: We felt … that to have put these children in the witness box to be torn apart by defense counsel … would most likely have done more psychological damage in the long term to these people than securing a conviction on those other charges.

Marie Mohr: I don’t think it was fair for anyone to make that call … I personally believe some of the children could have done that. They’re very bright. They’re strong. They’ve survived a lot more than a courtroom. So they could survive their childhood, but they couldn’t survive being crossexamined? … I think it underestimated them, and I think it let them down.

Agent Hilda Kogut: …the fact that she was only fined, not imprisoned — is an affirmation to the believers that she is divine. That she is all-powerful. She beat the Australian legal system. What more could you ask if you were a believer in someone like that and what someone like that espoused?

Sure enough, a couple of dozen true believers stayed loyal to Anne following her court appearance and are followers even now … cultists like Michael Stevenson-Helmer.

Michael Stevenson-Helmer: There was an awful lot of goodness that went on there too … that’s never mentioned by those dear children who are victims, and will remain victims until the day they die. They never mention the good times do they?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne disappeared from the public eye until 2009, 15 years after her day in court. She finally resurfaced on” 60 Minutes Australia” to face some tough questioning. She was a feisty 87-year-old:

Karl Stefanovic: Were the children ever hit?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: Course they weren’t.

Karl Stefanovic: Because…?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: They were not beaten.

Karl Stefanovic: Never?

Anne Hamilton-Byrne: Never. You would have to be pretty good to see through that bulls—. It’s absolute bulls—. It’s lies.

The children Anne Hamilton-Byrne collected have tried to outrun their past.    


“I still don’t know who I am in many ways … I’m lost, and I was lost then,” said Adam Lancaster

Church Street Films

After years of searching, Adam Lancaster reunited with his biological family, but his mother had died. 

Adam Lancaster: There’s a huge sadness that I actually never got to at least give her a cuddle, or, say, “Hey, I’m your son.” Yeah.

Ben Shenton did reunite with his mother who at one time had rejected him.

Ben Shenton: I — have a relationship with my mother that is to the level where she will allow it to go … and it’s very painful for her.

Upon being rescued from the cult, Anouree Treena-Byrne learned that her mother had committed suicide, but she was able to reconnect with her father.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: The last 10 years, before dad passed away, were our best. That was when we really consolidated a wonderful, understanding, caring — intellectual relationship. Yeah. 

But Anouree did carry her scars into motherhood.

Anouree Treena-Byrne: I was unable to hold my first baby, by myself at first. For quite a little bit of time…

Leeanne Creese, who ran away from the cult twice as a teenager and once slapped Anne, has nonetheless always been fond of Bill Hamilton-Byrne.


Bill Hamilton-Byrne with Sarah, Anouree and Leeanne

Leeanne Creese

Leeanne Creese:  He was my father. I was always daddy’s girl, always. Sorry [sobbing].

She even asked Bill to walk her down the aisle at her wedding and she is now the proud mother of two grown children, although her past lurks in the shadows.

Leeanne Creese:We’re still all trying to survive. We’re still all trying to live in a world that we never grew up in.

And then there is Sarah Moore, once Anne’s favorite adopted child. She became a doctor.

Sarah Moore: One of the ways I tried to alleviate the effects of my childhood was to dedicate my life to helping others. I spent a lot of time overseas, you know, going to remote places and you know, war zones and volunteering all sorts of things.

Shockingly, Dr. Sarah Moore passed away from heart failure. She was just 46 years old.

And Detective Lex de Man, he still often breaks down when he thinks of the children.

Lex de Man: It’s been a long journey and it’s still with me [emotional]. I need a break. …I need a break.

Bill Hamilton-Byrne died in 2001, Incredibly, Anne is still alive and still a millionaire with an estate estimated to be worth at least $10 million. She’s living in a nursing home in Melbourne suffering from dementia. 

Peter Van Sant: In some ways, did Anne Hamilton-Byrne win?

Agent Hilda Kogut: Yes. She did … her evilness won … she shoulda been imprisoned and, and so should he have been …  for the rest of their lives. And lives after that.

Lex de Man: Some might find this a bit harsh of me to say, but to me it will be a great day when they bury the bitch six foot under.

True believer Michael Stevenson-Helmer visits Anne Hamilton-Byrne every day

There is no designated successor to take over The Family from Anne Hamilton-Byrne


“The Family” is a co-production with Australian filmmakers Rosie Jones and Anna Grieve. Paul LaRosa is the senior coordinating producer for “48 Hours.” Jones and Grieve are the senior producers. Clare Friedland and Kat Teurfs are the producers. Gabriella Demirdjian is the associate producer. Phil Tangel, Joan Adelman, Marcus Balsam, Richard Barber, Marlon Disla and Diana Modica are the editors. Anthony Batson is the senior broadcast producer. Barbara Ghammashi is executive producer with Women Make Movies. Susan Zirinsky is the senior executive producer.

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