Australia

Australian cult: The Family leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne dies

Anne Hamilton-Byrne Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hamilton-Byrne thought she was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ

Australian cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne has died in Melbourne at the age of 98.

Her cult, The Family, was accused of imprisoning and brainwashing children in the 1970s and 80s.

Hamilton-Byrne thought she was a reincarnation of Jesus Christ and blended drug-taking with mysticism and Christianity.

For most of the accusations against her, she never faced trial and suffered from dementia in her later years.

Originally a yoga teacher, she founded the cult in the late 1960s; it operated for more than 20 years, until police raided its property in the state of Victoria in 1987.

She and her husband Bill Byrne took children through adoptions, allowing the cult to assemble and imprison them in a strict home-schooling environment at a rural property near Eildon in Victoria.

Image caption The "Hamilton-Byrne" children at Lake Eildon in the 1980s

Allegedly administering drugs to the minors, the cult was also accused of subjecting them to beatings, starvation and brainwashing.

The children wore identical clothes and had their hair dyed blond; they were told that one day they would take over the world.

"Growing up, it was Anne and Bill, they were mum and dad; and then there were foster kids, and they were kids of other sect members, who would either come up on weekends or stay there for stints of a couple of years," Ben Shenton, a former Eildon child, told the BBC's Storyville programme.

"The greatest amount of kids at any given stage was 28," he added.

"We all had blonded bleached hair - not all of us, some had red hair, because Auntie Anne [Anne Hamilton-Byrne] was actually naturally red-headed," Roland Whitaker, who also spent time at Eildon as a child, told Storyville.

He describes what the children were made to wear.

"Very royal, Von Trapp [characters in The Sound of Music] sort of clothes, your velvets, your smart shoes; everything had to be polished and looking the same - and that was really to implant in us that we're all brothers and sisters."

Police began investigating the cult in the late 1980s and broke up the group, freeing the children.

Hamilton-Byrne was only ever convicted of fraud, having to pay A$5,000 ($3,450; £2.700) in fines.

She died in a nursing home in Melbourne.

Former Victoria police detective Lex de Man, who investigated Hamilton-Byrne at the time, said he "shed not one tear today", according to the Australia's The Age.

"Today for me brings to an end the life of one of Victoria's most evil people," he said, adding he still regretted she never faced justice on more allegations.

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