Painful justice

The Herald-Sun, Australia/August 16, 2009

Lex De Man, the policeman who spent five years bringing The Family cult leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne to justice, is still haunted by the case and its toll on everyone involved.

And while proud that Operation Forest, the taskforce on which he worked from 1989 to 1994, eventually secured her conviction for perjury, he is still angry Hamilton-Byrne escaped punishment for alleged maltreatment of the children in her care.

Mr De Man said Hamilton-Byrne was lucky the children who had endured beatings, druggings and starvation at The Family's Lake Eildon property were too traumatised to testify against their alleged tormentor.

"One girl looked like she was seven but was, in fact, 11. She was suffering from psycho-social dwarfism," Mr De Man said.

"I didn't think at that time - and even today - that many of the kids would be able to sustain giving evidence in the witness box. I think they'd been damaged too much."

The detective's decision to go after Hamilton-Byrne for falsifying documents came in 1991 when the cult's solicitor, Peter Kibby, decided to co-operate with police.

"Documents don't lie. People lie on documents. A document might be false, but it's a human being that puts the information on it," Mr De Man said.

Kibby then persuaded one of the former "Aunties", Pat MacFarlane, to make a statement.

After months of interviews, and later armed with the evidence to secure a warrant to arrest Hamilton-Byrne, police still took three years to find her.

But when he was told she had been arrested in the US, Mr De Man said he was overcome with emotion.

He then flew to New York where he was met by two US marshals, who handed over Hamilton-Byrne.

"She was a frail, old-looking woman without her wig," he said.

"Her first words to me were 'You're a lot younger than I thought you would be'."

Mr De Man said people were sceptical of the taskforce's success when it was established.

"When we started, people said to us 'You'll never find her and if you do, you'll never interview her, you'll never charge her, you'll never bring her back to this country, you'll never get her before a court and you'll never get a conviction'," he said.

"Four-and-half years later we found her in a joint operation with the FBI, we went and got her and we brought her back, fronted her before the courts and she pleaded guilty - even though the penalty was minuscule - $5000.

"In the end it was about the principle of justice."

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