Inside Julian Assange’s wild, weird childhood tied to ‘blonde hair’ cult The Family

New York Post/July 29, 2024

By Dana Kennedy

When FBI Special Agent Hilda Kogut pulled up at an isolated farmhouse deep in the Catskills in June 1993, she was there to arrest the delusional but charismatic leader of a sinister doomsday cult called “The Family” based in Australia.

She had no way of knowing that same cult was the reason why Julian Assange’s family had to go on the run for years.

But Kogut told The Post that what really struck her when arresting Anne Hamilton-Byrne — a once-glamorous yoga teacher who had convinced her New Age disciples that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ — and her husband, William Hamilton, in Hurleyville, NY, were her many plastic surgeries.

“This was a vain woman,”said Kogut, who was working under the guidance of Australian detectives in a joint operation. “She’d clearly had so many facelifts that her hairline was pushed way back on her head.”

But Hamilton-Byrne’s vanity was nothing compared to the years of abuse she perpetrated on more than two dozen helpless and vulnerable babies and young children she illegally adopted between 1968 and 1975 in the Melbourne, Australia, area.

Police and the survivors of the cult said she told the kids she was both their mother as well as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ — and that, when the world ended, they would be responsible for re-educating the survivors.

Byrne-Hamilton counted more than 500 well-educated doctors, nurses, lawyers, psychiatrists and other professionals as members of The Family, who went along with her deluded and cruel teachings, experts on the cult told The Post.

When Assange, the notorious founder of WikiLeaks whose 12-year incarceration ended last week when he pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Espionage Act, was about 10, his mother, Christine Assange, became romantically involved with a Family cult member and amateur musician named Leif Meynell Hamilton.

(Christine and Assange’s birth father, John Shipton, split up when he was a baby and he didn’t see his dad again until he was 25. Christine then married theater actor Brett Assange; Julian took his name and considered him his father, though Christine and Brett divorced when Julian was about 9.)

Assange referred to Leif as a “manipulative and violent psychopath” in the 1997 book “Underground: Tales of Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier.”

He called the relationship between his mother and the much younger man “tempestuous” and claimed Leif could be abusive, beating his mother and once punching Assange in the face so hard that his face bled, according to an unauthorized biography.

Assange said he attended 37 schools all over Australia after his mother tried to break up with Leif, because he stalked them — allegedly using cult connections to check national databases for their whereabouts.

The situation reportedly grew worse when Christine got pregnant by Leif and a bitter custody battle ensued over Assange’s half-brother, who was born sometime around 1980. The Post was unable to locate either Leif or his alleged son.

“Eventually, it was a matter of us escaping from him,” Assange has said. “We would cross the country and only then suffer this sinister realization that he had found us. He’d suddenly be back in our lives and this grew to be very heavy. He had this brilliant ability to insinuate himself … I pulled a knife on him, told him to keep back from me; but the relationship with him wasn’t about physical abuse. It was about a certain psychological power he sought to have over us.”

That psychological power may have come from what Leif absorbed from The Family and its malevolent leader, whose surname he and other followers adopted.

Lex De Man, a former senior investigator with the Victoria, Australia, police, is credited with cracking the mystery of the cult and tracking Hamilton-Byrne to her Catskills hideaway after she went on the lam. He told The Post this week that she was “the most evil woman I have ever known.

“This was someone involved with the theft of children, who kept them isolated from the rest of the world and drugged them and injected them with LSD,” De Man said. “She had the people around her under what almost seemed like a spell.”

Hamilton-Byrne dyed most of her adopted children’s hair platinum blond so they would look like siblings, cut their hair in matching styles, dressed them identically — and had them drugged with Valium and other sedatives from the time they were toddlers, according to both police and survivors of The Family.

Hamilton-Byrne was rarely around the kids but she arranged for female members of the cult, called “aunties,” to care for the children, who were disciplined and punished for the most minor of infractions. They reportedly slept in small dormitories, were often beaten and deprived of food for up to a week — and sometimes waterboarded.

Both detectives and the children themselves said the teenagers of the cult were forced into rituals, called “clearings,” in which they were given LSD.

Various accounts of Assange’s life, both from him and others, have alluded to him or his mother being members of the cult, but De Man does not think this is accurate.

Assange was not among the 14 or so children rescued from The Family’s wooded compound on the shores of Victoria’s Lake Eildon in 1987 after several girls escaped and told police about the cult and the abuse, De Man said.

But when Assange’s notoriety grew in 2010 —after Sweden issued an international arrest warrant for him in connection with allegations of sexual assault and he took refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London — rumors circulated that he had been among the sad, drugged boys with the blond bowl cuts in photos taken of The Family children.

Ben Shenton, 52, was one of the children rescued from their prison of barbed wire and foliage in August 1987. He had been placed in the cult at 18 months and was 15 years old when freed. He and the other kids were shocked to find out from detectives that the woman they thought was their mother was not.

In Shenton’s case, he learned that one of the “aunties” was his biological mother and had been persuaded by Hamilton-Byrne to hand him over and step back from acknowledging him as her child in any way.

Shenton, author of “Life Behind the Wire: The True Life Story of Ben Shenton Formerly Benjamin Hamilton-Byrne,” went on to have a successful 27-year career with IBM and has been married for 30 years. But he was shocked anew when conspiracy theorists parsing photos of children in The Family claimed that the photo of Shenton was actually Assange.

“It’s quite possible [Leif Meynell Hamilton] was a cult member and, if so, [Assange’s] mother was smart to stay on the move to get away from him,” Shenton told The Post. “But Julian was not one of us, and he was lucky. It was brutal what we went through.”

Shenton, who also runs a website called Rescuing The Family, was one of the fortunate survivors, both he and De Man say.

Another child survivor, Sarah Moore wrote a book in 1995 called “Unseen, Unheard, Unknown“ — the mantra the kids were told to abide by if anyone from the outside found them.

She became a medical doctor and writer but, ultimately, could not overcome the trauma of her early years in the cult. She died of a drug overdose in 2016. Lex De Man gave the eulogy at her funeral, he said.

Despite De Man’s hard work getting Hamilton-Byrne and her husband arrested in New York and extradited to Australia, the two ended up with only a slap on the wrist: a $5,000 fine for falsifying a statutory declaration.

Though Shenton’s biological mother originally remained loyal to Hamilton-Byrne, he managed to forge a relationship with her in later years. They even visited the former cult leader in the nursing home where she lived for 12 years with dementia until she died in 2019 at age 98.

Hamilton-Byrne did not recognize Shenton when she saw him.

Shenton’s own mother died last week in the UK, where she fled after the cult was exposed, he said.

“I was able to say ‘I love you’ to her although we were more friends than mother and son,” Shenton said. “I wanted to take back what was stolen from me. I also wanted to show that it’s possible to overcome trauma and victimhood and live in victory.”

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