Almost 20 years after the fundamentalist Christian sect known as the Twelve Tribes started a commune south-west of Sydney, members are moving out and their local property holdings are being put up for sale.
The sell-off of more than $6 million worth of property near Picton comes at a tumultuous time for the global movement, not least because of financial pressures from rising interest rates on mortgages attached to a slew of recent real estate acquisitions and a police investigation into claims of illegally buried human remains.
Scrutiny of the reclusive sect has further been ramped up thanks to a recently released true-crime podcast called Inside the Tribe – by journalists Tim Elliott, a writer at The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine, and Camille Bianchi – that has heard from dozens of former members claiming incidences of child abuse, labour violations and even illegally buried stillborn babies.
In 2020, NSW Police launched Strike Force Nanegai which uncovered the remains of at least one baby on the Twelve Tribes property at Bigga, near Crookwell. The police search included Peppercorn Creek Farm, but no remains were found there.
This week a police spokesperson said that detectives have referred the matter to the state coroner after the investigation and consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions.
There was no response to calls and messages left with the group this week, but a member working at the sect’s Blue Mountains cafe, the Yellow Deli, who declined to be named, said the sales were a bid to “get out of a heavy debt situation” and that many of the Picton community would join them in Katoomba.
“Basically interest rates are getting ridiculous, and we want to consolidate right now and hedge our bets,” he said. “Consolidate, you might say.”
The Twelve Tribes sprang from the Jesus movement in the US in the early 1970s – founded by former carnival showman-turned-“anointed one” Eugene Spriggs – in which members use the Old Testament as a blueprint for their lives: living communally, shunning modern technology, banning contraception, discouraging medical interventions and expecting women to submit to their husbands.
But it is the sect’s reputation for its harsh corporal punishment of children, even toddlers and babies, and claims of exploitation given that members work for no pay, that has drawn condemnation.
Records show that about 15 years after the sect established itself at Peppercorn Creek Farm the property was transferred to the sect’s holding company, The Community Apostolic Order, for $1, in 2021, complete with a National Australia Bank mortgage.
Less than two years later the farm is for sale with what the marketing describes as an “owner-built, partially constructed house” that has been under construction for more than five years.
The 8.3-hectare site also comes with three large sheds (at least one of which previously housed members), a separate house, the organic farmland where the sect’s green juice is sourced, and a creek. United Acreage’s Shane Brown has a $2.35 million guide ahead of the April 26 auction.
Two kilometres down the road from the farm is the sect’s main business, the Common Ground Bakery that is set into the building that was once the historic Razorback Inn. The group had been renting the 1.65-hectare property since 2015 until 2021 when they bought it for $2.8 million. LJ Hooker Commercial now has a $4 million guide and an April 14 expressions of interest deadline.
The Twelve Tribes also own properties in the Blue Mountains. The popular Yellow Deli in Katoomba, which has been owned by the group’s holding company since 2004, was purchased for $1.5 million.
Another of the sect’s corporate entities, Granite Hill Investments, has owned the landmark Victorian guesthouse, Balmoral House, since 2010, when they bought it for $1.1 million.