WA Nannup doomsday cult inquest reveals 'bizarre, alternative lifestyle' of missing family

ABC News, Australia/December 8, 2017

By Irena Ceranic

A coronial inquest was set up to shed light on one of the most baffling mysteries in Western Australia this century — the suspected deaths of a WA family linked to a doomsday cult.

But rather than offering up answers for what happened, the family's fate is now shrouded in more mystery, with serious doubt over whether the four missing people are even dead.

Internet cult leader Simon Kadwell, his partner Chantelle McDougall, their five-year-old daughter Leela and friend Antonio Popic, who lived in a caravan on the rural property the family was renting, vanished in July 2007 from the South West WA town of Nannup.

The inquest this week gave an insight into the group's "bizarre, alternative lifestyle".

They told friends and family they were moving to Brazil to join a spiritual community because they felt they did not belong in modern society.

A note saying they had gone to Brazil was the only clue they left behind.

But they have not travelled overseas on their passports and their bank accounts remain untouched.

Prior to their disappearance, Mr Kadwell told a woman in his online cult forum that he was planning a "peaceful" family suicide pact.

When the woman said that would amount to murdering his young daughter, Mr Kadwell reneged on the idea and said they would instead move to an isolated area where they could not be reached.

Over the past decade police have been at a loss as to what happened.

Did the family move to Brazil under false identities? Are they living "off the grid" at an isolated location? Did they take their own lives? Or were they murdered?

The inquest's first witness, police investigator Senior Sergeant Gregory Balfour, said he was not convinced the family was dead and laid bare a series of events that have led police to question their fate.

The cult leader and his false identity

The inquest presented Simon Kadwell, the self-styled cult leader with a following online, as a strange and controlling man who was on anti-psychotic medication.

By witness accounts Mr Popic and Ms McDougall had been brainwashed and were subservient to him.

Following the family's disappearance, police discovered Mr Kadwell had stolen the birth certificate of a former associate in his native England and had assumed his identity.

His real name was Gary Felton.

In May 2007, traffic officers pulled him over and questioned his drivers licence identification after receiving a tip off that he was an imposter.

Police believe that may have caused him to panic and could have been the catalyst for the family's disappearance two months later.

Mr Kadwell's proven ability to falsify his identity prompted concern that the four of them could be living somewhere under assumed names.

Cars, dogs sold and house left spotless

Police also questioned why both Mr Kadwell and Ms McDougall would sell their cars if they were planning a suicide pact.

Mr Kadwell sold his car for $1500 without negotiation. Ms McDougall sold hers on the July 13, the day before she was last seen, and cashed the cheque at the bank.

The couple also sold their two pet dachshund dogs.

 A book cover featuring a big ball of rainbow-coloured light.

The woman who bought them on July 14, Carolyn French, was the last known person to see Ms McDougall.

She testified that she arranged with Ms McDougall to drive from Perth to Nannup on Sunday July 15 to pick up the dogs, but when she rang Ms McDougall the day before to get directions, Ms McDougall said, "No, you must come today."

Ms French drove down that afternoon and said Ms McDougall appeared anxious and eager to hurry her out.

She took the dogs, but forgot to pay.

When she returned home there was a missed call on her landline phone from Ms McDougall.

It was the last call made from the Nannup house.

Mr French called back, apologised and arranged to transfer the funds.

The following day, she phoned Ms McDougall to let her know the dogs were doing well, but her call was never returned.

Days later, the landlords of the farmhouse found two notes — one written by Mr Popic and one by Ms McDougall — saying the family had gone to Brazil.

The house was left spotless, the family had taken their clothing and personal belongings and the only food that was left behind was half a bowl of rice.

The man on the train

When police started wading through evidence to find potential clues into the family's disappearance they discovered a call was made from their Nannup home to TransWA on July 12 to book a bus ticket from Bridgetown to Northcliffe under the name "Jay Roberts."

The ticket was never used.

However, two train tickets booked under that name were redeemed on the morning of July 16 — one going from East Perth to Kalgoorlie, the other from Perth to Northcliffe.

It was established that a passenger under that name got off at Northcliffe, and someone boarded the train to Kalgoorlie, but there's no evidence they got to the final destination.

Mr Popic's mobile phone was traced to Perth on July 15. It was used to call backpackers accommodation, Dominos Pizza and gay bar the Court Hotel.

His drivers licence was also used to check in to a hostel in Northbridge.

Police have not ruled anything out, but say it is likely they were Mr Popic's movements, because the Dominos delivery driver later identified him as the one he delivered a pizza to in Kings Park.

Mr Popic was also gay, so the phone call to the Court Hotel provided a vital clue.

On July 16, his phone was used to call TransWA.

To this day, it has not been established why Mr Popic would try to conceal his identity to catch public transport, or what happened to him after July 16.

The caravan park and the smell of death

Senior Sergeant Gregory Balfour told the inquest there were several reported sightings of the family after July 2007 that were not followed up during the initial investigation.

Three months after Ms McDougall disappeared, prison workers also reported finding a woman's T-shirt along with the smell of "dead flesh" in bushland near Northcliffe.

However the report was not fully investigated until 2015, by which time bushfires had swept through the area.

In February 2011, someone by the name of Gary Felton checked into a caravan park in King River, near Albany.

Police attempted to locate every Gary Felton in the country, but none of the men said they had stayed there.

More questions than answers

Ms McDougall's parents, Jim and Cath, travelled all the way from Victoria to Busselton to find answers, but it has become increasingly likely that they may remain elusive.

Coroner Barry King closed the inquest by saying he could not guarantee he would be able to make a conclusive finding.

"It is difficult to exclude the possibility that somehow all of these people are living somewhere else under assumed names."

He said he hopes to hand down his findings mid next year.

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