It's one of Australia's most baffling cases - a mother, her daughter and friend who disappeared while under the spell of a cult leader. Now, a retired cop has lifted the lid on what he thinks REALLY happened

Daily Mail, Australia/May 17, 2024

By Stephen Gibbs

A retired policeman is on a mission to solve one of Australia's most baffling missing persons cases, which began 17 years ago with the disappearance of an entire household who were members of a doomsday cult.

Barry McIntosh, whose interest in the case is personal, served 35 years with Victoria Police and hopes to search a remote patch of Western Australian bushland with cadaver dogs.

Mr McIntosh is the uncle of Chantelle McDougall, who was last seen alive in July 2007 with her British-born partner Gary Felton, their six-year-old daughter Leela and friend Tony Popic.  

Ms McDougall, 27, had fallen under the spell of 45-year-old Felton, a self-styled spiritualist who had assumed the identity of an English workmate called Simon Kadwell.

At the time of their disappearance, Ms McDougall and Leela had been living with Felton in a rundown farmhouse at Nannup, about 280km south of Perth, with 42-year-old Mr Popic.

Mr McIntosh is convinced Felton was involved in the deaths of his niece, her daughter and Mr Popic and is determined to find their bodies.

'[Felton] spoke of providing Chantelle and Leela with a drug that would provide a peaceful death and that Tony would bury them all,' he says.
'Tony would then walk into the bush to take his own life.'

The charismatic Felton - 'Si' to his acolytes - was the founder of Truth Fellowship and had 40 online followers of what has been described as an international doomsday cult.

Felton called his followers The Forecourt and spoke to them through a chatroom known as The Gateway where they would discuss teachings from his book, Servers of the Divine Plan.

That book warned about Earth's pending doom but promised a new world of higher consciousness once a 75,000-year 'cycle' had run its course.

Neighbours at Nannup said 'off the planet' Felton was obsessed with electromagnetic fields and deeply paranoid.

Felton, who did not work and relied on the subservient Ms McDougall and Mr Popic for financial support, slept during the day and stayed up all night on his computer.

Nannup local Eleanor McKie would later tell an inquest Mr Kadwell had brainwashed her friend Ms McDougall, who talked about 'not belonging or wanting to be here'.

Felton told members of The Forecourt he was planning a suicide pact with Ms McDougall and Mr Popic which would involve the murder of his daughter.

He had also spoken of moving to Brazil with his Nannup 'servers' to live an alternative lifestyle in an Amazonian commune.

Felton was last seen on July 13, 2007 with Ms McDougall, Leela and Mr Popic at Busselton, a coastal city about 60km north-west of Nannup.

They sold a car to a dealer for $4,000 and drove off in a waiting vehicle.

Three days after the group walked out of the house, landlord Elizabeth Crouch found a note on the front door which said: 'Gone to Brazil'.

Ms Crouch said the group had sold their dogs, given away their chickens and left the property spotless. They had taken all their clothes but left behind their credit cards, furniture and electronic gadgets.

Immigration records showed no sign of any of the foursome ever having left the country and their bank accounts have remained untouched.

If the missing four did die as part of a suicide pact, they were not the only followers of Felton to meet an unfortunate demise.  

Canadian backpackers Alixander Fominoff and Kirk Helgason, both aged in their 20s, were devoted to Felton's teachings and visited him on a trip to Australia.

On July 24, just 11 days after the foursome was last seen, Ms Fominoff killed herself in her homeland. A month later on August 26, Mr Helgason and his girlfriend died of an overdose in the US.

The last phone calls from the Nannup address and Mr Popic's mobile were used to book trains and buses to Kalgoorlie and Northcliffe under the name Jay Roberts.

Kalgoorlie is 790km north-east of Nannup, and Northcliffe about 100km south.

Months after the group disappeared, prison workers found a woman's T-shirt near Northcliffe which was seized by police but never forensically tested.

Police initially suspected the foursome had fled to New Zealand before making their way to South America.

Ms McDougall's parents Jim and Cathy initially believed their daughter was hiding out somewhere under the control of their spiritual guide.

'I think he's probably got them hiding somewhere while he is up to his usual tricks of getting money off people by scamming them over the internet with this cult stuff,' Mr McDougall said in 2010.

A year later detectives investigated whether the foursome had made it to Brazil and were onboard a plane which crashed four days after their last sighting.

Tan Airlines flight 3054 from Porto Alegre to Sao Paolo had veered of the runway upon landing and burst into a flames, killing all 187 passengers and crew as well as 12 people on the ground.

A joint Australian-Brazilian investigation concluded the foursome was not among the dead, despite more than 70 of the bodies being badly burnt they could not be identified.

In 2013, police revealed a man identifying himself as Mr Popic booked into a backpackers hostel in Perth just two days after the group left Nannup for the last time.

That man had caught a train to Perth from Bunbury the afternoon he arrived at the hostel and caught another train to Kalgoorlie the next morning. 

Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Balfour said the man could have been Mr Popic, Felton, or someone else entirely.

'It's such a bizarre story and we have as little an idea of their whereabouts today as we did in 2007 when they disappeared,' Senior Sergeant Balfour said at the time.

'There's no evidence to suggest they are dead, just as there's no evidence to suggest they are alive.

'We know that Tony was very protective of Chantelle and Leela but we also know they were obedient, submissive to Kadwell.

'He had a very persuasive way of talking and I think if he had suggested something they would have gone along with it.'

A coronial inquest was held at Busselton in December 2017 when conflicting evidence was given about Felton's state of mind.

One witness said Felton did not believe suicide even existed, instead writing that people could move between a physical and spiritual realm.

Before moving to Nannup, Felton had  been head of a harem in Perth where he engaged in sexual relationships with three women including Ms McDougall.

Justine Anne Smith, who had been part of that domestic arrangement in Perth, said the guru had never considered suicide a 'spiritual diver'.

'I believe it is more likely they are in hiding,' she told the inquest. 'It is strange they would want to hide their suicide.'

In May 2018, Coroner Barry King said he could not establish beyond reasonable doubt that any of the missing four had died.

Mr King found there was uncorroborated and vague evidence suggesting Felton had stolen money in the past, which could provide a motive for his disappearance.

He had skimmed through some of Felton's writings and encountered language 'grandiose and replete with hyperbole and unsupported assertions, some of which appeared bizarre'.

Mr King said investigative opportunities such as examining the T-shirt found near Northcliffe and the surrounding bushland had not been followed up.

Mr McIntosh, who worked in Victoria's major crime squads including homicide, received a copy of the investigation file after he inquest and has conducted a review of those documents.

He has now launched a GoFundMe appeal to raise $5,000 so he can travel to Western Australia to make further inquiries and undertake his own search, particularly around Northcliffe.

'Despite two police investigations and a Coroner's inquest, Chantelle and Leela remain missing,' he wrote.

'My sister and brother-in-law, Cathy and Jimmy McDougall, have lived for the last 17 years without knowing where their daughter and granddaughter are and what their fate was.'

Mr McIntosh said it was presumed his niece was dead and buried somewhere in the Western Australian bush with her daughter and Mr Popic.

'I will attempt to utilise cadaver dogs to search a particular area of bush that Western Australia Police failed to properly identify,' he wrote in his appeal.

'We are not a rich family and cannot self-fund my investigation, please help end the uncertainty for my sister and brother-in-law.

'Chantelle was a loving mother and would not have taken the life of her daughter Leela. Leela was a bubbly and cheeky six-year-old girl who loved swimming and her dogs.'

Mr McIntosh is seeking $5,000 to pay for travel, hiring a vehicle and accommodation in caravan parks.

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