New fears for safety of missing cult family

The West Australian/May 31, 2009

AWA family linked to an internet cult who disappeared almost two years ago have not used their bank accounts or contacted relatives, raising fears they have been murdered.

Investigators initially believed that former internet cult leader Englishman Simon Kadwell, 46, Chantelle McDougall, 28, their daughter Leela, eight, and a friend Tony Popic, 42, may have sneaked out of the country to New Zealand before travelling to Rio Branco, a Brazilian city known for its religious cults.

But it is understood the WA Police missing person's squad has uncovered no evidence that the group have left the country.

They were last seen on July 13, 2007, in Busselton, where they sold a car for $4000 to a local dealer and drove away in a waiting car.

Chantelle's father, Jim McDougall, said yesterday that his fears for the wellbeing of his daughter and granddaughter were growing by the day.

With Leela featuring in a national missing children's campaign that started on Monday, he said he still hoped that they would be found.

But he could not understand why Chantelle had not contacted him or his wife Kath in almost two years or how they could survive for such a long time without using their bank accounts.

The couple, who live in Wodonga, Victoria, have printed 1000 missing person's flyers featuring photos of Chantelle and Leela and will set off in July on a three-month trip from Victoria to Cape York in Queensland, plastering the posters along the way.

"As every day goes by and I don't hear from Chantelle it gets a bit harder to keep going," Mr McDougall said.

"She was very close to both me and her mother so to not have heard from her for almost two years does make us very worried for her and Leela.

"It's always in your mind that something may have happened (to them). I try not to think about it and just hope that we will hear from them soon."

While living in WA, Mr Kadwell operated a secretive doomsday internet forum called The Gateway. He was called Si in the chat forum, which involved about 40 members around the world, who referred to themselves as "the Forecourt" - a religious reference to the place where believers wait for "judgment day".

Ms McDougall's parents have accused Mr Kadwell of brainwashing and seducing their daughter when, as a 17-year-old, she started babysitting for him and his partner, Deborah, in 1998.

The teenager had been introduced to Mr Kadwell and Deborah through friends in Victoria and would follow them to WA, Britain and back. By September 2000, Mr Kadwell, Deborah, their son Daniel and Ms McDougall were living in WA.

The same year, Ms McDougall, who was pregnant, and Mr Kadwell moved to a rented house in Floreat, where they continued to believe that the planet was on "red alert" and it was time for "awakening servers of the divine plan" to come forward.

Mr Popic moved in with them. With baby Leela, the couple and Mr Popic moved to Denmark. In 2004, the group shifted to Nannup, where Ms McDougall worked at a fish and chip shop and taught swimming, while Mr Popic lived in a caravan at the rear of their property.

Mr McDougall said yesterday that his daughter had told him during their last conversation on the day they disappeared that they were going to live in a small religious community on the outskirts of Rio Branco.

When the owner of their Nannup property went to the house in the days after they left the town, he found a note on the front door which read "Gone to Brazil".

But given that police had no evidence that they had left the country, Mr McDougall believed that the Brazil trip was probably a cover story. "We were always worried that Simon would take off with Chantelle and Leela one day," he said. "Simon seemed to have control over Chantelle and she would do whatever he said. All we want to know now is that they are OK and safe. We won't give up hope."

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