Zealots ready for battle in Adelaide Hills

Sunday Mail, Australia/May 23, 2010

Members of the Agape doomsday cult were being trained in marksmanship at a specially designed gun range at their secret Adelaide Hills compound, a former follower has claimed.

The former member, who asked to be known only as Trevor, said children as young as six were included in the groups of about a dozen people who visited the Kuitpo farm, where shooting practice and training regularly took place.

He also told the Sunday Mail:

Calls for weapons were made by Agape Ministries leaders in a bid to create a defence against police who might storm the organisation's HQ and "take members captive".

Firearms were gathered by cult members, many of whom belonged to gun clubs.

Other churches were aware of Agape's weapon stockpiling, with one pastor pleading with his congregation to pray for the Agape members to "come to their senses."

Trevor spoke to the Sunday Mail yesterday as police continued to investigate the cult after officers uncovered a cache of weapons and ammunition during the week in raids on 13 properties linked to the organisation.

He said he had joined the group with his wife and children a number of years ago after being told that leader Rocco Leo had a "direct contact with God".

The family attended Leo's church weekly until Trevor became uneasy after discovering Leo "proclaimed to be God", and attempted to stockpile weapons. "Rocco actually put out his feelers through the congregation to get some firearms, as much as they could get, whatever they could get," Trevor said.

He explained Leo's motives as: "If the police ever took anyone - congregation members - captive, they would attack and get them out."

He said he and his family were not involved in the gun-gathering.

He said cult members, including women and children, were taken to Agape's Kuitpo compound in groups of about 12 to be taught "how to shoot properly" at a specially designed firing range - although he could not say if the youngsters had handled the guns.

"They were doing shooting practices up at Kuitpo, they were learning how to shoot properly," Trevor said. "They used to go, maybe 10 people, 12, 13 maybe; sometimes they would even sleep there, women went there too, children too.

"I know a guy who was practising nearly shot himself in the foot, so I think they scaled down after that.

"After that, we were told by Rock (Leo) to go and start learning how to use a gun and learn how to shoot. This is when the farm became obsolete and the island (Vanuatu) came into play.

"We were told to go learn how to shoot because if the natives that are there (on Vanuatu) uprise, we were to defend ourselves; the main thing was just to wipe them out and take over the whole island - that's why the weapons were there."

Today Tonight reporter Frank Pangallo, who has been investigating the cult, said the group planned to take over the island and run it like a "paramilitary organisation".

Members arriving on Vanuatu were told they would have to rip up their passports, throw away their mobile phones and cut off contact with family and friends back home.

No options would be given to leave the island, where a "three strikes and you're out" rule would see members "stoned to death" if they transgressed the teachings of the church three times.

Another church insider, who asked not to be named, told the Sunday Mail Leo was backed by two men, one of whom is aged in his 50s and is known as The Enforcer.

Neither of the men can be named for legal reasons.

The insider said The Enforcer was a "nice guy" with an aggressive streak. "He was a very depressive person, his moods would change; but when he was normal, he was a likeable person," he said.

He was descibed as "more a leader than a follower" who went on to work in the security industry and seemed to want to "prove himself". Another former member, who also did not want to be named, said unless followers agreed with Leo 100 per cent, they were considered "possessed". "You ask one question, you're dead or you go to hell. That's how bad he was," he said.

Another former worshipper at the cult's Oakden headquarters has spoken about the "con" used by Leo to encourage members to part with their money.

The woman said the "con artist" referred to the Bible saying people should contribute 10 per cent of their income to the church.

"At services they'd play videos of testimonials from people who said they had experienced miracles and he would promise to perform miracles for others," she said.

The woman said Leo claimed the donated money was spent on helping others but a room had recently been fully renovated like a "palace".

"It looked like a palace, it had marble fittings, huge mirrors and huge lighting fixtures like chandeliers - I think it was used for entertaining," she said.

As well as a wife, Leo was understood to have a girlfriend - Mari Antoinette Veneziano, former manager of now defunct Pirie St coffee shop Butterflies Cafe.

Mari's brother, Joe, was also said to be a close associate of Leo.

It is understood Leo was in Fiji during the week with Ms Veneziano and her brother.

Superintendent Jim Jeffery said police knew the location of Leo and "two of his close leaders", and said they would attempt to speak to them "at an appropriate time". Four male cult members have already been charged with firearms offences.

Senator Nick Xenophon said yesterday new laws regarding cults should be introduced.

"This highlights the need for anti-cult laws, as they have in Europe, where an organisation can be declared a cult and the people under the influence of the cult can be protected," he said.

"This cult has been enjoying tax-free status; if you're registered as a religion in Australia, you don't have to pay tax, the rules around disclosure are very different, there's a lack of accountability."

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