Disabled woman wins $500,000 payout from Rocco Leo's Agape Ministries doomsday cult

Adelaide Now/June 5, 2012

A proundly disabled woman has won her $500,000 lawsuit against fugitive cultist Rocco Leo - by default.

The SA District Court this morning ordered Silvia Melchiorre's life savings be repaid out of the assets of Leo and his Agape Ministries organisation.

Costs and interest on the damages are yet to be determined but are, the court heard, likely to exceed $114,000.

Ms Melchiorre claimed Leo duped her into handing over the $420,000 in return for promises he would heal her and save her from global armageddon.

A trial on her claim was due to start today and expected to run into next week.

However, Judge David Lovell entered a default judgment on Ms Melchiorre's behalf because Leo did not attend court - and nor did any lawyers acting on his behalf.

Last week, The Advertiser revealed Leo's previous solicitors had withdrawn from the case because he had failed to respond to their e-mails.

Today's decision delighted Ms Melchiorre's supporters - including Leo's brother, Reno.

Outside court, Reno Leo said he had attended the hearing to be a witness on Ms Melchiorre's behalf.

"I came to support her, and justice has been done," he said.

He said he did not know where his brother was, and had "no contact" with him.

"I'm more than disappointed in him," he said.

Despite her victory, Ms Melchiorre now faces a second legal battle to secure the funds.

Agape Ministries' assets - which span two states, eight properties, a 13-vehicle fleet and 10 separate bank accounts - are currently frozen by court order.

The Australian Taxation Office is pursuing Leo and the cult for more than $4.1 million in alleged debt.

Today David Bulloch, for Ms Melchiorre, offered a solution for the issue.

He said the court could issue a declaration that Leo held Ms Melchiorre's $420,000 in trust.

Therefore, it would never have been an asset of his and so would be immune to the freezing order.

"The concern, in the mind of my client, is that in the context of the ongoing racking up of legal expenses... she could be left short," he said.

"Our proposition is that (the money Leo) said was a gift was always subject to undue influence and, as a consequence, was always the property of Ms Melchiorre."

Judge Lovell said that was an "unusual submission" about which he would need to hear further argument.

He adjourned the case until Wednesday.

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