By Simone Fox Koob, Amelia Adams and Laura Sparkes
Outside a cavernous warehouse on a chilly afternoon on Melbourne’s fringe, two men are praying, one laying his hands on the other.
Surrounded by prime mover trucks being loaded to travel vast distances across the state, one of the men is drug-addled, operating on barely any sleep and insisting he has been cursed by a witch.
Years later, that man would tell a Melbourne courtroom that on this night, he tried to warn his boss that he shouldn’t get behind the wheel. His boss, he would say, responded by “praying in Jesus’ name to take the curse away” and asked him to do just one short trip before returning to the warehouse.
The driver, Mohinder Singh, agreed to go. On that job, he veered violently off one of Melbourne’s busiest freeways. The semi-trailer ploughed into a group of police who had stopped another driver on the side of the road. Four officers were killed instantly.
A joint investigation between The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes can now reveal that Simiona Tuteru, also known as Simon, the trucking boss who prayed with his employee, was a dedicated senior leader and former pastor in a small but devout Pentecostal church which former members have compared to a cult.
The investigation into The Potter’s House Christian Fellowship has revealed a disturbing picture. Operating across suburban Australia and with roots in the US, former members say the church has an unhealthy level of control over the lives of its followers. Hardline indoctrination tactics instil fear about the prospect of hell and the imminent second coming of Jesus. Television and non-Christian movies and music are banned for those who have active roles in the church, and those who leave are completely shunned by remaining members, tearing families and friends apart.
More than 20 former members from across Australia have given extensive interviews exploring how their experience in the organisation had a damaging and traumatising effect on their lives. Many say the link between the Eastern Freeway crash on April 22, 2020 and the church is concerning, and reflects the potential danger of the group’s unshakeable belief that God, prayer and repentance is the answer to healing medical conditions.
They have raised serious concerns about the way physical ailments are linked to different sins and curses by the church. A healing booklet written by the church’s founder links breast cancer to hatred of husbands, unforgiveness and gossip, while cervical cancer is linked to the “curse of promiscuity”.
Healing rituals involving laying of hands and tongues are used to cast out the devil, witchcraft and cure members from illness and “curses” causing them harm. The church did not respond to a request for comment.
Stuart Schulze, the husband of Leading Senior Constable Lynette Taylor, who died in the Eastern Freeway crash, told this masthead he was disturbed to learn about the group and its link to the incident which killed his wife.
“I just couldn’t believe that these people could exist to do these things,” he said. “The beliefs that they have, and the influence they’re having over people ... It’s really quite strange. It’s difficult to understand.”
“I think it’s dangerous for the community. I think there are serious threats to people’s safety when people like that are making decisions that are affecting other people’s lives or their livelihoods or how they go about their work. I think that’s very dangerous.”
When sentencing Singh to jail in 2021, a Supreme Court judge said that what Tuteru did and said on the afternoon of the crash had “significant influence” on the truckie.
Tuteru was initially charged with four counts of manslaughter in the wake of the crash, but these charges were dropped with little explanation by the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions last year.
One charge of failing to comply with duty under heavy vehicle laws remained, however a Supreme Court judge granted a permanent stay on the case in March, ruling that the prosecution had abused the court process by repeatedly changing its case. This decision has been appealed by the DPP and will be heard in June.
The parents of Constable Josh Prestney, 28, who died in the crash, said they were extremely frustrated and angry by the way the court proceedings were unfolding.
“It is beyond belief that the case may never even see the inside of a courtroom or be put to a jury to deliberate on,” said Andrew and Belinda Prestney. “Four families have had their lives ripped apart and nothing will ever be the same for any of us now. The thought that we may walk away without a satisfactory resolution to this case is difficult to comprehend and absolutely heartbreaking.”
The couple said the revelations about Tuteru’s long-term membership of The Potter’s House had also shocked and concerned them.
During a 2021 committal hearing for Tuteru, killer truckie Singh, who was not a member of The Potter’s House, told a court he raised concerns about fatigue, his fitness to drive the night of the crash, and that he had been seeing witches. His boss responded by placing his hands on his head, praying with him to take the witch’s curse away, Singh said.
In his police statement tendered to the court, Singh claimed Tuteru had told him that witches leave voodoo dolls or hair behind, and they searched the car.
“While we were doing this Simon talked to me about witches and curses and how they worked,” Singh said. “After we did the search and didn’t find anything, he placed his hand on my head and prayed – I don’t remember the exact words of the prayer but I do remember at the end of it he said ‘in Jesus name I cast the spell out of you’.
“I also remember while we were searching the car he said that he had experiences with witches in Africa and this is where he learnt how witches work. After he prayed on me he then said – OK you are right to go now – I just need you to do the load to Thomastown and then you can come back – see how you are feeling and go home.”
Tuteru did not respond to requests for comment. He was a missionary for The Potter’s House in Africa and has also been a pastor and held other leadership positions for the church in Victoria.
Former members say the link between Potter’s House and the crash highlights the potential danger of some of Potter’s House’s more extreme teachings, and are calling for more awareness about the little-known church, which they say operates under the radar and claims tax concessions from the charity regulator as it is “advancing religion”.
David Vicary was the former head of The Potter’s House in Australia, but left 15 years ago after concerns about its hardline path. He says over time the organisation began to withdraw from the mainstream Christian church, reducing the ability for outside voices to temper the more extreme views within it.
Vicary, who met Tuteru when they were both in The Potter’s House, believes the church has unhealthy levels of control over its members and behaviourally acts like a cult.
“I really only knew Simon vaguely. But what I knew of him was he was a very warm, friendly, caring sort of person. Quiet, soft-natured, but a good guy, a good person,” he says.
“I think you could summarise Potter’s House as a bad system ... but with good people in it. But the problem is the longer they’re in the system, the more they drink the Kool-Aid, the more chance there is they going to come out with this extreme position.”
”Because there’s no outside voices, there’s no other church leaders, other than Potter’s House, there’s no one speaking into it and saying, ‘hey, do you think you’re getting a bit extreme, or do you think you’re becoming a bit imbalanced with this?’
“They’re never brought to account, they’re never checked … then they just get carried away with their own authority, and then, tragically, these are the sort of things that can happen.”