Story transcripts

The Family

Sunday, July 25, 2004
Reporter: Peter Overton
Producer: Stephen Rice

There's no doubt Anne Hamilton-Byrne is an evil woman. She believes she's the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and runs a sinister cult just outside Melbourne.

For years, she collected children, locked them away from the real world, brainwashed them, abused them, experimented on them body and soul. Children of 13 and 14 were forced to take drugs like LSD. Some had their hair dyed blond to fit this dangerous woman's idea of the perfect family.

But now, those children are adults and they're fighting back. After 30 years, justice may at last be done. Anne Hamilton-Byrne may get what she deserves.


PETER OVERTON: This is Anne Hamilton-Byrne. To her followers, she is Jesus Christ incarnate, the divine one with divine powers. But to those who know the truth, she's a monster.

LEX DE MAN, FORMER DETECTIVE: Of all the crimes that I investigated, she is the most evil person that I've ever met.

PETER OVERTON: Former Victorian detective Lex de Man.

LEX DE MAN: These people truly believe that she is Jesus Christ.

PETER OVERTON: Few outsiders know more about Hamilton-Byrne's cult and the crimes it committed than him. Indescribable cruelty inflicted on young children. This brutal sect known as the Family.

What was the motto of the Family?

LEX DE MAN: The motto — unseen, unknown and unheard.

PETER OVERTON: And that's how it's remained for so many years, protected by the middle-class respectability of so many of its members — doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, all willing to do the bidding of their master.

MAN: I was told to leave my first wife and go up to the hills. I did. I was told to … that I would be going to have a baby with another woman, and I did. I was told...

PETER OVERTON: Sect members gave her their money, their minds and a never-ending supply of children.

LEX DE MAN: One example, one of the children was born to a young mother, 15 years of age. The doctor attending the birth was a sect member. The nurse attending the birth and the midwife were sect members. The child was born, handed to a sect nurse by the doctor, handed to a sect social worker and given into the very arms of Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: My mother was a 15-year-old girl whose doctor was a member of the sect and the doctor organised the adoption, drugged my mother and took me away from her at birth. So my mother had a pillow over her head, was drugged up to the eyeballs and I was just wrenched out of her and taken away.

PETER OVERTON: Taken away and forced to take Hamilton-Byrne's name. Sarah Hamilton-Byrne would grow up believing that Anne was her mum. Within a few years, Hamilton-Byrne had collected at least 14 children, dying their hair blond to convince the outside world they were really brothers and sisters.

LEX DE MAN: Bleached hair blond, singing like the Von Trapp family, living out Anne's fantasy of … in her thoughts, I'm sure it was something like an Aryan race. Horrific.

PETER OVERTON: Lake Eildon is one of Victoria's favourite holiday spots, but the holidaymakers out on their houseboats would never have guessed what was going on behind that thick screen of trees just up there. Up in the hills, children as young as two or three who'd been separated from their natural parents were locked away. These kids could hear the laughter and the fun from the people down here on the lake, but they lived in a very different world. Theirs was a world of fear. Day in, day out, they were savagely beaten for terrible crimes, including — now, wait for it — wetting the bed.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: One morning, we were doing exercises under here and one of the boys was called by one of the aunties from upstairs and he thought he was going to get another beating, and he actually lost control of his bowels and I remember us all watching horrified as he was doing that because we were all just sort of exercising and stuff and wondering what was going to happen to him now from that. He was just literally so terrified.

PETER OVERTON: Was he punished for that?

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Oh, yes, as well. Yes. He was dragged off by the ear for that as well. He actually killed himself too, and his brother. Both of those boys are now dead.

PETER OVERTON: Hamilton-Byrne was often overseas, living in mansions financed by her followers. Back in Australia, it was left to a sinister group of Anne's disciples, known as the aunties, to implement her insane vision.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: This was the bench on which we had the duckings. And they put a bucket on the bench, somewhat like that. And then we were forced to kneel down and three aunties held us down. And we had to bend down and put our heads in the bucket of water.

PETER OVERTON: And why were you nearly drowned in a bucket like that in this area?

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: For stealing food.

PETER OVERTON: Food deprivation was a regular punishment, a form of control.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: There was a bird tray up there and they put bread out for the birds and the crumbs used to fall down and because we were so hungry, we used to sort of scavenge around and get the bits of bread and crumbs and things that fell off. But we were just so hungry all the time. We just scavenged for whatever we could. We ate the grass down there.

PETER OVERTON: And then there were the drugs. The cult regularly forced children as young as 13 into an initiation right called Going Through, massive quantities of the hallucinogenic LSD.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: You were locked in a room completely dark for days and just fed this drug over and over again and people come in … Anne and other of her sect members coming in, telling you to work on yourself and to confess, usually sexual misdemeanours.

PETER OVERTON: What would she say to you?

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: That we had to acknowledge her as Jesus Christ, that we had to acknowledge that I was thinking of sex, that I wanted to be raped, that I was evil.

PETER OVERTON: But Anne Hamilton-Byrne's bizarre world was about to start unravelling.

MARIE MOHR, JOURNALIST: You keep a lot of children in the commune here. Is that right?

ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: No, that's not right at all.

PETER OVERTON: In November 1985, Channel Nine journalist Marie Mohr heard rumours about sightings of children and went to investigate.

MARIE MOHR: There's no children here?


MARIE MOHR: Well, it was a blatant lie. Why do the locals say there's children here? The children remember, the children at the time, who are now adults, of course, they remember my visit. They remember my clothing because they had such … it was such a rare occasion to have an outsider on the property.

PETER OVERTON: But Marie Mohr was alone in her suspicions. On the rare occasions that police went to visit, the sect was always a step ahead.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: When police came, we all had to jump through the hole and hide right at the back there and they had a … it was a small area about 2m by 2m and we'd all have to pile in, one on top of the other, and wait until the police had gone.

PETER OVERTON: How many of you were in there?

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Um, up to 20 of us. We were all piled on top of each other and we just had to stay quiet for a couple of hours until it all died out down and then we'd come out.

PETER OVERTON: But Sarah was about to make a life-changing decision when she realised that Anne Hamilton-Byrne's brutal discipline might actually be killing her little sister Willow.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: She was actually starved so much she was going into comas and if she hadn't stolen the birds' bread and foraged in the dustbins and stuff, she would have died up there. And that's the main reason that I ended up actually agreeing to talk to the police to try and do something about her.

PETER OVERTON: In 1987, alerted by Sarah, the police finally acted, raiding the property and rescuing the children. Now, cult members were flushed out, including Dr Christine Fleming, who had abused her trusted position to facilitate Sarah's adoption.

PETER OVERTON: And Dr John McKay, who'd also helped Hamilton-Byrne adopt a child.

MARIE MOHR: I can't understand why people didn't get suspicious considering even one simple fact — Anne's age. As if they could have been her children. She was too old to have those children.

PETER OVERTON: Yet despite all the evidence, Hamilton-Byrne continued her jet-setting lifestyle, flitting between her New York home, this English manor and her tropical retreat in Hawaii until Marie Mohr tracked her down.

MARIE MOHR: I've been trying to catch up with you for a long time. Have you got any comment now about why you kept those children locked away for so long?

MAN: No comment.


MARIE MOHR: Why not?

MAN: They weren't locked away.

MARIE MOHR: They weren't locked away?

PETER OVERTON: But this was the closest Anne Hamilton-Byrne would get to being called to account for her crimes.

MARIE MOHR: Do you think you have spiritual powers?

ANNE HAMILTON-BYRNE: I don't think I have spiritual powers.

PETER OVERTON: Extradited back to Australia, the so-called Divine One was charged with just one offence — falsifying a statutory declaration.

LEX DE MAN: I never forget walking out of court, the County Court of Melbourne, on the day of the conviction and the day of the $15,000 fine. That was it. It left me gutted. I don't think … justice was done, but in what degree? On a scale of one to 100? Just one.

PETER OVERTON: At the time, sect children like Anouree just wanted to blot out the horror of their upbringing.

ANOUREE CRAWFORD: We want to get on with our lives. We want to forget the past.

PETER OVERTON: But Anouree hasn't been able to forget her past.

ANOUREE CRAWFORD: Maybe when I was younger, I thought everything was going to be alright and I'm going to manage quite well. This is just a short period of time. This is going to stop. This is going to go away. Um, now that I'm 34, I think it's time to actually accept that it's not going to go away.

PETER OVERTON: Fifteen years on, she's launched a civil action against Anne Hamilton-Byrne. The children of the sect are fighting back, and ready to help them is this former detective, who just can't get this case out of his system.

How many pages of evidence did you take in this investigation?

LEX DE MAN: All up, just over 30,000 pages of evidence was compiled.

PETER OVERTON: Since retiring from the Victorian police, Lex de Man, who spent five years pursuing Hamilton-Byrne, has kept every shred of evidence.

LEX DE MAN: Any of this will be available to the children, every last page. This shows the web of lies of Anne Hamilton-Byrne.

PETER OVERTON: All her secrets, and the money trail.

LEX DE MAN: Key to the fortune of property that Anne holds in Australia and the UK, in the US.

PETER OVERTON: In Melbourne's Dandenong Ranges, the reclusive Anne Hamilton-Byrne lives behind this gate. She and perhaps as many as 100 followers are still active.

WOMAN: I will call the police. You are not to go in there. You have been asked not to go in here.

PETER OVERTON: And at Eildon on the property where the children were kept, where Sarah spent 15 years of her life, we found the house occupied by a Hamilton-Byrne supporter.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: It doesn't worry me if the police get called. I wish they'd come quite a few years ago.

PETER OVERTON: Though not involved in the mistreatment, this woman was still ready to defend the indefensible.

WOMAN: I wasn't an auntie, but I know enough about it to know that a lot of the stuff that has been said is totally untrue.

PETER OVERTON: Was some of it true, though?

WOMAN: Totally untrue. No.

PETER OVERTON: No. None of the beatings and the hidings and the drownings?

WOMAN: You've got to be joking.

PETER OVERTON: It's no joke. It did happen. And to this day, the children of the Family live with the consequences. Many have serious psychiatric problems. Some have killed themselves.

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: A lot of the kids say to me that we feel like refugees in this society. We don't feel like we really belong. We don't feel like we were ever really accepted, really dealt with and really given any form of justice from this society.

LEX DE MAN: Their lives have been ruined, ruined, by Anne Hamilton-Byrne, like many others. And ultimately she's got to pay and she's got to pay dearly.

PETER OVERTON: Even at 82 years of age?

LEX DE MAN: Even if she was 98.

PETER OVERTON: So how long have you been out of that place now?

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: It will be 17 years on 14 August.

PETER OVERTON: Do you mark that day in any way?

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Yeah, we call it Freedom Day and most years we celebrate it.

PETER OVERTON: Sarah is now 35 and, against all the odds, is a qualified doctor. But she's still struggling to make her way, still struggling to regain her life.

What's the key thing, the most critical thing that Anne Hamilton-Byrne robbed you of?

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: I think the right to affection and to love, to have a cuddle, to not be beaten, to not be treated like robots, to not be drugged, to not be starved.

PETER OVERTON: Does love feel good?

SARAH HAMILTON-BYRNE: Yes. I'd certainly want to give it to my own children, yeah.

PETER OVERTON: I think you're a remarkable woman, a really remarkable woman.


PETER OVERTON: Really remarkable. And thank you.

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