Before last week’s coronial inquest into the baffling disappearance of a cult leader and his family a decade ago, the favoured theory was that they had taken their own lives in the West Australian bush in a suicide pact.
That could well be what happened.
But as witness after witness told the inquest they believed the group were still alive, enough doubt was raised to have Coroner Barry King wondering whether they were still alive and living “under assumed names”.
Gary Felton, 45, who had stolen the identity of a former colleague in his native England and was now known as Simon Kadwell, disappeared with partner Chantelle McDougall, 27, their daughter Leela, five, and friend Tony Popic, 42, from their home in the WA logging town of Nannup in July 2007.
They left a note saying they’d “gone to Brazil” to live in a commune.
There have been no confirmed sightings since, despite a global search.
Bank accounts were untouched and the clinically depressed, self-styled guru had posted to followers on his website that he was planning a suicide pact that he called a “peaceful death”.
After the three-day inquest in Busselton, Coroner Barry King indicated he would not be able to make a conclusive finding about whether the group were dead or not.
Mr Kadwell possessed the extraordinary charisma typical of cult leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh, which can brainwash and control others.
He was living in Perth at one stage in a harem situation with three women, including Ms McDougall and Deborah Fleischer, who he had a son with.
The third woman, Justine Anne Smith, told how the women were all earning income and supporting Felton, who did not work.
She was in love with him and believed she was improving as a person by subscribing to his beliefs, which were a mishmash of traditional and New Age religion and conspiracy theories involving aliens, reptilians and a looming doomsday or judgment day.
Felton was controlling, discouraging the women from contacting their families, which included barring McDougall’s parents from seeing their granddaughter Leela, so her mind would not be “corrupted” or “poisoned”.
“I thought of it as a cult at times … when I tried to break away emotionally I didn’t know anymore (how to make decisions), because he would control what you were doing,” she said, adding that an angry Felton once physically held her against a wall after she left him.
“I think it’s more likely they would be in hiding, based on how I knew them,” she said.
A seemingly happy, young Canadian couple in their 20s who were followers of Felton and went to southwest WA to meet him in the year before he disappeared later took their own lives.
Alixander Fominoff died back in Canada on July 24, 2007, a week after Mr Kadwell went missing, while Mr Helgason and another woman, Christina Arnott, died a month later through a drug overdose in the US state of Massachusetts.
“They were good, young kids that enjoyed discussing philosophy and ended up becoming really good friends,” said Warren Sunkar, who became friends with the pair when they stayed at the backpacker hostel he managed.
Mr Sunkar also knew and liked Mr Kadwell as they both had written books about new age philosophy.
However, Mr Sunkar’s sister told police she believed the deaths were connected to Mr Kadwell’s influence.
In Nannaup Mr Kadwell was regarded as a controlling weirdo who didn’t work and slept all day after staying up at night on his computer.
A subservient Ms McDougall and Mr Popic earned income, were relatively popular and regarded as hardworking around town.
Lead investigator Senior Sergeant Greg Balfour told the inquest he could strongly argue for or against the group still being alive, in a case detectives described as the strangest they have ever been involved in.
However, police clinical psychologist Kris Giesen, who analysed the behaviour and personalities of the group, believes they are all dead.
She told the inquest she thought they followed through with the suicide pact to “ascend” to another dimension, in line with Mr Kadwell’s beliefs.
Supporting that theory is that police believe two train tickets and a bus ticket to Kalgoorlie and Northcliffe under the false name Jay Roberts were used by members of the group around the time of their disappearance.
No evidence was found they were in Brazil or left the country, and the last known traces were phone calls made from Popic’s phone in Perth around July 15, including to book a local backpacker’s hostel, to a gay pub The Court Hotel and to order a pizza.
There was the discovery of a t-shirt around Northcliffe that smelt of burnt flesh a few months later and was lost before police examined it, and the fact that a person checked into a caravan park in King River, near Albany in 2011, under the name Gary Felton.
Other people that had met the four such as Ms Smith and their landlord Elizabeth Crouch believed they were still alive, asking why they would hide their suicide, or why no bodies were ever found.
Sen-Sgt Balfour points out Mr Kadwell knew how to vanish, one example being when he disappeared with ex-girlfriend Ms Fleischer before her family found them at an ashram in India.
The catalyst might have been him fearing he would be exposed after being stopped by police while driving in Nannup.
The group sold their cars and dogs before leaving a clean, “spotless” house, and took clothing, but left behind furniture, their computer and other gadgets.
One of the saddest moments came during Ms Crouch’s evidence.
“I think I have a relationship similar to what Chantelle had with her mother and I couldn’t go 10 days without speaking to my mother,” she said, as an emotional Catherine McDougall looked on.
Parents Catherine and Jim McDougall, who travelled from Victoria, said it was difficult to relive the events, but they would never give up looking for their daughter and granddaughter.
Chantelle had been only 19, young and naive, but headstrong in her views about life when she met Mr Kadwell, they said.
“I get mixed feelings, sometimes I think they’ve just gone off the grid and hiding somewhere just living their quiet lifestyle, then sometimes I think something happened to them,” Catherine McDougall said.