Part 1: UNSEEN, UNHEARD, UNKNOWN
In 1987 a teenage girl escapes from a remote lakeside compound. She triggers police and community services to raid the property and rescue her brothers and sisters – a group of bleached-blond children – from their isolation. Who are these children? What is this cult called The Family?
After Detective Lex de Man does his own report to persuade his superiors that this is not just a community welfare issue but potentially a criminal one, police set up a taskforce, Operation Forest, to investigate. They are shocked by the potential crimes they uncover – children stolen at birth, physically abused and given mind-altering drugs like LSD. At the heart of this cult is a dark and terrible secret – a bizarre experiment to raise a ‘master race’ of children who will save the world after Armageddon.
We trace the formation of The Family (also called the Great White Brotherhood) by Anne Hamilton-Byrne and her co-founder Dr Raynor Johnson, the Master of Queen’s College, University of Melbourne and a respected member of the establishment. Anne adopts the role of spiritual leader of The Family – a charismatic yoga teacher who uses her charm, wiles and hallucinogenic drugs to recruit Melbourne’s elite including doctors, nurses, lawyers and psychiatrists. How did she control her enablers? How did seemingly reasonable people become entwined in The Family? What were they searching for? Former adult cult members reveal why they were attracted to Anne and the strategies Anne used to maintain control over them, including the role of the private psychiatric hospital, Newhaven that facilitated the use of LSD.
PART 2: A QUESTION OF IDENTITY
A total of twenty-eight children were brought up by the Hamilton-Byrnes, hidden from the outside world at their property on picturesque Lake Eildon, 240km north east of Melbourne. The children rescued from the cult struggle to establish a ‘normal’ life. They discover they have been lied to about the identity of their biological parents. It’s a difficult investigation to match DNA and discover the truth behind forged birth records. Operation Forest is allotted scant resources for such a complex case; sect members refuse to be interviewed and the investigators’ request for a Royal Commission to force witnesses to testify is quickly declined. But police are determined to bring justice to survivors despite the forces stacked against them.
They dig deep into Anne’s past and realise that nothing is as it appears. She has adopted the name Hamilton-Byrne (amongst others) and has changed her appearance through cosmetic surgery. And Anne herself remains elusive. She appears to be residing in an Elizabethan mansion in Kent in the United Kingdom, masquerading as part of the landed gentry. She seems to be living a glamorous tropical lifestyle in Hawaii. She is sighted in the remote Catskill Mountains in upstate New York at a property she has purchased near Swami Muktananda’s ashram.
Then comes the breakthrough. Detectives discover falsified documents, providing the leverage to force the cult’s solicitor to testify against Anne and potentially secure her extradition.
PART 3: IN SEARCH OF JUSTICE
The cult’s solicitor reveals enough evidence for a warrant to be issued for Anne’s arrest and extradition back to Australia. With the assistance of INTERPOL and the FBI, Operation Forest tracks Anne and her husband Bill down to their isolated retreat in the Catskill Mountains, upstate New York and arrests them. Anne pleads a heart condition but when one of Bill’s cellmates is murdered he persuades Anne to return to Australia to face justice.
Their return ignites a media circus. Anne hires a costly legal team to fight the charges all the way to the Court of Appeal. The maximum penalty is a $60,000 fine and a six-month sentence, but the drawn-out court proceedings leave Anne pleading guilty to just one charge and avoiding jail time, with only a $5000 fine.
The survivors of the cult are shattered. How do they move on and rebuild their lives? Despite all the testimony they have given, the system has let them down. The series follows the survivors as they meet their birth families and take on the role of parents themselves while still coming to terms with their own stolen childhoods.
Bill dies in 2001. Unrepentant, Anne leads the cult until her death on 13 June 2019 at the age of 98. There is no public funeral and no headstone.