To some, Anne Hamilton-Byrne was a yoga teacher with a penchant for plastic surgery. To others, she was the evil leader of The Family, an apocalyptic cult with about 500 followers and more than 28 children. Some of the children were stolen at birth from unwed mothers, while others were the children of cult members.
Now, some of victims are speaking out. Peter Van Sant brings you their dramatic stories on "48 Hours: The Family" to be broadcast Saturday at 9 p.m. on CBS 6.
In the two-hour broadcast, Van Sant and "48 Hours" track the cult from Melbourne, Australia to the Catskills region of New York State.
"48 Hours: The Family" is a terrifying story of one woman’s attempt to build a perfect race through a collection of 28 children, some who were forced to have their hair bleached blonde, who were home-schooled on an isolated property, and who were injected with LSD as part of an initiation ritual.
“They were mean. They starved us. They beat us,” says Leeanne Creese, who lived in the cult from birth until she was 17. “They did all sorts of horrible things to us.”
It’s also the story of incredible determination of a detective in Australia and an agent at the FBI to stop Hamilton-Byrne before the victim count could get higher.
“She’s the most evil person that I’ve ever met,” says Lex de Man, a former detective with the Victoria Police Department in Melbourne, Australia, who spent years trying to stop Hamilton-Byrne and her husband Bill Hamilton-Byrne.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne formed The Family in 1963. She changed some of the children’s names to her own and in some cases made other followers leave their marriages to have children with new partners she selected. Some members of The Family gave their babies to her. But some came from unwed mothers, who were tricked into signing over their newborns to be raised by the cult, police say. Hamilton-Byrne was helped by members of The Family, who were doctors and nurses at a nearby hospital. The children of the cult, now adults, tell 48 HOURS harrowing stories of the treatment they received by some of the women known as “Aunties,” loyal cult members who cared for the children. Many of the children had no idea who their real parents were until the cult was broken up.
But in 1987, after years of rumors and speculation about what was going on under Hamilton-Byrne’s guidance, police stormed a rural property in Australia to rescue seven abused kids. But because there was no physical evidence and no prior police reports, the “Aunties” who had abused the children only faced charges relating to welfare fraud. Bill Hamilton-Byrne joined his wife overseas and for years their whereabouts was unknown to authorities in Australia.
Finding Bill and Anne Hamilton-Byrne became de Man’s obsession. He received a break in the case when Anne called one of the children who grew up in the cult from the US. Enter FBI Special Agent Hilda Kogut in New York who would track her down to a farmhouse in the Catskills region.
How was The Family able to thrive in Melbourne for so many years and why did it take so long for Australian officials to respond? And would those children of the cult ever get justice?
“Even today,” de Man tells Van Sant, “The Family still lives in Australia. It still exists. There are still followers.”