A father, his loving wife, daughter and best friend disappeared without a trace from Nannup in Western Australia in 2007 where despite an extensive search by police, amateur sleuths and relatives have found no trace, but raised many of questions in the ten years since all were last seen.
Doomsday Cults are nothing new to the world, with the tragedy that was the Heaven’s Gate in 1997 bringing the realisation of the effects of such cults to the forefront of people’s minds, however, not much was known about an internet based Doomsday Cult operating deep in Western Australia – that was until its leader, Simon Kadwell, partner Chantelle McDougall, and the pairs six-year-old daughter Leela alongside close family friend Antonio Popic, disappeared from the rural property they were renting in Nannup in Western Australia in July 2007.
Simon Kadwell was the shady leader behind the internet-based cult known as The Truth Fellowship, where his small but loyal followers knew him simply as “Si”.
Si helped shape The Truth Fellowship after writing a book titled “Servers of the Divine Plan” where it discussed and preached the prophecy of the birth of a new world of higher consciousness at the end of a 75 000 year cycle.
The religious teachings were compiled and distributed purely by his computer desk in the ramshackle, rented fibro-house where when not delivering online teachings across the groups website and online message boards ‘Si’ was purely unemployed and surfing the internet.
However, in July 2007 the 45-year old disappeared alongside his younger girlfriend Chantelle McDougall, the couples six year old daughter Leela, and their close family friend 42-year old Antonio ‘Tony’ Popic – who lived in a caravan parked at the Nannup property.
The disappearance of the four sparked a massive police hunt that spawned across the state and eventually halfway across the world to Brazil in the search for answers that remain elusive to this day.
The Cult Leader
Simon Kadwell, known to his followers simply as ‘Si’ was a self-styled cult leader who had an online following, by all accounts he was a strange and controlling person who was on anti-psychotic medication.
His former neighbour Bruce Blackburn recalling that Simon Kadwell was “ranting and raving”, strung out and paranoid as he went on about electromagnetic fields.
Mr Blackburn says Simon was paranoid about utility company Western Powers plans to install a power pole with a transformer near by, which Simon Kadwell claimed was the source of larger electromagnetic field readings.
“Simon was paranoid about electromagnetic fields. He was always ranting and raving about them, up to the point where he was breaking out in hives and his face looked as if it was about to burst, it was so red. This went on for four months,” Blackburn said in 2015.
His description paints his neighbour as a Jekyll and Hyde character plagued by irrational fears.
“He began burying a heap of magnets around the place because he believed they diverted these rays away from him. I went up there once and he was yelling at Tony (Popic), who was digging away in the backyard, trying to find the magnets,” Blackburn said.
“The second last time I saw him he was covered in hives. He said they were killing him and his daughter, and he had gone to the doctor to get some sort of medication. He and Tony were off the planet.”
Witnesses describe that such was the power of the smooth talking ‘Si’ that both Ms McDougall and Tony Popic had became brainwashed through the religious ramblings of Simon Kadwell and had become sub-servant to him.
But who was Simon Kadwell? Police investigations into the disappearance of the family soon threw up the first of the cases massive questions.
Simon Kadwell was alive and well living in his native England. Upon questioning Simon Kadwell it had been discovered that his Birth Certificate had been stolen by a former associate named Gary Felton, when a photo of the cult leader was shown to the real Simon Kadwell he identified the man in the photograph as Gary Felton.
It was later revealed that Felton, in May 2007, was pulled over and questioned by traffic officers about his drivers license and identification after receiving a tip-off that he was an imposter.
Police now believe that this could have panicked Felton and may have been the catalyst for the families disappearance just two months later.
Mr Felton’s ability to produce forged documents have led police to question as to whether the four are living elsewhere under false identities, or possibly even travelling elsewhere in the world on the back of false passports.
All Possessions Sold
Police investigating the disappearance originally considered a suicide-pact between them, something ‘Si’ had previously spoken about to a follower on the cults message board, until it was pointed out to him that it would mean killing his child at which point he reportedly went cold on the idea.
But it raised the question about the possibility of the pact actually being followed through on. Baffling police was the fact that Ms McDougall and Mr Felton both sold their vehicles in the days leading up to the disappearance.
Mr Felton sold his car for $1500 without negotiation. Ms McDougall sold her car on July 13th 2007 the day before she was last seen and cashed the cheque at a local bank.
In addition to the sale of the vehicles the couple also sold their two pet dachshund dogs. The woman who brought them on July 14th, Carolyn French, was the last known person to see Ms McDougall before the disappearance.
French testified at the coronial inquest that she had organised to meet Ms McDougall on Sunday July 15th, she had planned to travel from Perth to Nannup, however, on July the 14th the phone rang and it was Mc McDougall who told her “If you want the dogs you must come today.”
Ms French then made the journey to collect the dogs that afternoon, however, upon taking the dogs she forgot to pay.
“She [Ms McDougall} looked nervous, anxious and was acting as if she wanted me to get out of the house,” French told the inquest.
When French arrived home there was a missed call on her house phone from Ms McDougall about the payment, the last phone call to come from the Nannup property, Ms French then made arrangements to transfer the payment.
The following day Ms French attempted to make contact with Ms McDougall to let her know the funds had been transferred and that the dogs were doing well but her call was never returned.
Days later, landlords for the Nannup property found two notes – one written by Mr Popic, the other by Ms McDougall – saying the family had moved to Brazil.
The house had been left spotless, the family had taken their clothes and personal items left behind was simply a half bowl of rice, wallets, credit cards and the notes simply stating they had “Gone to Brazil”.
Reported Sightings, as Mystery Deepens
One of the last known sightings of the group was made on the day the family disappeared, July 13 2007, in Busselton approximately one hour from the families home in Nannup. There they sold their remaining family vehicle to a dealer for the cash amount of $4000 before entering a waiting vehicle – never to have a confirmed sighting of them again.
At that time Tony Popic’s father Joe told investigating police that he had recently given his son $25 000 for what he believed was a legal matter.
Initially investigating police believed that the family had snuck out of the country to New Zealand where they assumed fake identities and travelled to Rio Branco, a Brazilian city known for its large amount of religious cults that both McDougall and Kadwell had discussed in previous conversations before they vanished.
Police revealed that early in their investigation they discovered that a phone call was made from the Nannup home to TransWA on July 12 to book a bus ticket from Bridgetown to Nothcliffe under the name of “Jay Roberts”.
The ticket was never used.
However, two train tickets booked under the same name were redeemed on the morning of July 16 one ticket was travelling from East Perth to Kalgoorlie, the other from Perth to Northcliffe.
It was established that a passenger travelling under the name alighted from the train at Northcliffe, a second passenger boarded the train to Kagoorlie however there was no record that they reached their intended destination.
On July 15th Antonio Popic’s mobile phone was traced to Perth where it was used to call backpackers accommodation, order a pizza and to well known gay bar Court Hotel.
Police believe this was Tony Popic after the Domino’s Pizza delivery driver identified the missing mans photo as the person he delivered pizza to in Kings Park. He was also openly gay and therefore the phone call to Court Hotel also makes sense to investigators.
The mobile phone was also used to call TransWA on July 16th.
A shock twist came at the inquest into the disappearance of the family when Senior Sergeant Gregory Balfour confirmed there were many other reported sightings of the missing foursome that were not followed up during the initial investigation.
Three months after Ms McDougall disappeared, prison workers also reported finding a woman’s T-shirt along with the smell of “dead flesh” in bushland near Northcliffe.
However the report was not fully investigated until 2015, by which time bushfires had swept through the area.
In February 2011, someone by the name of Gary Felton checked into a caravan park in King River, near Albany.
Police attempted to locate every Gary Felton in the country, but none of the men said they had stayed there.
Deadly Plane Crash
Police Investigators have also confirmed that in 2011 they investigated the possibility that the foursome had made it to their destination in Brazil.
Police travelled to Brazil to investigate whether the four were aboard a Brazilian domestic flight which crashed four days after the family had disappeared in 2007, killing all 192 people aboard the plane.
The Tan Airlines flight 3054 from Porto Alegre to Sao Paulo veered off the end of the runway at Sao Paulo Airport, cleared a highway bordering the inner-city airport, slammed into a fuel depot and burst into flames. The resulting heat was so hot that as many as 70 bodies were so badly burnt they were unable to be identified, or not recovered.
However, eventually a joint investigation between Australian and Brazilian authorities concluded the four had not been aboard, and investigations into cults in the Rio Branco area also turned up no sign of them.
What happened to the family?
While the parents of Chantelle McDougall believe their daughter, and grand child is still alive – they go as far as to say they believe all are still in Australia under new identities where the cult leader is doing what he does best “Scamming people online with this cult stuff,”
Senior Sergeant Balfour has stated it was impossible to rule out murder but said: “There’s no evidence to suggest they are dead, just as there’s no evidence to suggest they are alive”.
“We know that Tony was very protective of Chantelle and Leela but we also know they were obedient, submissive to Kadwell. He had a very persuasive way of talking and I think if he had suggested something they would have gone along with it,” he said.
Either way this is one of Australia’s greatest mysteries.
If you have any information that could solve this mystery you are encouraged to call Crime Stoppers.