Coronial inquest into missing four from Nannup

Missing persons Chantelle and Leela McDougall, Antonio Popic and Gary Felton (aka cult leader Simon Kadwell).

Missing persons Chantelle and Leela McDougall, Antonio Popic and Gary Felton (aka cult leader Simon Kadwell).

The mother and grandmother of missing persons Chantelle and Leela McDougall told a coronial inquest investigating their disappearance that she was “living a nightmare.” 

The last time Catherine McDougall spoke to her daughter on the phone was July 14, 2007 when Chantelle told her they were moving to Brazil.

Chantelle and Leela lived at a farmhouse in Nannup with Leela’s father Gary Felton (aka cult leader Simon Kadwell), and friend Antonio Popic. 

The group were part of a global internet-based doomsday cult called The Truth Fellowship led by Mr Felton who had written books telling his followers to prepare for judgement day. 

The inquest was told the cult believed that a few chosen people would travel to other universes or dimensions but, in order to do that, they must leave their bodies.

Police psychologist Kris Geisen said that was another way of saying suicide – that they must die.

Catherine McDougall at a coronial inquest in Busselton investigating the disapperance of her daughter Chantelle and granddaughter Leela.

Catherine McDougall at a coronial inquest in Busselton investigating the disapperance of her daughter Chantelle and granddaughter Leela.

On July 19, 2007 landlords of the Nannup property Lyndon and Elizabeth Crouch found a note from Chantelle on the door of their rented farmhouse.

The note informed them they had left and would not be returning. A second note found in a caravan on the property where Mr Popic lived told the landlords that they had moved to Brazil.

The house was left spotless, other than a bucket of rice and furniture, all their possessions were gone.

Months later Chantelle, Leela, Mr Popic and Mr Felton would be listed as missing persons in a case that has baffled police for more than a decade.

What happened to the group after they abandoned their Nannup home remains unknown. The inquest heard they had a suicide pact but a search by police failed to uncover any human remains.

Police do know that no members of the group left the country (using their names).

Questions remain whether they moved to another area, potentially using false names to hide their identities or could possibly be living somewhere remote off the grid.

Or were they murdered?

In the days leading up to the disappearance the group had sold their cars and dogs. On July 13, the day before the last known sighting of Chantelle, she deposited a cheque at the Commonwealth Bank in Busselton. 

How Chantelle made her way back to Nannup remains a mystery. Their bank accounts have never been accessed since the disappearance.

On July 14, 2007 Perth woman Cathryn French drove to the Nannup home to buy their dogs. It was the last known time Chantelle was seen alive.

Ms French told Coroner Barry King she had prior phone conversations with both Chantelle and Mr Felton who said they were immigrating to Brazil. Ms French was a travel agent and offered advice to Mr Felton who rejected her help.

When emails to Mr Felton bounced back, Ms French phoned Chantelle about the dogs. Chantelle told her that Mr Felton had already left. Ms French phoned Chantelle again about picking up the dogs and was told to come that day as they were leaving.

When she arrived at the home around 2pm she went inside with Chantelle to get the dogs’ belongings and thought it was strange that the house was still furnished if they were moving. 

Ms French asked about her daughter Leela, who she did not see at the home, she was told Leela was unwell, that she was with their roommate in the caravan and needed to go to hospital.

While Ms French was at the home, Chantelle disappeared into another room which was later revealed to be Mr Felton’s bedroom.

When Chantelle came out, Ms French said she appeared anxious and she felt like she was trying to hurry her away. 

On her drive back to Perth Ms French realised she had forgotten to pay for the dogs. She had a missed call from Chantelle when she arrived home and called her back to arrange the payment.

A few days later, Ms French received a phone call from a woman wanting to know why she had called that number.

WA Police senior sergeant Gregory Balfour at the coronial inquest in Busselton.

WA Police senior sergeant Gregory Balfour at the coronial inquest in Busselton.

During the police investigation senior sergeant Gregory Balfour said they discovered a phone call was made from the house on July 12 to purchase a bus ticket in the name of Jay Roberts. The ticket from Bridgetown to Northcliffe was never used.

Senior sergeant Balfour also said that Mr Popic’s mobile phone and identification were used in Perth on July 15 to book accommodation at a Northbridge backpackers. 

A pizza delivery driver also told police that he delivered a pizza to Mr Popic in Kings Park that evening.

Senior Sergeant Balfour said police discovered two train tickets in the name of Jay Roberts were used on July 16. One went from East Perth to Kalgoorlie, the other from Perth to Northcliffe.

There is no evidence that the person got off the train in Kalgoorlie but police were certain the person using the name Jay Roberts did in Northcliffe.

Mr Felton was known to use a false identity. Senior sergeant Gregory Balfour told the coroner that Mr Felton had assumed the identity of a British man named Simon Kadwell, a former colleague in the UK. 

Mr Felton obtained a British passport in the name of Simon Kadwell and travelled between India, Australia and the UK. 

He met Chantelle at an ashram in Melbourne around 1997, they moved to WA with Mr Felton’s partner, at the time, Deborah and their son to live a communal lifestyle before they all moved to the UK.

Former cult member Justine Smith had been liaising with Mr Felton while he was in the UK and fell in love with him.

She told the coroner she first came across the cult leader after she was given a copy of his book from his former partner Deborah. She met her at a women’s psychotherapy group in Perth along with Chantelle.

At the inquest, Ms Smith said, Mr Felton invited her to live in the UK where she met his family. 

Ms Smith knew Mr Felton as Simon Kadwell and found it odd that his family kept calling him Gary. When she questioned Mr Felton about this and he told her he had an adopted friend with a different name and had taken on his name.

Ms Smith agreed to return to Perth with the group who all moved into the same Floreat home were it became apparent that Mr Felton was having intimate relationships with all three women. 

Deborah was the first to leave, with senior sergeant Balfour saying at the inquest, she felt Mr Felton was narcissistic.

Soon after Chantelle became pregnant with Mr Felton’s child, after the birth of Leela, Ms Smith said she started to reassess her values and saw a psychologist to help her leave.

“I thought it was a cult at times. He was telling me what to do, he could influence my thinking, he was challenging me. I thought he was possibly manipulating me. He was a controlling person in Floreat and we were his followers.

Justine Smith

Ms Smith told the inquest that Mr Felton would pretend to be other people online, often using the names of people they knew to “shake up forums.” 

When Ms Smith did leave, Mr Felton scared her when she left for work one morning, physically threatening her. The incident was reported to police but no further action was taken.

When Chantelle and Mr Felton were living in Nannup they met fellow spiritual believer Warren Sunkar, a local who also wrote books about his spiritual beliefs.

Mr Sunkar ran a backpackers in Nannup when two Canadians Kirk Helgason and Alixander Fominoff came to stay. The couple were in Nannup to meet with Mr Felton and were followers of his philosophical beliefs. 

On July 24, a week after the disappearance Ms Fominoff committed suicide in Canada. A month later Mr Helgason and another woman died in the US.

Mr Sunkar told the coroner before the four went missing from Nannup he heard through an internet friend in the US that Mr Felton had committed suicide.

He phoned Chantelle to see if she was okay, she replied, ‘is that what they are saying.’

Mr Sunkar thought the response was weird and when he asked if he she needed anything, Chantelle said that the police were at the house.

My first impression was that he topped himself on the property somewhere, it was only later that I heard someone took off on a train. I got confused. I thought Mr Felton was dead. About four weeks later I saw on the news they were missing. I thought it was weird.

Warren Sunkar

Mr Sunkar believes they may have shied away from society, after leaving Nannup, because of all the media attention the case was given after their disappearance.

During the inquest police psychologist Kris Giesen told the coroner she believed the group members were likely dead based on evidence she examined on the group’s disappearance. 

A significant factor for Ms Giesen was that Chantelle and Leela had not been in contact with their mother and grandmother.

She also said in the lead up to the disappearance Mr Popic had settled his affairs, which suggested he was no longer here.

Ms Giesen described Mr Felton as a person who exerted control by isolating and manipulating people. She said it was possible

Mr Felton was paranoid, delusional, believed he had spiritual superiority, was self-righteous and could have been a psychopath, schizoid or suffering from bipolar. 

Ms Geisen said the Brazil story was clumsy and made up to avoid scrutiny and questions and it was possible the group never travelled far from Nannup.

When questioned by Coroner Barry King if the group could still be alive she said if Mr Felton was still alive he would have popped up in online forums although it was possible he could be using a false alias. 

She said it would not be hard for Mr Felton to assume another identity and start over again where no-one knew him.

A statement from Mr Popic’s family which was read out at the inquest warned people who felt like they been dealt a tough blow to walk away from self-proclaiming prophets and asked for people to stop selling Mr Felton’s books.

This story ‘Living a nightmare’ first appeared on Busselton-Dunsborough Mail.

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