A flickering image of a small naked boy, lying tied-up on the bare floor of a room, was the clue that drew the Czech Republic into a tale of child abuse, obscure sects and a mysterious vanishing girl that has shocked and baffled the nation.
The picture was spotted by a father keeping an eye on his baby, when his video monitor received a stray signal from a similar device being used in a neighbouring house in the quiet town of Kurim, close to the south-eastern city of Brno.
When police searched the area on 10 May, sisters Klara and Katerina Mauerova allegedly refused to open a locked door in their home. When firemen broke it down, they found Klara’s eight-year-old son Ondrej inside, bound with duct tape, badly dehydrated and watched over by a video camera. Investigators believed Ondrej had been maltreated for six months, and he was taken into care with his brother Jakub and a girl called Anna, whom a court had allowed Klara Mauerova to adopt in March.
What was just a case of child abuse seized the nation’s attention, however, when Anna disappeared from a children’s home, sparking a search for her in nearby woods and villages.
Then came the bizarre revelation that “Anna” was not a 13-year-old girl, but a 34-year-old woman in disguise. Police believe “Anna” was actually Barbara Skrlova, a friend of the Mauerova sisters who, like them, belongs to a breakaway faction of an organisation called the Grail Movement.
The Grail Movement follows the teachings of Oskar Ernst Bernhardt, a German also known as Abd-ru-shin, who from 1923-38 wrote the Grail Message, which depicts man as a being whose spirit can return to its source in heaven by performing good deeds on Earth. It claims to have at least 10,000 followers worldwide, including several hundred in Britain.
“We broke with the people involved in this 11 years ago, after they added to the Grail Message with their own imaginings and fantasies,” said Artur Zaplukal, spokesman of the Grail Movement in the Czech Republic, where it has about 1,500 followers. “I sent them a letter telling them they were no longer part of the Grail Movement.”
Amid constant twists to a case that is being called one of the strangest in Czech criminal history, police now say they believe “Anna” never really existed.
Investigators think that when Klara Mauerova appealed to a court for custody of Anna, whom she said had been abandoned by her family, the daughter of a fellow cult member pretended to be the young girl.
They then gave the newly created identity of Anna to Ms Skrlova – so she could be groomed for a leading role in the sect.
“The community probably wanted to turn her into an idol for worship,” one policeman told the national Czech newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes.
Social workers say Ondrej and Jakub now appear to be fine, and the search continues for “Anna”, who becomes more mysterious by the day.
This week, President Vaclav Klaus received a nine-page letter defending Ondrej’s mother, from someone claiming to be the missing Anna. “I have a feeling someone is playing a very strange game with us,” said the bemused Mr Klaus.