Former doomsday cult member settles lawsuit against fugitive cult leader

Religion News Blog — Fugitive cult leader Rocco Leo has settled a lawsuit with a former member who sued him over donations to the doomsday cult.

Court documents in the lawsuit filed by businessman Martin Penney allege Leo convinced him he would be poisoned and killed by the government unless he handed over $1.2 million.

Leo told members of Agape Ministries the earth’s population would soon be impregnated with tiny microchips that would hold their personal information.

Those who refused the chip would be branded terrorists and gassed or beheaded in government-run concentration camps.

Penney alleged Leo warned that those people who chose to be micro-chipped would also die from slow-release poison hidden within the devices.

All in all he handed over $820,000 in cash, as well as $132,000 in equipment — including a $42,000 Ford Fairlane — and $250,000 in free labor.


The businessman sued Leo for $1.2 million, plus damages, costs and interest. In settlement talks he later reduced his claim to $866,000.

Lawyers today told Adelaide District Court that the two men have settled their claim under a confidential agreement.

DOOMSDAY CULT

Rocco Leo fled to Fiji in May 2010, just before police raided his Agape Ministries properties where they discovered thousands of rounds of ammunition and guns.

Former followers claim Leo preached a doomsday scenario, promising them a new life on an island in Vanuatu to save them from the end of the world.

Police say followers have sold properties and provided the money to help fund the plan.

Leo was arrested in Fiji in June last year, along with his closest associates Mari Antoinette Veneziano and her brother Joseph, for visa breaches.

In July that year South Australian authorities said they will not pursue Leo over 126 fraud allegations after a review determined there were no reasonable prospects of a conviction.

At the time Director of Public Prosecutions Stephen Pallaras said the case involved about 30 witnesses, but that investigations been hindered by a reluctance of former Agape Ministries members to speak out against Leo.

Pallaras said the authorities “were dealing with people in a religious sect who may not have as their highest priority assisting police.”

But Pallaras said prosecutors would consider any fresh evidence that became available.

LEGAL WOES

Leo’s legal woes are far from over, though.

The Australian Taxation Office is pursuing Leo and his associates for $4.1 million after it striped Agape Ministries of its tax-exempt legal status as a religion.

In June a court will hear the lawsuit of Silvia Melchiorre against Leo and Joe and Marie Antoinette Veneziano.

Ms. Melchiorre was left in a wheelchair after suffering a series of strokes caused by a brain tumour, leaving her with a “restricted capacity to read and communicate”.

According to her lawsuit the cult leader manipulated the woman into handing over her life savings by convincing her of the doomsday scenario. She was told she would die a horrible death if she did not manage to escape Australia.

Court documents allege Leo told the woman her only other option was to accompany him an fellow Agape Ministries members to their South Pacific island, where she would be healed.

“The healing waters of The Island would cure the plaintiff and would be able to walk again,” her lawsuit says.

Ms. Melchiorre is suing for $500,000, including the $420,000 she handed over after selling her house, lost rental income, costs and damages.

Meanwhile, a arrest warrant for Leo remains active over assault charges dating back to April 2010, when he allegedly attacked the estranged husband of one of his followers.

[Financial amounts reflect Australian dollars. Convert to US dollars / other currencies]

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This post was last updated: May. 7, 2012