Lawyers defending fugitive cult leader Rocco Leo against a $420,000 lawsuit have withdrawn from the case.
Australia’s The Advertiser reports that Leo
subsequently made an 11th-hour, closed-court bid to derail the start of the case, which has already cost former parishioner Silvia Melchiorre $40,000 in court costs.
Transcripts show the District Court was unimpressed, ordering that the trial proceed, regardless of whether Leo found new counsel or appeared in court personally. […]
Ms Melchiorre, a stroke victim, is suing Leo over donations made while a member of his controversial Agape Ministries.
She claims he falsely promised to take her to a South Pacific island where she would be healed and protected from global armageddon.
Three weeks ago, Leo – who is in Fiji – settled an $800,000 dispute with another former follower.
He is still battling the Australian Taxation Office over a $4.1 million debt and is wanted on assault charges.
Court transcripts show that, on Tuesday, Leo’s lawyers were permitted to withdraw from the Melchiorre case because he had “not replied to a series” of emails seeking hisÂ Â instructions.
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, allegedly telling them 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.
They say Leo promised them aan new life on an island in Vuatu to save them from the end of the world.
Police say several followers have sold properties and provided the money to help fund the plan.
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.
The Australian Taxation Office is pursuing Leo and his associates for $4.1 million after it stripped Agape Ministries of its tax-exempt legal status as a religion.
[Financial amounts reflect Australian dollars. Convert to US dollars / other currencies]