Seemingly happy couple died after meeting WA cult leader

Two seemingly happy Canadian backpackers took their own lives shortly after meeting the WA-based leader of a doomsday cult who disappeared a decade ago, an inquest has heard.

 

The revelations were made at the coronial inquest into one of Australia's most baffling missing person's cases, the disappearance of 45-year-old Gary Felton, who went by the stolen identity Simon Kadwell, his partner Chantelle McDougall, 27, their daughter Leela, 5, and friend Tony Popic.

The Canadian couple, Kirk Helgason and Alixander Fominoff, were in their 20s, and while holidaying went to Nannup in southwest WA to meet "Mr Kadwell" because they were devoted to his philosophical teachings.

Warren Sunkar ran a backpacker hostel where the pair stayed, and became friends with them.

Chantelle McDougall, 27, and her five-year-old daughter Leela vanished almost a decade ago. Photo: 7 News

He also knew the self-styled new age spiritual leader Mr Kadwell and told the inquest he liked him but wrote his own books about philosophy.

"Kirk and Alixander had similar beliefs to Simon," Mr Sunkar said.

"They were good, young kids that enjoyed discussing philosophy and ended up becoming really good friends."

However, Ms Fominoff took her own life back in Canada on July 24, 2007, a week after the four went missing.

A month later on August 26 Mr Helgason and another woman, Christina Arnott, also died of a drug overdose in Massachusetts in the US.

Gary Felton, a self-styled spiritual leader who went by the alias Simon Kadwell, predicted a looming doomsday or judgment day. Photo: 7 News

Mr Sunkar rejected the suggestion Mr Kadwell was running a "death cult", saying he liked his beliefs in a "catharsis" on earth, people "waking up to what was going on in society", that there was something greater and the system was crashing.

However, the inquest also heard Mr Kadwell did not believe suicide existed, instead writing that people could move between the physical and spiritual realm.

He appeared to be depressed and despondent in his online writing leading up to his disappearance, with the inquest earlier hearing he was planning a suicide pact involving Ms McDougall, Leela and Mr Popic.

Mr Felton tried to ban Leela from seeing her grandparents, who would "poison her". Photo: 7 News

Mr Sunkar also described a strange phone conversation with Ms McDougall several weeks before she disappeared when he rang her because he heard a rumour Mr Kadwell had died.

She would not confirm it, saying "is that what they said?"

Ms McDougall's Nannup friend Eleanor McKie told the inquest Mr Kadwell was controlling and she believed he had brainwashed her, as the previously bubbly Ms McDougall talked about "not belonging or wanting to be here".

The police investigation failed to find any evidence of the four, who left a note and told people saying they were going to a commune in Brazil.

Friend Tony Popic also went missing with the mother and daughter. Photo: 7 News

The last known movements were known from phone calls made about the time of their disappearance from the Nannup house and Mr Popic's mobile in which trains and buses to Kalgoorlie and Northcliffe were booked under the name Jay Roberts, along with a Perth hostel, taxi and pizza delivery.

Their bank accounts were never accessed and credit cards, furniture and computers and electronic items were left in the house, although clothes were taken and the house had been cleaned.

Justine Anne Smith lived in a harem arrangement with a religious cult leader and has described how Mr Kadwell was the head of a household that included three women he was in sexual relationships with.

Ms Smith said suicide was never a spiritual driver for Mr Kadwell and his beliefs, although he had written of planning a suicide pact and had attempted it in his youth.

When the group disappeared they left all of their furniture in the Nannup farmhouse they rented. Photo: 7 News

"I believe it is more likely they are in hiding," she told a coronial inquest in Busselton.

"It is strange they would want to hide their suicide."

She believes Mr Kadwell was running from something in his past, possibly involving stealing money and the stolen UK identity, and he had a previous minor fraud conviction.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14. Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

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