REAL LIFE

Grandma’s desperate search: ‘My daughter was stolen by a cult’

It's all she asks for this Christmas.

Catherine just wants to know if her precious girls are safe.

Here, Catherine McDougall, tells the story in her own words.

Sharing the memory, Mum’s eyes sparkled with laughter. ‘Let’s be posh ladies for the day!’ my daughter, Chantelle had said, dragging my mother, Vivienne, into David Jones.

Trying on all the fancy hats, they’d adopted aristocratic accents. ‘On the way home, she had the whole train carriage singing Christmas carols,’ Mum recalled.‘That’s my girl!’ I laughed, but my heart ached.

Mum’s flashback was bittersweet. Would I ever see my precious daughter again?

Chantelle and Leela just before they disappeared.
Chantelle and Leela just before they disappeared.

When Chantelle was 17, she met Simon, an Englishman 20 years her senior. At first, she babysat his little boy, but over the course of a few years, they became romantically involved. My husband, Jim, and I hadn’t met him yet, but his influence was clear.

Before, our girl blew everything she earned as a swimming instructor. Now, she no longer believed in material possessions. As long as my daughter was happy, who was I to judge?

‘Mum, we’re having a baby!’ Chantelle announced when she was 22. By now, they’d moved from Vic to WA, so when my granddaughter, Leela, was six weeks old I flew over. Jim was devastated he couldn’t join me at that time, so I took my camera to record the family.

‘You can’t do that – it’ll take my spirit away!’ Simon protested. Oh blimey… I thought. Enamoured with my gorgeous granddaughter, I tried to ignore his eccentricities.

Simon slept all day, barely coming out of his room. And when he did, he made very strange comments. ‘She’s a chosen one – she’s meant to go to a higher plane,’ he mused, gazing at both my girls.

As the years passed, Simon made odd remarks to Jim. ‘Be mindful of what you say to Leela – I don’t want you to corrupt her,’ he’d say. Then Simon showed me a book he’d written, Servers of the Divine Plan. I read in shock as it predicted the world’s end. He can have his ideas… I reasoned to myself, but I couldn’t shake a bad feeling about him.

Meanwhile, Chantelle worked at the local pub and fish and chip shop, and also still taught swimming. At least once a week, she’d call me for a chat or to ask me for recipe ideas. But, in May 2007, heading over to Nannup, the tiny town where they lived, I sensed something was wrong.

Chantelle’s friend, Tony, was living on their property in a caravan, so I stayed at a cabin nearby. By now, Leela was five and an adorable little girl.When it was time to say goodbye, I put on a brave face. But as soon as I drove away, I burst into tears.

Chantelle loved being a mum to Leela
Chantelle loved being a mum to Leela

Back at home, we were celebrating Mum’s 80th birthday when Chantelle, then 27, phoned. ‘We’re going to move to Brazil,’ she told me. Inside, I was reeling, but I tried to stay strong.

Over the next six weeks, we phoned back and forth. Then on July 14, Chantelle called, saying Simon had already left and she and Leela would soon follow.‘Take care, I want to hear from you soon – I love you,’ I told her.

Every time the phone rang, I’d jump thinking it was Chantelle. But it never was. After eight weeks, Jim contacted the Australian Consulate in Brazil. But there was no record of them ever having arrived. When a plane en route to Brazil crashed soon after, I was petrified that Chantelle and Leela were on board. Thankfully, they weren’t.

Reporting our girls missing, we learned that a note had been stuck on their front door. Gone to Brazil… it read, in Chantelle’s writing. They’d left behind wallets, credit cards and there were dirty plates on the table. Their lodger, Tony, had also disappeared and there was no sign of Simon either.

When Christmas rolled around that year, I half expected our usual call from Chantelle. But the phone stayed scarily silent. As the years passed, we made some terrifying discoveries.

An artist's depiction of what Leela might look like now.
(Credit: AFP)

It turns out, Simon had stolen his identity. His real name was Gary Feltham and he was the leader of a doomsday cult called the Truth Fellowship. His 40 disciples dubbed themselves The Forecourt and met online in a forum known as The Gateway.

In 2012, human remains were discovered in Nannup and we spent six torturous weeks waiting for news. But they weren’t related to the case. A decade on from their disappearance, our girls still haven’t come home. Little Leela would now be 16 and Chantelle 37. Each day, I pray they’re happy and healthy, living off the grid. On my darkest days, I imagine the worst. My babies – if you’re out there, please come home for Christmas.

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