Cult leader Rocco Leo nabbed in Fiji after more than a year on the run
Sunday Mail (SA)
June 26 2011
FUGITIVE cult leader Rocco Leo and two other senior members of his church have been arrested following a dramatic commando-style boat raid at a former Fijian resort.
The charismatic head of the Agape Ministries of God, girlfriend Mari Antoinette Veneziano and her brother, Joseph, are being held by Fijian immigration authorities for breaching their visas and are now facing deportation.
Leo will be charged with 117 counts of deceiving another to benefit self
Leo and Mari were arrested at the former Tiri Villas eco-resort in Pacific Harbour, 35km from the Fijian capital of Suva, after a team of police and immigration officers raided the gated complex by sea last Sunday.
Joseph surrendered to police on Tuesday after two days in hiding. Leo, who has not been seen since SA police raided his Adelaide church properties in March last year, appears to have been operating his cult from the secured compound for some time, with its occupants telling locals the complex is now a church.
A 15m yacht was moored at the front of the compound. Police believe Leo and his followers have been using the boat to travel between various Pacific Islands to avoid detection.
Several shipping containers are also dotted around the grounds of the complex, with locals saying the Fijian military also removed several other containers last month.
Fijian immigration sources said local police, the Transitional Crime Unit and immigration officers had been monitoring the cult's activities for the past month.
They had not been charged with any offences but were being detained because their visas had expired.
If Leo is deported to Australia, he will be arrested upon arrival. The Venezianos will be questioned by police over the financial activities of the embattled Agape church, which has been the subject of a Major Fraud Investigation Section inquiry and court actions for the past 14 months.
The Sunday Mail can also reveal that an arrest warrant was taken out against Leo in Adelaide Magistrates Court on May 31 in connection with 126 fraud charges.
That warrant cannot be executed in Fiji because there is no extradition treaty in place. Leo will be charged with 117 counts of deceiving another to benefit self and nine counts of aggravated deceiving another to benefit self.
The alleged offending occurred between March 2006 and October 2008 and involved about $200,000 that had been given to Leo by fellow cult members for a specific purpose, but which he had allegedly diverted for his personal use.
Commercial and Electronic Crime Branch officer in charge Detective Superintendent Jim Jeffery confirmed police had been advised early last week that Leo and two key associates had been taken into custody on "immigration matters" and were monitoring the situation.
"We are waiting to hear as to what the immigration arrangements will be from here with Fiji," he said.
"If Rocco Leo is deported from Fiji to Australia, Major Fraud detectives will execute the first instance warrant that has been issued."
He said SA police had "some time ago" asked Federal Police to liaise with Fijian authorities to locate Leo and his associates and "ascertain the details of any other church members who were with them and particularly if a person registered as a missing person in SA, John Mouhalos, was staying with them".
Fiji immigration director Major Nemani Vuniwaqa said Leo's and the Venezianos' status was considered "illegal" because their visitor's visas had expired.
"They are being held at an undisclosed immigration detention centre," he said.
When asked when they were to be deported, he said no decision had yet been made on when or even if this would happen.
Major Vuniwaqa said immigration officials were now investigating a second group of "foreigners" linked to the trio. It was unknown if missing Adelaide man John Mouhalos, also a senior Agape leader, was among them or even in the country.
Supt Jeffery said detectives still held fears for the safety of Mouhalos, who has been missing for more than a year. Although he does not hold an Australian passport, Immigration has no record of him leaving Australia.
He has not accessed any of his bank accounts and has not been seen by family or friends since March last year. "We do have concerns for his welfare based on these facts," Supt Jeffery said.
"All lines of inquiry need to be pursued and we would like to hear from anyone who has any information on Mr Mouhalos's whereabouts or any other relevant information."
He said if Fijian authorities found no evidence he had been hiding with Leo in Fiji, the situation would be reassessed.
"Common sense would dictate our concerns for him would be even greater than what they are now," he said.
Leo and the Venezianos, who ran the former Butterflies cafe, in Pirie St, have been wanted for questioning since May 21 last year when several properties belonging to the Agape Ministries were raided by 90 police amid allegations of fraud and that weapons were being stockpiled in readiness for being shipped overseas.
The raids uncovered firearms, thousands of rounds of stockpiled ammunition, batons, detonators and detonator cord and resulted in four men being charged with firearms offences. Leo and Joseph Veneziano are facing District Court action initiated by the Australian Taxation Office, and several former Agape members are seeking compensation totalling millions of dollars.
The ATO claims Leo owes it $1.75 million and Veneziano almost $700,000 while Agape's liabilities total another $4 million.
In the District Court last week, Leo was given until Friday to answer two civil lawsuits claiming $1.9 million against him by former cult members.
Master Mark Rice told the court if Leo or his lawyers failed to appear there would be a judgment against him in favour of former parishioners Martin Penney and Silvia Melchiorre, who claim they were duped into giving Leo the $1.9 million.
In Holden Hill Magistrates Court, Leo is also facing assault charges involving a former church member whom he allegedly assaulted at Adelaide Airport in April last year.
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of John Mouhalos is urged to contact BankSA CrimeStoppers on 1800 333 000.
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