Court's patience running out with fugitive cult leader
June 23 2011
Fugitive cult leader Rocco Leo may be forced to pay damages to former members of his religious group if he does not instruct a lawyer to attend a court hearing next week.
Pastor Leo and two other Agape Ministries leaders, Joe and Marie Veneziano, are being sued in the Adelaide District Court by two former members of the group.
Leo has been on the run from authorities since April last year
They claim they were brainwashed into giving all their assets to Agape based on a doomsday scenario.
Disabled woman Silvana Melchiorre claims she was made to sell her house and give all the proceeds to Agape, a total of more than $400,000.
She claimed in court documents Leo and Agape made false representations she would be healed and saved from damnation and that she was particularly vulnerable to those suggestions.
Another former member, Martin Penny, claims he gave more than $1 million, also under false pretences.
The civil claims allege members were brainwashed into thinking a new world order was pending and they all would be doomed.
It is alleged members were told they would have microchips inserted, the government would use these to control them and they would go to hell if they allowed it to happen.
They allegedly were told the government would force them into concentration camps if they refused the microchips and they would be killed.
Leo allegedly promised to save the members by moving them to a Pacific island, but said he needed money to build infrastructure.
In a hearing before Master Mark Rice, lawyers for the plaintiffs said they were becoming frustrated by the lack of progress with the case.
The court heard Leo and other defendants failed to instruct lawyers to attend the previous two hearings on their behalf.
There is an outstanding warrant for Leo's arrest that was issued in criminal proceedings in Holden Hill Magistrates Court, where he failed to turn up to face an assault charge.
Leo has been on the run from authorities since April last year when police raided properties linked with Agape Ministries.
The District Court previously heard Leo had been in contact with his lawyers by email but more recently stopped instructing them.
Master Rice said the delays were unacceptable and agreed with the plaintiffs' lawyers a default judgment should be entered against the defendants if they were unrepresented at the next hearing.
"This is hopeless, I'm being messed around, everyone is being messed around. Either they front up to court or get a lawyer to front up on their behalf or they get a default judgment, those are the options," Master Rice said.
The court heard the defendants had millions of dollars in the bank they could use to pay the plaintiffs if a default judgment were handed down.
All Australian-based assets of the defendants, which include a substantial property portfolio, are frozen by court order.
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