Million-dollar financial empire of Agape Ministries and Rocco Leo dismantled by order of SA court
CHIEF COURT REPORTER SEAN FEWSTER
June 24, 2012
THE financial empire of the controversial Agape Ministries doomsday cult has been dismantled, ending a three-year District Court saga.
Judge David Lovell today ordered assets belonging to the cult and its fugitive founder, Rocco Leo, be sold off to compensate a former parishioner and the Australian Taxation Office.
the ATO stripped Agape of its legal status as a religion
He further ordered legal costs incurred by the ATO and Silvia Melchiorre, in their pursuit of Agape, be paid from the cult's assets.
Finally, Judge Lovell altered a freezing order that has been in place for three years so Leo - who is living in Fiji - can pay his lawyers and his living expenses.
The parties have been involved in litigation since 2010, when Agape Ministries first came to public attention.
A police raid on Agape-owned properties found batons, fuses, detonators, detonator cords and about 20,000 rounds of high-powered ammunition.
Leo and his inner circle, meanwhile, had fled to Fiji - where they remain to this day.
Ms Melchiorre subsequently sued the cult and Leo, claiming they had duped her out of her $420,000 life savings.
She claimed Leo told her the Earth's population would be impregnated with tiny microchips containing personal information.
Leo allegedly said anyone who refused the chip would be a branded terrorist and be gassed or beheaded in government concentration camps.
Ms Melchiorre claimed Leo promised to keep her safe on ``The Island'', a South Pacific location where he would also heal her profound disabilities.
In August 2010, The Advertiser revealed the scope of Agape's financial empire.
Court documents, filed in support of an application to freeze Leo's assets, asserted:
LEO owned three South Australian properties, including the church's Oakden headquarters, and Butterflies Cafe on Pirie St, Adelaide.
FIVE properties in the Victorian suburbs of Sunshine and Clayton were owned by either Leo, his inner circle or companies in which they held an interest.
THE church ran a fleet of 13 vehicles including a luxury Mercedes sedan, a silver Mercedes coupe and a dual-cab tip-truck.
FUNDS connected to the church were held in one Westpac and nine Commonwealth Bank accounts.
Three months later, the ATO stripped Agape of its legal status as a religion, revoked its tax exemptions and demanded it pay 10 years worth of taxes.
It told the court Leo and Agape owed $4.1 million for 2009-10 alone, and claimed it had tried to "juggle" $5.6 million between its accounts in a "very crude attempt to hide money".
In 2012, the court ordered Ms Melchiorre's $420,000 be refunded and granted her access to Leo's personal banking records to calculate the interest she was owed.
Today Sam Doyle, for Leo and Agape, said the parties had worked together to draft court orders that would finally resolve all matters.
"Essentially, every party gets largely what it wanted," he said.
"The judgment is paid out to Ms Melchiorre, there is a payment of $1 million to the ATO as well as a smaller payment in relation to interest.
"My client has the freezing order varied to pay his legal costs and living expenses."
Judge Lovell further ordered Agape and Leo pay Ms Melchiorre and the ATO's legal costs.
"I would like to congratulate the parties on their herculean effort to resolve these matters," he said.
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