The Most Dangerous Man
July 11, 2011
EXPLORE the extraordinary story behind whistleblower
in The Most Dangerous Man In The World.
Anne Hamilton-Byrne led a secretive sect that called itself The Family, or The Great White Brotherhood. At one time she had twenty-eight children. Some of them were hers but most had been adopted, a number of them through false papers. From what has been learned about the sect it would be safe to say that what it did was as close to evil as it’s possible to be.
Hamilton-Byrne was certainly delusional. Not content with being the ‘reincarnation of Jesus Christ’ she suggested she was related to French aristocracy. Her elegant clothes and long flowing hair meant she may have looked the part but, like a great deal of her life, it was built on fantasy.
lawyers, teachers, nurses and doctors swelled the ranks
Anne Hamilton-Byrne was in fact Evelyn Edwards, one of seven children born to a railway engine cleaner in Sale, Victoria. It appears her family had a history of mental illness. Her mother was known for setting fire to her hair and talking to the dead. Other relatives were institutionalised and her aunt suffered from psychiatric problems, too.
In the 1960s Anne Hamilton-Byrne developed an interest in Hatha Yoga, and for a while she taught it in Melbourne. By all accounts the business worked well. Exactly how she started The Family isn’t clear, but like many sects this one had a benign beginning. Its first meetings were held on a property near Ferntree Gully west of Melbourne, owned by the then head of Queen’s College at Melbourne University, Dr Raynor Johnson.
Perhaps Johnson chose the area to settle because it reminded him of his north of England birthplace. Ferntree Gully, with its European-style gardens, is famous for its lack of native vegetation. At between 400 and 500 metres above sea level, it is also one of the wettest suburbs of Melbourne. However, the house had one major benefit - its remoteness from prying eyes.
After retiring from Melbourne University, Johnson began giving lectures to discuss the problems of human spirituality. How he got the crowds in is difficult to imagine, with lectures called ‘The Macrocosm and the Microcosm’, but he did. It was said Dr Johnson’s goal was to ‘understand the meaning of life’ and that ‘he was always ready to help others in their quest’. These lectures are possibly where Hamilton-Byrne got to hear about him, or it might have been because Hamilton-Byrne’s second husband worked for Johnson as a gardener. According to one of Hamilton-Byrne’s ‘children’, she apparently turned up on Johnson’s doorstep one Sunday and soon after, the Family was born.
Its recruits came from a broad section of the community: lawyers, teachers, nurses and doctors swelled the ranks. A particularly strong recruiting ground turned out to be Newhaven private psychiatric hospital in the Melbourne suburb of Kew. The owner was a member of the cult and Anne Hamilton-Byrne was given a place on the board. Patients, often at their most vulnerable, were given experimental treatment as they struggled with their psychiatric illnesses. The treatment included heavy doses of LSD - a drug much favoured by Hamilton-Byrne. The hospital proved to be a highly successful recruitment for the Family.
Hamilton-Byrne bought land next door, naming it after the Johnson’s property Sentiniken Park - Hindu for ‘Peaceful Abode’. She also splashed out a sizeable sum of money for a home on the shores of Lake Eildon. The drive there, along winding roads and through kilometres of rocky and forested countryside, takes about three and a half hours. But every year thousands of holidaymakers believe it’s worth the trip, as they head out of Melbourne eager to enjoy the camping grounds and the fresh mountain air of the Dandenong Ranges. Set in acres of wooded bushland the house would have made a perfect holiday retreat. But the double-storey, wood-panelled home with panoramic views of the lake would instead be used for hiding children, and much worse.
In Hamilton-Byrne’s mind they were a happy family. The children were dressed alike and had their hair dyed blonde, reinforcing the impression that they were all related. As Victorian police officer Lex De Man (who later investigated the sect) told the Australian Sixty Minutes program: ‘Bleached blonde hair, singing like the Von Trapp family, living out Anne’s fantasy of - in her thoughts, I’m sure - it was something like an Aryan race. Horrific.’
As holiday-makers just a few hundred metres away enjoyed life on the lake, there was no joy for the children. Instead, they were subjected to sadistic attacks. For wetting their beds they were beaten unmercifully with a collection of instruments - pieces of wood with nails and canes specially designed to cut the skin. Sometimes the children were hit in front of the others as a warning. In her book Unseen, Unheard, Unknown (the sect’s motto) Sarah Hamilton-Byrne, taken from her mother at birth, says: ‘We watched them trying to stifle their sobs, trying to be brave. And then, almost inevitably, we watched them break down, howling and screaming for mercy.’ For failing to do a menial task, or for too much weight gain, they were starved; forced to ‘miss’ several meals at a time. A word out of place could mean being sent outside to sleep on the ground in sometimes freezing temperatures.
Yet what the children feared most was something that many cultures celebrate - puberty. They knew that they would be subjected to horrific experiments. Locked in a dark room they were forced to take LSD while Hamilton-Byrne and psychiatrists or doctors who were members of the sect looked on. There they humiliated the children as they struggled to deal with the effects of the hallucinogenic drug, which Anne Hamilton-Byrne said would ‘cleanse their spirit’.
Sometimes Hamilton-Byrne targeted ‘special qualities’ which she called ‘blocks’ to enlightenment. The children were supposed to ‘look at’ these and ‘work on’ them while under the influence of the drug. The effect was terrifying for a fourteen-year-old. Sarah remembers examining her hands in the dimness of the room. ‘They were shining and then the skin seemed to writhe and crawl off my hands like it had become maggots feeding on a corpse.’ Through this drug-induced haze, ‘Anne appeared God-like’ and even ‘said she was Jesus Christ’.
In her twisted logic, Hamilton-Byrne told them the discipline would make them into better human beings. Instead it turned them into tragic and terrified individuals fearful of the world - and psychologically damaged. Only in the past few years have some of the children, now adults, managed to speak about what happened. Little wonder it’s taken them so much time. When they went to the police all those years ago no one believed their stories. They were returned to the Eildon Lake house, and severely beaten. In 1987 police raided the house, but by then Hamilton-Byrne and her husband had fled. For the next six years they stayed one step ahead of the law as agencies from Australia, the United States and Great Britain tried to track them down. Eventually they were arrested by the FBI, hiding out in a Midwest American town, traced after making phone calls to Australia. Extradited to Melbourne they were charged with conspiracy to defraud, perjury and falsely registering the births of unrelated children as their own triplets. The Hamilton-Byrnes pleaded guilty to the lesser charges and were fined a paltry $5000. They were never charged with child abuse, according to Lex De Man, because the victims were ‘so damaged they would never have been able to withstand cross-examination in the witness box’.
The Assange family escaped the devastating impact of The Family. Assange said neither he, nor his mother or half-brother, had ever been involved in the cult. Christine said she could not be completely sure Hamilton was a member of The Family, but he behaved very oddly at times, dyed his hair blond and bore a striking resemblance to Anne Hamilton-Byrne before ‘she had her face lift’. Keith Hamilton had also used the surname Meynel - the same name as Hamilton Byrne’s supposed favourite poet, Alice Meynel. For Christine, that was more than enough evidence.
During the period they hid, Assange said he was told Hamilton used several different identities. They were forced to change their hiding place, sometimes very suddenly. He says he believed The Family had a large network of people and they ‘always managed to find out where we were’. But the Assange family managed to stay ahead in the chase.
One of many houses Christine rented while they were on the run happened to be across the road from an electronics shop. At just eleven years old, Assange was already showing extraordinary mathematical capabilities. He would go to the shop and write programs on its Commodore 64. One of the first mass-produced computers, the Commodore 64 was the model T Ford of its day. He sharpened his skills, unravelling well-known programs and discovering how they were written. Encouraging her son’s extraordinary capabilities, Christine bought the computer for him. The price of nearly $600 might not be much in today’s money, but back then it was several weeks’ wages. Such was the cost of this computer that Christine had to move the family to cheaper accommodation to pay for it. It was a sacrifice that would have far-reaching effects, something they never could have envisaged as the single mother and her two boys continued their nomadic existence.
Assange had a searing intellect that set him apart from most children. He gave an insight into that life on his blog IQ.org (an eclectic collection of political musings and aphorisms), citing findings that ‘children with IQs up to 150 get along in the ordinary course of school life quite well, achieving excellent marks without serious effort’. But children who rose above an IQ of 170 were liable to regard school with indifference or with positive dislike. Assange had an IQ ‘in excess of 170’ according to a friend. Christine said she understood very well the problems Julian faced as a child with a ‘high level of genius’. He got easily bored and when he suffered from an illness similar to glandular fever she took the opportunity of taking him out of school. For eighteen months he was home-schooled by specialist teachers. His academic life took off. By the time he returned to school he had taught himself machine code - a computer programming language.
Over the next few years after high school Assange became more closely drawn to the subterranean culture spawned by the dawn of the computer age. It allowed him to interact with the outside world, without having to personally engage with those he contacted. It was reminiscent of his high school days where Assange’s bookishness earned him the title ‘The Prof’ among his contemporaries. He said he liked learning ‘and telling people what I learnt’ so The Prof was ‘a kind of natural label to use’. Assange wrote of himself and a teenage friend: ‘We were bright sensitive kids who didn’t fit into the dominant subculture and fiercely castigated those who did as irredeemable boneheads.’
In 1987 Assange added the equivalent of mag wheels and a hotted-up engine to his computer. A modem transformed it from a machine that mainly played games to a supercharged device that could link directly to other computers. The World Wide Web, and the Internet didn’t exist then - but computer networks and telecom systems were already connected in a little known subterranean system. And Assange desperately wanted to find the key that would let him in. By the age of sixteen, Julian, his mother and half-brother were living on the outskirts of Melbourne. The town of Emerald, forty kilometres south-east of Melbourne, was a perfect place for an artist like Christine. Famed for its steam train, Puffing Billy, which carries thousands of tourists on a gentle journey along the twisting tracks from Emerald, over picturesque bridges spanning idyllic valleys to Belgrave, it is also home to a vibrant theatre community.
While Christine continued her artistic work, Julian would head to his room - and his computer. He had teamed up with two other teenagers just as obsessed by the exciting new world of computerisation, and more importantly, with hacking. They sent simple messages to each other’s computers and talked about expanding their knowledge. Back then hackers were seen as oddities in society, certainly not the major threat they are today. Not wanting the world to mistake them for wimpy nerds they would call themselves The International Subversives.
Though they didn’t realise it at the time, Melbourne would provide just what The International Subversives needed. It wasn’t just, as Assange half-jokingly pointed out to me, ‘The weather and the beaches were bad and that’s what kept people indoors’. There were other more serious reasons. Melbourne is seen as the intellectual capital of Australia, as well as the centre of a collectivist culture and politically active community. But there was something else far more prosaic that made this group of Australians among world leaders in the art of computer hacking.
Back in those days, high-speed cables and wireless were still twenty years away. The hackers connected to each other in the same way Graham Bell did when he made his first phone call, by a pair of copper wires. What set Australia apart from many other nations was the fact that local phone calls were cheap. And better than that, the price was fixed. For just a few cents you could have the connection between several computers open for days on end. It didn’t matter if they were in different cities or even different states - the cost would still be the price of a local call.
As Assange points out, people using computers in other countries were ‘paying [for] every second’. In Australia, the cheap local calls provided the perfect environment for The International Subversives ‘to develop their skills and training without paying for it’.
They didn’t just talk to each other; they picked the brains of the best and brightest to help them better understand the fast-developing electronic world around them. They used what were known as BBS - bulletin boards to post messages for anyone to read. The BBS was likened to a community information board outside the local town hall, where passersby could read what was posted, or add their own comments.
For the group, the title ‘International’ caused its biggest challenge. It’s relatively easy to be a local subversive, but if they were going to be true to their name they would have to make it overseas - which effectively meant in the United States. Assange remembers: ‘Back then there was no Internet. [It] was just in an embryonic pre-Internet stage. There was Internet in the United States but [it was] not connected to Australia.’
First they had to find a way to add a considerable amount of grunt to their still somewhat puny computer systems. The easiest way to get more power back then was to piggyback on another computer. There were a couple of easy options: one was just down the road - the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT). An imposing institution, it had been among the first to embrace the beginnings of computerisation. Students were given their own accounts and access codes, which enabled them to hack into the RMIT mainframe. The International Subversives didn’t do any damage, they just wandered around to see what was there. But then they started using their RMIT accounts to attack other institutions.
Four hundred kilometres north of Melbourne, Canberra is home to the Australian National University (ANU). Set amid sprawling grounds, it was established to provide Australia’s federal administration and government with a local intellectual hub to draw on. As a university heavily driven by research, it demanded and got some of the best computers at the dawn of the Internet age that could crunch numbers and information faster than anything else on earth. Naturally enough, Assange and the International Subversives were keen on getting inside, and not just to look around.
In Melbourne the Australian Federal Police (AFP) had been tipped off about the activities of The International Subversives. They had no idea who they were but they knew what these hackers were after. They wanted processing power to further their ability of getting into other computer systems. And that is exactly what the ANU computer could give them. Ken Day understood the problem only too well. He’d been commissioned to set up the Australian Federal Police Computer Crime Investigation Unit. Under-resourced at the start, he’d resorted to using superseded computers that a local bank had destined for the rubbish tip. ‘We just had to make do with what we could get our hands on,’ he says. ‘Computer crime back then wasn’t seen as being sexy or worth spending money on.’
When Assange and the others broke into the ANU computer system, their elation at having cracked the code must have been tempered by the discovery that, despite its lack of resources, the AFP was on their tail. As Day put it: ‘We were watching them watching us.’
Assange was now nineteen years old and had moved out of home to live with his girlfriend. They soon had a son, Daniel, but Assange still found time for The International Subversives. The group started a magazine under the same name, which was solely distributed to contributors.
The Most Dangerous Man in the World by Andrew Fowler. Published by Melbourne University Publishing
Buy the e-book: http://itunes.apple.com/au/book/the-most-dangerous-man-in/id427704401?mt=11
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