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In The Badlands

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Content Warning: Some of the crimes discussed in this article are violent, cruel and graphic in nature

Australia is great for mysteries. There always seems to be something worth unearthing. Did Milat act alone? Did the Dingo really take her baby? What’s in a servo meat pie? My uncle was hitchhiking once and got picked up by Ivan Milat’s brother near Belanglo State Forest. Luckily, he had his dog with him – a Dingo cross. Meat pies did not feature in the story.

But everybody knows the high-profile cases. Australia’s dark zaniness goes back to colonial times and permeates almost every locale in the country; from the rolling Dandenong Ranges and lush Hunter Valley to the grimy streets of 1980’s Adelaide. Here are a couple of crazy, creepy and downright odd happenings from our short, chequered history.


The Family. Or the Santiniketan Park Association. Or the Great White Brotherhood. You shouldn’t really trust a group that can’t decide on a name, and these guys are no exception. Of course, there’s more to dislike about The Family than their inability to settle on a title. They were a new age cult who dabbled in Eastern mysticism, electroshock therapy, hallucinogens, and financial fraud.

Children from Hamilton-Byrne's cult
Children from Hamilton Byrne’s cult (Via the Herald Sun)

And beating the shit out of children. Locking them in dark rooms, tranquilizing them with mysterious German drugs, dying their hair peroxide blonde and giving them bowl cuts. The word ‘starved’ comes up a lot. More common words: LSD, Tegretol (an anti-epileptic with tranquilizing side effects), Psilocybin, Anatensol (tranquilizer), Valium…

The whole story is pretty Manson. The Family was formed in 1961 by Anne-Hamilton Byrne and Doctor Raynor Johnson, Master of Queen’s College at the University of Melbourne. The two of them started holding adult education courses on religion and philosophy at Santiniketan, Johnson’s house in the Dandenong Ranges.

Hamilton-Byrne led. She wasn’t entirely with it. Byrne claimed, repeatedly, that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ or a living god. Buddha and Krishna were similar beings. Through the 60’s, Hamilton-Byrne recruited members from Newhaven Psychiatric Hospital in Kew (dosing them heavily with LSD after induction), and by 1968 had adopted several children.  The children were subjected to beatings, starvation, and were also dosed with LSD and locked in a dark room upon reaching adolescence.  Apparently, the children were meant to carry on Anne’s legacy after the apocalypse.

Which was going to be caused by aliens.

Who would cleanse the world of evil.

The Victorian police raided Hamilton-Byrne’s compound in 1987, removing several children from the residence. Byrne and her husband fled the country, living in New York state’s Catskill mountains until an international police operation managed to extradite the pair to Australia to face charges of perjury and conspiracy to commit fraud.  The Family quickly fell apart – and these days, Byrne rots in a Melbourne nursing home, still wholly unapologetic for her actions.



Did you ever wonder where all your weed really came from? I’m not talking about Pete up the street, or your friend’s mate. I’m talking about the grandfather plant of all Australian pot. I’m talking about the Hunter Valley cannabis infestation of 1963.

w1200_h678_fmaxCannabis Sativa was actually brought to Australia by the First Fleet in 1788, at the request of botanist Joseph Banks.  The grand plan for the colony at the time was that it would become a commercial grower and exporter of hemp, and, nearly a hundred years later, this grand plan was tentatively put into motion. In 1892, the Department of Agriculture distributed a large number of Cannabis Sativa seeds to farmers across NSW as a sort of half-hearted experiment in large-scale hemp cultivation – the price of binding-twine was rising at the time, and the state needed an alternative.

Fast forward about 70 years.

Somebody wandered down into the Hunter River Valley and found an incredibly dense marijuana infestation that covered 3000 hectares and ran for 64 kilometres along the flood plain. We’re obviously not talking about a literal forest of weed – the infestation ranged from isolated plants to 8 continuous hectares of the stuff.

It’s a total mystery as to how so much weed went undiscovered for so long.

Total mystery.

With the Singular Convention on Narcotic Drugs (an internal UN treaty prohibiting the manufacture and supply of specific narcotics, including cannabis) being ratified in 1961, and the Hunter Region quickly gaining status as a legitimate wine producing region (with the release of the first Hunter Semillon: Leo Buring’s Rhine Gold) maybe the upstanding people of the Valley decided that it was time for their thousands of ‘secret’ hectares of illicit vegetable matter to go away.

When the mystery was uncovered, the Department of Agriculture immediately began a systematic search-and-destroy operation at the upstream limit of the infestation. Sydney’s burgeoning bohemian subculture also found a new pastime, with dedicated groups of raiders making the trip north every April and May to harvest the flowering buds of the unusually large plants.

The eradication effort took nine years.

But that’s just because it was a 3000-hectare marijuana infestation.

A totally secret 3000-hectare marijuana infestation.

That nobody knew about.


Not a soul.


Between 1979 and 1983, somebody raped and killed five young men in Adelaide. Well – some-bodies. The Family was a group of high-profile businessmen and community figures, and wholly unlike the aforementioned cult. They got their moniker after a statement made by police to 60 Minutes. Only one member of the Family was ever brought to trial:  Spencer von Einem.

An inquest into the death of Alan Barnes - 1987.
An inquest into the death of Alan Barnes – 1987.

In 1984, Einem was convicted of the 1983 murder of Richard Dallas Kelvin, the fifteen-year-old son of local television personality Rob Kelvin. Einem had kept Richard prisoner for five weeks, drugging and torturing the boy before raping him to

death and dumping the body beside an airfield in Kersbrook.

Kelvin’s death brought attention to a handful of unsolved Adelaide murder cases. The cause of death was the same in three of them (massive blood loss caused by anal injuries) with the fourth being so decomposed that determining what actually killed the individual was impossible. Several of the men – including Alan Barnes, the first known victim – were hitchhikers. Two had been dosed with medical anaesthetic and Quaaludes. One had been subjected to surgery before he died.

A criminal associate of Einem’s pointed police towards several prominent Adelaide figures who he believed had been involved with the murders. One was an Eastern Suburbs businessman who had been seen in the company of Einem and Barnes on the night that Barnes was abducted. When police raided the man’s office, they found an upstairs room that contained only a mattress. His identity has been suppressed by courts since 1990. Another suspect was a doctor who had access to drugs used during the crimes. This individual has since been convicted of child sex abuse in an unrelated case. A former male prostitute was also implicated in the murders.

But nothing stuck. Only Einem went away for his crimes. Australia is a country that sucks people up. Deserts aren’t the only place you can disappear.

There is a $500,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in any of the unsolved Family cases.