Jan 28, 2017

Swiss fundraising pays for Agape charity's 'economic and spiritual crusade' in Fiji

Adelaide Now
January 28, 2017

THE fugitive Agape doomsday cult appears to be rebuilding its empire in Fiji with funding sourced from bingo nights in the Italian-speaking regions of Switzerland.

A joint investigation by the Sunday Mail and the tio.ch/20 Minuti Ticino newspaper has uncovered a source of finance relied upon by cult leader Rocco Leo for the past four years.

A charity run by an entrepreneur and former parishioner raises money through bingo nights for the cult’s “charitable work” in Fiji — where Leo has lived since fleeing Adelaide in 2010.

Charity bingo or “tombola” is legal in the canton of Ticino, and the industry is worth up to 150,000 Swiss Francs (AUD $198,000) annually.

The industry is overseen by the Ticino Police’s authorisations service, which does not make public its records of how much each charity raises.

Agape’s group, South Pacific Charity, is one of the biggest groups involved and has organised between 75 and 100 bingo nights annually since 2012.

Until this week, Leo was listed as its director and its chairman was Ticino entrepreneur Lorenzo Lettieri — who, in a bizarre twist, is suing the cultist in the South Australian courts.

Mr Lettieri is part of a group of self-described former Agape parishioners seeking a slice of the cult’s remaining $9 million, which has been frozen by court order.

After Mr Lettieri was contacted by the Sunday Mail and tio.ch/20 Minuti Ticino, Leo’s name was delisted as director from the charity’s online registration.

Agape came to public attention in 2010 when a police raid of its South Australian properties discovered weapons, ammunition and detonators.

Its assets — spread across two states and multiple bank accounts — were frozen as its strange doctrines of human microchipping and global armageddon were uncovered.

Former members said Leo promised salvation from doomsday, and the healing of personal ailments, on “The Island” — his facility in the South Pacific.

Leo fled Adelaide in defiance of an arrest warrant and took up residence in the Pacific Harbour eco-resort, 35km from the Fijian capital of Suva.

The subsequent sale of Agape’s assets and repayment of its creditors, in 2014, was thought to have dismantled the cult.

Last year, however, the Australian Taxation Office uncovered a further $9 million in assets which it, Leo and Mr Lettieri’s group have each sought to claim in court.

This month, investigations into Ticino’s charity bingo scene revealed Leo’s involvement with South Pacific Charity.

The organisation operates two near-identical websites — one in Italian, the other in English — featuring several photographs of Leo in Fiji.

The English-language site, Whitehorse Ministries and Charities, says it is based in Suva.

It preaches a “non-denominational message of freely helping one’s neighbour” to alleviate “poverty, sickness and helplessness”.

Whitehorse Ministries is based upon a 30-plus year foundation of non denominational Christian Ministry around the world,” it says.

“It was born out of this heartfelt desire to see people set free by the power of goodness.

“Our dedicated volunteers, from around the world are precisely those that have been transformed personally because of a major need in their lives.

“(They) have decided to commit their lives, livelihoods and trade skills to help those in need in the South Pacific region.”

However, a section of the site detailing the group’s projects features only placeholder Latin text, clip-art images and one photo of Leo in a hospital setting.

Its “media section” includes testimonials from locals who say Leo has cured them of strokes, paralysis, arthritis, lung cancer and terminal kidney failure.

Requests for comment, sent via the site’s e-mail portal, went unanswered.

Swiss corporate records show South Pacific Charity was registered by Mr Lettieri and Leo in May 2013.

The records originally listed Mr Lettieri as chairman and “Leo Rocco, an Italian citizen”, as director and a joint signatory.

The Sunday Mail and tio.ch/ 20 Minuti Ticino understand Mr Lettieri met Leo in 2001 and lived in Oakden, near one of Agape’s compounds, until 2002.

He is from Bellinzona, the capital of Ticino, and his family is active in local real estate.

South Pacific Charity’s stated purpose is to “help the inhabitants of the South Pacific to develop economically, especially spiritually, morally and socially, to their full potential”.

It says it raises money through “spontaneous donations, management of raffles or sweepstakes”, sponsorships and “the sale of products”.

White Horse SA is also the name of Mr Lettieri’s real estate company which boasts capital of 100,000 Swiss Francs based on 100 shares worth 1000 Francs each.

Its records state it engages in “the purchase and sale of real estate abroad” and “business establishments in Switzerland”, as well as “the administration and construction of buildings”.

In 2014, Mr Lettieri bought a former Italian diplomatic building, in Switzerland, from the State of Italy for 7 million Francs.

He has another three companies in Bellinzona.

Belbenna Sagl is a waste and recycling business, Lesicasa SA is involved in construction and planning while Europa Infissi SA manufactures, imports and installs door and window frames.

Europa Infissi SA’s registration notes the company also deals in “the purchase and sale of real estate”.

In March 2015, he and six fellow Agape parishioners filed a lawsuit against Leo, asked the Supreme Court to award them $2.5 million in damages.

They have asserted Leo “breached their trust” by failing to create an “outreach centre” in Vanuatu.

Despite claiming Leo duped him, Mr Lettieri’s financial support of South Pacific Charity has continued.

This week, Mr Lettieri said he was “assisting” the organisation but said he provided only “a minor amount of money”.

He said he had “checked” on both the charity’s work and its volunteers, calling them “good people in good faith” who were “helping Fijian people”.

Leo’s name was subsequently removed from the charity’s registration online.

By Sean Fewster

IN March 2010, Pastor Rocco Leo sat in the witness box of the District Court, refused to swear on the Bible, and then announced his church had been threatened by armed Colombians.

What seemed to be another entry in South Australia’s log of strange cases was actually the opening act in a seven-year saga of cults, guns and hidden millions.

Leo, whose criminal history of larceny and fraud dates back to 1975, was the leader of a little-known religious group called Agape Ministries International.

He was in court that day to give character evidence on behalf of a parishioner at Agape’s heavily-fortified “House of God” in Oakden.

Two months later, 90 police officers raided that property, in Adelaide’s northeast, and 11 others owned by Leo and Agape, uncovering hidden caches of weaponry and 35,000 rounds of ammunition.

Police made multiple arrests but missed Leo, who left Adelaide for Fiji — where he has been living ever since, in defiance of a warrant over the alleged assault of a parishioner’s husband.

As Leo and his inner circle set themselves up in a luxury five-star eco-resort at Pacific Harbour, near the capital, Suva, his former followers revealed the bizarre truth of life inside Agape.

They alleged they had handed over millions of dollars since 2008 to Leo, who claimed world governments intended to microchip the human race ahead of global armageddon in 2012.

Dissenters, they were told, would be deemed “terrorists” and, from May 2010 onwards, rounded up in concentration camps for gassing or beheading.

The compliant, meanwhile, would be kept obedient by poison hidden inside the microchips — and would go to hell when they eventually died.

The former members said Leo claimed to have been “appointed by God” to lead them to sanctuary on “The Island” in the Pacific — where he would also heal their illnesses.

Their claims brought Agape’s devotees into the spotlight. Some insisted their faith was not a cult and swore continued loyalty to their fugitive leader.

In August 2010, the scope of Agape’s pre-doomsday hoarding was revealed — the cult’s financial empire spanned two states, multiple properties and a fleet of 13 vehicles.

Agape, Leo and his other company, Universal Holdings, boasted millions of dollars in funds across 10 separate bank accounts.

The Australian Taxation Office sprang into action, stripping Agape of its tax-exempt status as a religion and accusing Leo of juggling $5.6 million between accounts to hide it.

SA police laid 126 charges of fraud against Leo and, in June 2011, he was arrested in a commando-style raid on his Fiji compound.

However, SA’s then-Director of Public Prosecutions, Stephen Pallaras, QC, did not seek extradition and the charges were dropped because, he said, there was “no chance” of a conviction. The District Court broke Agape’s empire apart a year later, awarding a disabled former parishioner $420,000 compensation and the ATO $3 million in unpaid taxes.

Another lawsuit — in which a former parishioner wanted a $250,000 refund for items he bought for the cult, including toilet paper — was settled out of court. The cult’s remaining assets were liquidated in September 2014 and it seemed the saga was over at last. However, six months later, those who had once defended their faith sued Leo, claiming he had duped them into handing over $2.5 million.

The ATO subsequently found $9 million in previously hidden assets and resumed its lawsuit as did Leo — from Fiji — who said the money was rightfully his. The Supreme Court is yet to rule on that dispute.


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