The cult, the control, and the crime: Megan Norris

Eleven-year-old Stefanie Hinrichs came to Australia looking for paradise – and found herself trapped in the marriage from hell. In The Messiah’s Bride (Viking/Penguin, 2023), investigative journalist Megan Norris unravels the story of Stefanie’s lost childhood, her courageous escape with the messiah’s child, and how she eventually brought the cult down. Megan outlined what happened to Robyn Walton for Sisters in Crime Australia.

Megan, your foreword about the global growth of cults gives us the context for your non-fiction account of one harrowing case. First, please tell us about the cult you focus on. How extensive was it at its peak?

At its height in the 1990s, the NSW-based Roman Catholic Order of St Charbel, run by self-proclaimed Messiah William Kamm (aka Little Pebble), was estimated to be one of the biggest Doomsday cults in the world, with more than 500,000 disciples in 167 countries – including 500 members in Australia alone.

Even after being released from a 10-year prison sentence for his sex crimes against two underage disciples, Kamm retained such a powerful influence over his loyal flock that he was banned from returning to his fold outside Nowra because of concerns he would re-offend. Nine years later, he is still the subject of an Extended Supervision Order where he is electronically monitored 24/7 and remains under close surveillance to safeguard the community.

In 1987 in Germany, Ingrid Mueller took her family to a Kamm rally. Kamm’s grooming of her daughters began soon after that. What was the outcome for the eldest, Bettina?

Many paedophiles have an ‘ideal’ victim; for Kamm, it was adolescent girls. Ingrid’s other girls were then too young, but Bettina was his perfect ideal. She was seduced into a bigamous marriage by the false prophet, who brought her to his cult in Australia, using her as bait to lure the rest of the family to follow; Stefanie was in his sights.

Bettina spent her marriage to Kamm, being systematically brainwashed, intimidated, and abused as she became a fertile breeding vessel for his new era in paradise. She has since left him.

In 1991 the rest of the Mueller family moved to Kamm’s compound in NSW. Kamm targeted Stefanie, who was aged 14 when he first forced her to have sex with him. It wasn’t until 2002 that Stefanie left the community. How did Kamm maintain such a hold over cult members?

Kamm exerted control over his impressionable community of people who had joined his religious movement looking for a better life. He manipulated their beliefs and exploited their deepest fears of damnation, keeping them obedient and trapped. Experts in mind control call it ‘deconfiguration’ where a collective of people are isolated from mainstream society and systematically brainwashed into following the will of an all-powerful charismatic leader until they lose all perspective and the ability to think for themselves.

Once disciples were under his control, Kamm indoctrinated them to fear the evil outside world and accept his own warped reality as their own. He employed the same subtle process of deconfiguration and mind control used in the radicalisation of terrorists.

In 2002 Stefanie went to the police, the Catholic church denounced Kamm’s organisation, and the media began some sensational reporting. Legal action involving Kamm has continued, on and off, until as recently as 2022. Publication of your book had to be delayed?  

The book had been due for release in January 2022 but had to be delayed after Kamm was arrested for breaching his Extended Supervision Order. We had to wait until the court proceedings had been concluded to avoid prejudicing his right to a fair trial. After a year on remand, he pleaded guilty to a minor breach and the book was good to go.

How is Stefanie doing now?

It’s been a very lonely rite of passage for her, but she tells me telling her story has been very cathartic. It’s taken decades to repair the fractured bonds with her shattered family and address Kamm’s systematic sexual abuse and brainwashing, but this book has been supported by her family, who now see they were all victims.

Today, Stef lives with her mum and Kamm’s grown-up son on the Gold Coast near me.

Thanks very much, Megan.

More info here.