In the heart of Oakden, Australia, within the halls of a repurposed mental hospital, the manipulative cult leader Rocco Leo spearheaded the notorious Agape Ministries. This was Adelaide’s own doomsday cult and destroyed the lives of many of its devout followers at the hands of their delusional leader.
Rocco Leo, also known as Brother Rock transitioned from an individual conman to a manipulative cult leader, Leo used religious authenticity and fear to exploit his followers, accumulating significant personal wealth. Among the victims were businessman Martin Penny, deceived into donating $1.2 million, and Sylvia Melchiori, who despite suffering a physical disability and a brain tumor, was convinced to part with half a million dollars. Rocco Leo believed that he was appointed as a prophet of god and had received divine powers after a near death experience.
Agape Ministries found its home in the former Northfield Mental Hospital, a structure steeped in history. This institution, opened by the government in 1929 in Northfield, was initially established to relieve overcrowding at the Parkside Lunatic Asylum. It also served as a shelter for state children with intellectual disabilities. Named William’s Farm during its planning and construction, the institution was proclaimed the Northfield Mental Hospital in April 1929, welcoming its first patients in September the same year. It underwent several changes over the years, evolving to accept various cases of mental illness and accommodating children with intellectual disabilities. Criticism over lumping together the intellectually disabled with the mentally ill eventually led to reclassification of patients in 1962, and in 1964, the Northfield Mental Hospital was renamed Hillcrest Hospital.
A woman standing barefoot outside Northfield Mental Hospital, South Australia, c. 1965, by McDonald, Roy, courtesy of National Library of Australia.
It was within this former mental hospital that the cult came under scrutiny for allegations of fraud and potential criminal activities. Rocco Leo preached a doomsday message with wild theories about the government implanting microchips in people, among many other delusional ideologies. A raid on the compound revealed substantial amounts of cash, several identity documents, and a significant amount of ammunition, however, Rocco Leo had already fled the country. The ammunition was being hoarded by the cult to defend themselves when the alleged apocalypse came, and was stored in shipping containers for when the cult planned to relocate from Adelaide to a remote island. Among the criminal activities was the alleged marrying of of child brides to a cult member known as the “enforcer” whose job it was to carry out death threats to anyone planning to leave the church.
Found and arrested in Fiji on a minor assault charge, Leo managed to avoid more severe accusations due to a lack of evidence. With no criminal fraud charges pressed against him, victims were left to seek justice through civil litigation.
Upon concluding the investigation, the authorities discovered the vast scope of the “Agape Empire,” which comprised eight properties, thirteen vehicles, and a significant financial portfolio. Despite ongoing legal battles, Leo remains at large, his last known location being Fiji, where he continues to demand an apology for the money seized from him in Australia. The story of Agape Ministries serves as a sobering reminder of the profound impacts a manipulative organisation can have on its followers, leaving many financially and mentally devastated.
Exploring the former agape cult compound in Oakden had a very dark and eerie feeling, something I couldn’t shake and haven’t come across since. Hopefully all these cult members have recovered after being taken advantage of by Rocco Leo. I have had many people contact me who have had family members that were part of the cult and they confirm that it was just as toxic as the media portrayed it to be.