The hinterland of Queensland’s Gold Coast is a place of rolling hills and four-wheel drives, hidden waterfalls and hippies, where the sun rises to glorious birdsong and the sound of horses tearing at grass.
Stefanie Hinrichs, life coach and Reiki Master, has chosen to put down roots in this patch of paradise, sharing her home with her elderly mother, Ingrid*, son Kilian, 23 and a chihuahua called Echo.
To the casual observer, there’s nothing about this scene that sets it apart from any other single-parent household navigating generation gaps and aged care. But the truth is, the very existence of this family unit is a triumph of truth over lies, and forgiveness in the face of monstrous betrayal.
Stefanie and her mother are survivors of a Doomsday cult led by a deluded, self-styled messiah called William Kamm (aka The Little Pebble).
This month, Stefanie is the subject of a new book by Megan Norris called The Messiah’s Bride. As the book explains, Kamm promised Stefanie and her family – her three sisters, brother, stepfather and grandmother – a ticket to a very different paradise; one he’d lead them to when the world ended. It would be populated by a new race of people spawned from his own ‘Holy Seed’
Kamm’s claims were ridiculous – unhinged, even. Yet in 1990, they were just what Stefanie’s mother wanted to hear. Deeply disillusioned with the progressive path of the Catholic Church and struggling under the memory of her own abusive childhood, Ingrid was wholly receptive to Kamm’s tales of salvation and redemption.
“He’s got a talent for being able to see traumatised families,” Stefanie says, “and once he finds his target, he knows what to say to them.”
He’s got a talent for being able to see traumatised families.
Raphael Aron, the director of Cult Consulting Australia, agrees that Kamm’s approach is typical. “It happens when people who are already disillusioned with the world suddenly find themselves in an environment where the burden of making decisions is removed by leaders who reaffirm their thoughts and see themselves as superior to the outside world,” he explains in The Messiah’s Bride.
“They are taught, through control, obedience and fear, not to question the pronouncements of the leader, who commands an almost god-like status… once inside, the leader breaks your spirit, reducing you to an object, not a person.”
For the Hinrichs, this process – Kamm’s grooming – began in 1987 in Munich, where the family lived.
After establishing what he called ‘The Roman Catholic Order of St Charbel’ in 1984, the short, bespectacled “messiah” from Wollongong had begun travelling the world to spread his “divine” message.
Wearing a crisp scapular bearing a giant crucifix, and serious, thick-rimmed glasses, Kamm would deliver compelling but bizarre sermons during which he claimed to miraculously communicate with the Virgin Mary.
It was at one such event that he met the Hinrichs.
“I don’t remember thinking he had any special energy around him,” says Stefanie, who was seven the first time the family went to a rally of the religious group, “but the hall was booked out and people were crowding around him. I’ve been into movies all my life, so for me it was like he must be celebrity and I wanted to be around that.”
From the beginning, Kamm took particular interest in the Hinrichs sisters — especially Bettina, then 15 — and soon found himself invited to their home. And so it began, the gentle questioning that soon yielded information about the Hinrichs family and their lives. Unspoken generational sexual abuse had manifested in a palpable friction at home, and the rapt attention – however sleazy – of a man with the ear of the Holy Mother was enough to captivate the vulnerable family.
In 1990, Kamm, then 40, proposed to a smitten 17-year-old Bettina, assuring Ingrid that her eldest daughter would be beside him when the world ended and would help him populate the new holy era. In reality Kamm already had a wife, back home in Australia.
Ingrid was thrilled by the marriage and agreed to move the entire family to the other side of the world, where they would reside in what turned out to be a less-than-paradisical compound behind a cyclone fence, near Nowra on the NSW South Coast. By September 1991, the whole family had packed up their lives in Germany to wait out Armageddon and welcome the new world order in Nowra. Eleven-year-old Stefanie’s first thought on reaching her new home: “Why does God need barbed wire fences?”
So began a decade of abject misery and confusion for the homesick young girl, who, like all the women in the sect, had to wear long flowing skirts, high-necked tops and headscarves, and attend endless prayer sessions.
She was sick with worry for Micki, the little white dog the family left behind in their rush for salvation, and she ached for Atilla, the pony from a nearby stud farm that saved her sanity amid the chaos and friction at home. “I always had a feeling in my gut that [the cult] wasn’t right,” says Stefanie, “so I’d ask questions. Why are we locked up? Why do we have to wear these clothes? Why do we have to pray so much?”
Meanwhile, Kamm, who claimed he was to be the last Pope before the world ended in a ball of fire, was getting some very specific instructions from the almighty. In 1993, he announced he had been told to select 12 queens and 72 princesses to carry his holy seed to populate the new era. Unsurprisingly, The Little Pebble was equal to the task. Bettina, by now a mother of four, was aghast, but Kamm assured her the conceptions would be “mystical”, not physical. What he didn’t tell her was that her sister Stefanie was to be one of his queens. And there was nothing “mystical” about his plans for her.
Stefanie received news of her royal elevation from “Mary” herself just as she turned 14. Months earlier, as a crucial part of his manipulation, Kamm had encouraged the depressed teen to write all of her concerns in a journal that he would supposedly pass onto the Holy Mother and note her responses.
At 13, Stefanie’s concerns were wide-ranging, from boys to problems at school and requests for salvation for a slew of celebrities from Billy Crystal to Bert Newton and Jennie Garth from Beverley Hills 90210. Maybe the holy mother would hear her prayers and send Keanu Reeves to marry her? No concern was too trivial to elicit a response from “Mary”, whose messages back, in Kamm’s handwriting, were quick and reassuring.
In September 1993, the Holy Mother told Stefanie, via the journal, that she’d been chosen to become one of Kamm’s mystical queens and bear him 24 children. While sex with The Little Pebble — mystical or otherwise — was almost too gross to contemplate, the thought of this unhappy world ending and reigning as a queen in the next one held some appeal to the miserable teenager.
By this time, Kamm was already a regular visitor at The Sovereign Motor Inn in Figtree, a suburb of Wollongong. There was much talk at the motel about the clammy little man who checked in alone but left with young girls but, incredibly, nothing was reported to authorities.
When fake Mary advised Stefanie, again via her journal, that the Lord wanted her to take the natural path to royalty at the motel, rather than the mystical one, she protested, then, at the urging of her mother, grimly accepted her fate.
“It’s okay for you to go with William,” Ingrid told her 14-year-old daughter. “It’s God’s will.”
On July 1, 1994, Kamm picked Stefanie up for the one-hour drive to Wollongong, but once inside the executive suite, she couldn’t go through with it. “No, no, no, I don’t want to!” she cried as a naked Kamm grabbed her and tried to coax her into the bed. He finally gave up and Stefanie slept on the couch, before eventually driving back to Nowra.
Ingrid called Stefanie out of her room the next day. “Why do I have to do it?” Stefanie asked, bursting into tears.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” assured Ingrid. “It will be okay; just do what William tells you to do — it’s a blessing.”
A week later, Stefanie was back at the motel and this time, did as she was told. The visits became regular. Sometimes Kamm booked interconnecting rooms and brought along another underage queen. Every hideous encounter filled Stefanie with disgust. Then she had an idea.
With each new baby her sister Bettina produced for the new era — she was now up to six —Stefanie detected her brother-in-law losing more interest in his wife. Maybe if Stefanie had a baby, he’d leave her alone, too. At 19, that’s exactly what she did, welcoming Kilian on October 29, 1999. As she predicted, “When I got pregnant, the abuse stopped,” says Stefanie. “Kilian saved me.”
While her plan had worked, post-natal depression hit with a vengeance. When Kilian was almost two, Stefanie’s mental health was spiralling and she began seeking ways to escape the cult. Via a telephone matchmaking site, she made contact with Brett*, a divorced father of two from Sydney, and, after meeting in a Sydney bar, the pair began secretly dating. As far as Brett, a non-believer, knew, his girlfriend was living in a small rural community with her son, whose father was no longer on the scene. It was only when he dropped her at the double-locked gates of the Order of St. Charbel that the penny dropped. Having instantly recognised the religious community for what it really was – a cult – Brett became determined to get Stefanie out.
Whether or not she had just become too much trouble, Stefanie will never know, but bizarrely, in early 2002 Kamm gave her his blessing to leave the Order.
He wasn’t so magnanimous when police swarmed the compound that August and arrested him and charged him with multiple counts of aggravated sexual assault involving two of his former underage queens. When Stefanie revealed to a horrified Brett that Kamm was Kilian’s father, he urged his girlfriend to go to the media — he wanted Kamm exposed as a pedophile — and police.
On August 2, 2002, she told her sordid story to the Child Protection Enforcement Agency. “As soon as I pressed charges, [Kamm] turned my family against me,” says Stefanie. “I lost them for more than seven years.”
As Kamm’s case progressed through the justice system (he was tried separately for assaults on the two underage queens with Ingrid giving evidence against her daughter), the truth began to dawn on Stefanie’s sisters — including Bettina, the mother of Kamm’s six children — that the short, balding church leader had never been their saviour, but instead was an opportunistic paedophile. One by one, they left the compound. “It wasn’t just about me getting justice,” says Stefanie now, “it was about helping those still involved, especially my family.”
In 2005, Kamm was convicted and sentenced to a total of 10 years in prison. He was released on parole in 2014 with strict supervision orders. In November 2021, he was jailed for a further year after using his third wife’s Facebook account to contact yet another potential queen in breach of those orders.
In 2012, while Kamm was in prison, one of his most steadfast supporters — Stefanie’s mother — had her own epiphany. Visiting Kamm in prison, she grew suspicious of his changing stories and repulsed by his grandiosity. Reflecting on the fracturing of her family, she wondered, 20 years too late, whether she’d been had. As the truth sunk in, Ingrid was filled with guilt that the sexual abuse she’d suffered herself as a child had led her to fail Bettina and Stefanie. Both had been sexually abused as infants, long before Kamm arrived to exploit the damaged clan. Ingrid left the compound with little idea of where, or even how, to live.
Incredibly, four years ago Ingrid moved in with Stefanie. In an interview peppered with therapy-speak (“healing journey” is an oft-repeated phrase), Stefanie says her life now “consists of trying to help people who have gone through trauma,” including cult survivors. While Ingrid ticks both of those boxes, she also is a mother who offered her child up to a paedophile. How is this working? “It’s good,” is all Stefanie offers on the state of their relationship. “I’ve got nothing to complain about.”
Today, Stefanie is single and has been for three years. After her relationship with Brett ended, and with no idea what normal looked like, her mental health went into freefall as she careened from one toxic relationship to the next. “I’m grateful for those relationships because of what they’ve taught me,” says Stefanie. “[I’m] still learning to love myself so I can allow the right kind of love to come in.”
In a house in the Gold Coast hinterland, three battle-scarred humans are doing life their way — Stefanie helping survivors of trauma, Kilian, a food delivery driver and avid gamer with zero interest in ever meeting his father again, and Ingrid, who is slowly rebuilding a relationship with her remarkable daughter. All family members are now in regular contact. “We have a house with a big backyard with lime and grapefruit trees … I love sitting on the back porch looking at the lush green and listening to the wildlife.” And once again she has a little white dog, a chihuahua called Echo.
Paradise was closer than she knew.
*Not their real names.