Sam Gunasekera was delighted when her children secured a place at a pretty little primary school in Hampstead, the star-studded North London ‘village’ that boasts celebrities like Liam Gallagher, Helena Bonham Carter and Jamie Oliver among its residents.
The school seemed a cosy home-from-home, perfect for nurturing young children. But, bizarrely, it was to become the centre of a sinister conspiracy theory that catapulted lurid allegations of sexual abuse around the world, upending both pupils’ and parents’ lives.
As Sam, a TV producer, dropped her children off one cold winter’s morning in early 2015, another mother pulled her aside. ‘There’s something you need to know,’ she said. ‘The class list . . . it’s been put online.’
The list included the names, contact details, addresses and mobile numbers of dozens of the parents, teachers, school staff and pupils. All had been posted on the internet.
That breach of privacy was bad enough — but to her horror, Sam saw that vile accusations had been placed next to each of those named.
It was claimed the people on the list were Satanists who had sex with children and practised child sacrifice. They drank their victims’ blood and danced around with babies’ skulls.
Alexi Mostrous: It was claimed the people on the list were Satanists who had sex with children and practised child sacrifice. They drank their victims’ blood and danced around with babies’ skulls
‘We were called abusers,’ Sam says. ‘And our details were published to the world.’ Strangers began calling at all hours. ‘They’d say, “You are an abuser. You are raping children. You are killing them.” It was incredibly distressing,’ she added.
Sam was only one of about 175 innocent people whose names appeared on the list — victims of arguably the most serious British conspiracy theory in years.
The allegations dropped like a bomb, leaving parents distraught and children desperately confused. Some of the parents falsely accused of being Satanists, like Sam, were inundated with terrifying threats from self-appointed online vigilantes. They felt forced to home-school their children, or make them carry tracking devices and alarms in case someone attempted to kidnap them.
Mothers told me they slept on the floors of their children’s bedrooms to protect them. Some had to move home, others had businesses ruined as a result of being unable to have an online profile because their names were already out there in the most horrible way.
I’ve been investigating this extraordinary story for months for a new podcast series, Hoaxed, which launched this week — interviewing dozens of victims and studying court reports, police statements and medical testimony — to try to work out why and how it happened.
I have agreed with the parents, who are still traumatised by events, not to name the school. Legal orders also prevent me from naming some of the parents.
Belief in satanic cults is nothing new, of course. Accusations of satanic child abuse were rife in Britain in the 1980s and 90s, with supposed paedophile rings in operation in Cleveland, Rochdale, the Orkney Islands and Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. All these scandals were found to be baseless and the rumours faded away. But that was before the internet.
What this story illustrates is how easily modern conspiracies spread — as well as the failure of the police and the social media giants to crack down on them.
More worryingly still, it shows how quickly online threats can bleed over into real-world harm.
But the most curious part of this tale was that this satanic conspiracy theory wasn’t conjured up by some internet crank, but by a middle-class mother whose children also attended that little primary school in Hampstead . . .
Ella Draper, now 49, grew up in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, on the border with Ukraine.
Ella Draper, now 49, (pictured) grew up in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, on the border with Ukraine
Tall and striking, with a master’s degree in art history, she met and married a wealthy English banker in the 1990s and moved to Hampstead.
She remained there after they split up, then began a relationship with an actor called Ricky, the father of her children, whose full name I’ve chosen not to disclose.
A yoga teacher, obsessed with natural remedies and organic food, Ella seemed to fit seamlessly with the affluent professionals around her. But by 2014, her apparently perfect life was breaking down. She and Ricky were embroiled in an ugly custody battle over their children and there were blazing rows — and allegations of violence on both sides.
Ella started dating a new man, Abraham Christie, whom she met at a vegan chocolate-tasting. Abraham, now 65, believed hemp, the herb from which cannabis is derived, to be the elixir of life.
He made Ella’s children drink hemp smoothies and asked them to call him ‘Papa-hemp’.
The coming together of these two alternative minds seems to have proved fatal.
Without Abraham in the picture, who knows whether any of what followed would have occurred.
In July 2014, the family went on holiday to Morocco. On their return, Ella and Abraham claimed that the children had started to make horrific allegations. They said they were being abused by their father Ricky, by teachers at their school and by fellow parents.
A judge found that Ella Draper (pictured) forced her children to lie about sexual abuse and torture
They claimed the adults were part of a satanic cult — operating in the heart of Hampstead.
The couple consulted Abraham’s brother-in-law, a special constable, who passed the allegations on to the police. I’ve seen video tapes of police officers interviewing Ella’s children. They are harrowing.
Two small children sitting on an oversized, purple sofa, telling a police officer a story that sounds like a nightmare — an organised cult harming hundreds of children and indulging in horrors like baby sacrifice. The police went to the school and its neighbouring church to try to find the ‘secret rooms’ where the children said babies were murdered.
But, unsurprisingly, they couldn’t find any evidence of a cult.
In mid-September, the police interviewed the children for a third time — and this time, they recanted. They told the police the truth — that they’d been pressured into lying by Ella and Abraham, that Abraham had kicked them, hit them on the head with a metal spoon and poured water over their heads so they couldn’t breathe until they said exactly what he wanted.
Following her divorce, Ella met a new man, Abraham, now 65, believed hemp, the herb from which cannabis is derived, to be the elixir of life
The police quickly closed the investigation. Inexplicably to me, they didn’t even question Abraham about the children’s allegations, let alone arrest him on suspicion of child abuse. The custody case with Ricky, Ella’s former partner, moved over to the family courts, where Ella chose to represent herself.
That meant she was given access to all the evidence in the case, including the confidential videos of her children being interviewed by the police and other sensitive material like their medical reports.
Fighting a court case alone isn’t easy, so she sought help from Sabine McNeill, an informal legal adviser. In late 2014, Ella handed over all her evidence.
German-born Sabine was supposed to be a neutral ‘McKenzie Friend’, someone who assists people fighting acrimonious divorce cases. But actually she had a long-running obsession with the family courts.
Sabine had accused these admittedly secretive courts of stealing hundreds of children away from their families.
Somehow, Sabine had managed to get high-profile support for this campaign. She had addressed European politicians about ‘forced adoptions’ and had persuaded John Hemming, the former Liberal Democrat MP, to be her patron. He quit when he became concerned about the direction the organisation was heading.
In January 2015, Sabine, now 77, lit the fuse on the Hampstead hoax. She took all Ella’s confidential material — the videos of the children’s interviews, other home videos showing the children alleging satanic abuse, their medical reports — and, with Ella’s blessing, put it all online.
She also published an 11-page-document called Mass Child Sex Abuse In Satanic Ritual Abuse And Sacrifice Cult. This was the corrupted list of the personal details of the 175 people supposedly involved in abuse. Sabine and Ella had filled it with lurid allegations, identifying specific parents and teachers who they said were the ringleaders.
Unsurprisingly, the internet lapped it up. This was the first time I’m aware of where two children appeared to confirm satanic abuse — on tape. Soon, the videos were trending on conspiracy blogs across the U.S. and Britain.
They were picked up by Infowars — the vast conspiracy site run by the disgraced crank Alex Jones, who recently appeared in an American court accused of spreading the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut was a hoax.
The David Icke forum — a favourite hangout for conspiracy theorists in the UK — also peddled the lie about the Hampstead primary. One blogger told me he had 25 million hits on his website in a single week.
This information all appeared online during Ella’s case with her ex-husband Ricky in the family law courts. The judge was furious — and sent police officers to her house to get an explanation.
After stalling, Ella ran into her back garden, climbed over the fence into the neighbouring property — and then over three more fences — to the street. The next day she fled to Spain, with Abraham following a day later. She hasn’t been back to the UK since. Her children were taken into care, then eventually returned to their father.
Ella Draper is believed to be in Spain having evaded arrest in February 2015 while her former partner Abraham Christie also remains on the run
But the hoax continued to accelerate. Sabine whipped up her online followers, encouraging them to converge on Hampstead and confront the ‘Satanists’ she claimed were hiding there.
Dozens of angry protesters travelled to the primary school, shouting ‘paedophile’ and ‘murderers’ at the parents and teachers. They included U.S. blogger Rupert Quaintance, who posting pictures of himself outside the school and hinted he was carrying a biscuit knife, a short blade you can fit into a coin pocket.
The parents’ peaceful Hampstead bubble had been well and truly shattered.
Luckily, there was a group prepared to fight back. A band of ‘internet warriors’ who didn’t like the way Ella’s children were being used came together. They included a parent on Ella’s list, a teacher from Birmingham and a reformed conspiracy theorist who I have agreed not to name.
But their de facto leader was a 64-year-old mystery writer called Karen Irving, who lived 3,000 miles away in Ottawa, Canada.
Sabine McNeill, described as one of Britain’s worst online trolls, was jailed for nine years in 2019 after ruining the lives of parents she accused of satanic child abuse
In May 2015, Karen and her internet squadron founded a blog called Hoaxtead — a pun on ‘hoax’ and ‘Hampstead’.
It had two main objectives: to get social media giants to remove links to the children’s videos and to gather evidence against the hoaxers that could eventually be used to prosecute them.
The group reported thousands of links to Google and other platforms — asking them to remove videos of the children as well as other violent or sensitive content posted by people like Sabine.
But it was frustrating work. ‘I can’t tell you how many posts we reported,’ Karen told me.
‘I would say 99 per cent of the time I’d hear nothing and nothing would be done.’ Dozens of videos of the children remain online, as well as other vile footage falsely labelling the children’s father, Ricky, as a paedophile. Some were posted years ago and still haven’t been removed.
Karen’s team was more successful in its second objective — taking down the hoaxers themselves.
Thanks to their efforts, Sabine was put on trial in November 2018 for stalking, harassment and breaching a restraining order. After years of prevaricating, the CPS was prepared to prosecute — but only after Karen and four Hampstead parents collected a huge cache of evidence against her.
Four parents, who can’t be named for legal reasons, gave evidence at Sabine’s trial about how she had ruined their lives. Their testimony vividly describes the horror they endured.
One mother was so stressed she didn’t sleep for nearly four years. Her son was her biggest concern.
‘I felt afraid somebody would try to get to him and abduct him,’ she told the court. ‘There were lots of suggestions online about that.’
She checked on him overnight and had to work out an escape plan if vigilantes turned up.
Another said Sabine’s campaign forced her and her daughter to have counselling sessions. ‘On many occasions she has woken in the middle of the night in tears. We have received death threats directly by phone, email, and generally on social media. We have had to instruct our daughter not to answer the phone.’
The court also heard that Sabine had gained access to one of the parent’s online Google storage, removing a photograph of her nine-year-old daughter, putting it up online and describing her as the ‘star of a sex show’.
The girl’s mother, already under enormous stress, said she had been physically sick when paedophiles contacted her saying they liked her daughter’s profile online — and asked if she was available for sex.
In her sentencing remarks in 2019, Judge Sally Cahill KC described the case against Sabine as ‘one of the most serious cases of stalking and breach of a restraining order that there can be’.
Sabine was sentenced to nine years imprisonment — the longest sentence handed down in UK courts for harassment and stalking.
We’ve still got two episodes of the podcast to make, and I hope that by the time we write the scripts, more pieces of the jigsaw will fall into place.
With luck, as a result of our evidence, the police might finally take an interest in Abraham and Ella, the original hoaxers.
Until then, the victims of the Hampstead hoax — innocent parents like Sam — want this story to serve as a warning to social media companies and to the police. A warning that online conspiracy theories can easily bleed over into real-world violence.
The Hampstead Hoax happened before QAnon took hold — the huge U.S. conspiracy theory that alleges that Satanists control the U.S. government. It also took place before Pizzagate, where a U.S. man shot up a pizza restaurant he believed was harbouring satanic abuse.
To me, the similarities are striking. They each show that — today — the divide between the internet and real life is paper thin. The evidence suggests our institutions need to catch up.
- Alexi Mostrous is investigations editor for Tortoise Media. Listen to Hoaxed now at podfollow.com/hoaxed.