Pig-farmer Ralph Vollmer had first noticed his wife Joan was behaving strangely a few weeks before he decided to stage the violent four-day exorcism that led to her death.
Joan had taken to lurching and dancing around outside, arms flailing about her head, swearing loudly at nobody in particular. Soon after Ralph claimed she was “acting like a prostitute” and at various times, took on the physical form of a pig and a dog, as well as the personality of a sheep shearer.
“There were manifestations of different people and animals,” he later explained.
The cause was clear to Ralph: Joan’s body had been possessed by demons.
Ralph and Joan Vollmer lived in Antwerp, a small Victoria town 356 kilometres north-west of Melbourne with a population of just 63 residents. It was settled in 1846 by Europeans, and by 1859 two Protestant missionaries had built a church and a mission for the local Aboriginal community.
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The church is long closed, but religion was still the pulse of the town in January, 1993, when Joan took her final tortured breath, aged 49. A number of fundamentalist Christians lived in and around the township, and it was they that Ralph called upon to rescue his wife from her dark possession.
At first, he attempted to rid her of these demons himself, by locking her in the basement, then, when that was unsuccessful, by tying her to the bed. Vollmer screamed throughout the night, however, and the demons remained.
Ralph Vollmer is consolled beside the grave of his wife after she died during an exorcism. Picture: Jamie DaviesSource:News Corp Australia
He then enlisted the help of his neighbour, Leanne Reichenbach, and the two of them received over-the-phone coaching from a 78-year-old spiritual leader, Leah Clugston on how best to rid a human of evil spirits. After they ascertained that ten separate demons were, indeed, in control of Joan’s body, they started an intense prayer session, with Joan seated in a chair at one end of the room.
When she struggled, they tied her to this chair with pairs of her own stockings. She was denied food and water throughout this entire period and when she attempted to close her eyes, they pried them open so the demons would better confront the Lord.
Joan continue to put up a violent struggle, and so the pair called in another member of the church, 28-year-old David Klingner. He took the lead, and restrained her with more pairs of stockings.
He started to slap her face repeatedly in order to summon the demons.
After three days of such torture, the group felt they had rid Joan of all but two stubborn demons: “Two strong male evil spirits”, as Vollmer later told AAP.
Leanne Reichenbach with husband John.Source:News Corp Australia
DAY FOUR OF THE EXORCISM: “HISSING AND FROTHING”
To eliminate these final demons, on day four they brought in 23-year-old Matthew Nuske. Nuske came highly-recommended by his mother, who touted his God-given ability to exorcise demons, despite having never done so before. Convinced, they handed control of Joan — or as Ralph now saw her, “an evil spirit that needed to be dealt with” — over to Nuske, and he amped up proceedings.
First, he instructed the group to destroy all of Joan’s possessions, including knocking down her garden beds and smashing an outside greenhouse with a hammer. These were also possessed by demon energy.
Next, he wrapped cling-wrap around the entire outside of the house seven times to act as protection from further spirits drawn by all the activity.
Joan Vollmer, pictured before her death, died during an exorcism in 1993.Source:News Corp Australia
Ralph Vollmer is comforted at the grave site of his dead wife. Picture: Jamie DaviesSource:News Corp Australia
From then, things got exceedingly violent, with Nuske beating Joan repeated across the head, smashing her into the wall and instructing members to sit on her weakened, food-deprived body as she begged them to stop. They moved her body into the bedroom for one final exorcism.
Finally, the demon was removed. The group of five started at her stomach and crushed her internal organs, moving their weigh up her body in order to squeeze the demon up and out her mouth. The enormous pressure placed on her neck caused Joan to begin having a heart attack.
“When they finally released the hold on her, she was hissing and frothing and they came out with a groan,” Vollmer said of the demons.
In reality, what was happening was the pressure applied to her neck was so intense, her thyroid cartilage had been fractured, causing her to suffer a fatal heart attack.
Joan Vollmer died after four days of torture and as she slumped to the ground, the group rejoiced and waited for her resurrection.
The group had waited and prayed over Joan’s dead body for two days, when Leah Clugston arrived at the farmhouse where the exorcism had taken place. The 78-year-old had given early phone advice to the group on how best to proceed, and had herself received word from the Lord shortly after Joan’s death that she should place her hands on the bloated, quickly-decaying body and order Joan to rise and walk. When this failed to rouse her, Clugston called a local Baptist Minister for guidance. He arrived to find the group calmly eating lunch while Joan’s body laid in the 40 degree heat, being attacked by flies.
The minister phoned a doctor to the townhouse, who in turn called the police.
Ralph Vollmer at his home in Antwerp. Picture: Lisa BigelowSource:News Corp Australia
September, 1993: Ralph Vollmer sits in his kitchen where the exorcism occured. Picture: Peter WardSource:News Corp Australia
RESURRECTION AND ARRESTS
“God has made a solemn promise that she will rise on the day of the funeral and he wants us to witness it,” a chirpy Ralph Vollmer told AAP journalists in the days following his wife’s death.
Interviews with police went a similar way, with the group assuring them it had been a successful exorcism, and that Joan would vouch for this upon her return.
On the Friday, just four days after the police first became aware of Joan’s body, Ralph invited media to her funeral, to witness her resurrection.
When she failed to materialise, he wept, confused and angry.
1993: Ralph Vollmer leaves wife Joan’s funeral. Picture: David GeraghtySource:News Corp Australia
Ralph Vollmer (L) leaves the Victoria Supreme Court, appealing against a conviction for recklessly causing serious injury & false imprisonment of his wife Joan.Source:News Corp Australia
Detective Superintendent Paul Sheridan told the Herald Sun that the group “believed they were doing the right thing in trying to exorcise demons.”
Lest he be misunderstand, Sheridan quickly added, “they weren’t innocent and they certainly weren’t doing the right thing,” explaining how they openly discussed the methods used in the exorcism to police.
Police charged the four, Vollmer, Nuske, Reichenbach and Klingner, with manslaughter.
Ralph Vollmer, who orchestrated his wife’s torture and death, was convicted of false imprisonment and reckless injury. Picture: David GeraghtySource:News Corp Australia
Despite their open confessions and detailed descriptions to police, Leanne Reichenbach got the heaviest sentence: a paltry four months for manslaughter and false imprisonment.
David Klingner received three months for the same charges, while Matthew Nuske was found guilty of false imprisonment and received a suspended sentence.
Ralph Vollmer, who orchestrated his wife’s torture and death, was convicted of false imprisonment and reckless injury. He also received a suspended sentence, and served no jail time.
He soon left the farmhouse and the small town where Joan had died, and moved to Queensland, to live in bliss with his new wife.
David Klingner leaves Melbourne court in November, 1994, after being found guilty of manslaughter of Joan Vollmer during exorcism the ceremony in January, 1993.Source:News Corp Australia
– Nathan Jolly is a Sydney-based writer who specialises in pop culture and true crime. Follow him on Twitter @nathanjolly