Fire cult members die in final act of worship

Click to follow
FOURTEEN charred bodies, arranged in a sun-like circle with heads pointing outwards, were discovered by French police yesterday in a scene all too familiar to authorities investigating a mystical, fire-obsessed cult known as the Order of the Solar Temple. The sect, founded by a Belgian homeopathic doctor who preached the imminent destruction of the world, now lies at the centre of two murder and suicide mysteries that have claimed a total of 67 lives in less than 15 months.

The bodies, including that of a small child, were discovered in a forest clearing near Grenoble in the Alps. "It looks like some form of collective suicide," a French prosecutor said.

The horrifying scene recalled the night in October 1994 when Swiss police found 23 bodies at a burning farm in the remote western village of Cheiry. In one room, concealed by a false door and draped with crimson satin hangings, 18 of the corpses were laid out in the same manner as the bodies discovered yesterday.

The deaths at Cheiry coincided with a similar incident at Les Granges- sur-Salvan, a village almost 100 miles to the south, where fires broke out at two chalets and Swiss investigators discovered 25 bodies. Meanwhile, Canadian police found five bodies, including those of a British woman and her two-month-old baby, after a fire erupted at Morin Heights north of Montreal.

Some cult members who died at Cheiry were clothed in white, red, black and golden ceremonial robes, and others wore plastic bags over their heads. Most had traces of bullet wounds, some were handcuffed behind their backs, and others appeared to have been injected with powerful drugs.

These facts led the Swiss authorities initially to suspect that the cultists had been murdered in a plot conceived by the sect's founder, Luc Jouret, and his closest associate, Joseph di Mambro. The police even went so far as to issue arrest warrants for the two men, only to be forced to withdraw them in embarrassment when investigators determined that the cult leaders had died in the fires.

Since then, it has never been clear whether the 53 deaths in Switzerland and Canada were murders, suicides or a mixture of both. Members of the Order of the Solar Temple appear to share an apocalyptic vision of life in which death by fire serves as a cleansing ritual in preparation for passage to another existence.

As in Switzerland and Canada, the latest 14 deaths in France involved fire. The cultists or their killers, or both, had cleared part of the heavily forested region of the Vercors plateau near Grenoble, and inflammable liquids and branches were used to feed the fire that burned the bodies of the sect members.

One piece of evidence that appears to support the theory of collective suicide concerns handwritten notes hinting at the desire to "see another world" that were found earlier in the week at the homes of four of the dead cultists. One note said: "Death does not exist. It is pure illusion. May we, by our inner life, find each other forever."

Police are also studying remarks attributed to a cultist named Patrick Vuarnet, who posted the Order of the Solar Temple's "last testament" to Swiss and French authorities last year at the time of the deaths in Switzerland and Canada. Vuarnet, the son of a French Olympic skiing champion, was quoted by his girlfriend's sister as saying that the massacres at Cheiry and Les Granges-sur-Salvan had been quite normal events.

She added that, in Vuarnet's view, "these people had been called and it was a renewal. What we were living through on earth was the approach of the apocalypse and it would be better in the afterlife."

It is not yet clear whether Vuarnet rose to a dominant position in the Order of the Solar Temple after the deaths of Jouret and di Mambro. However, there is little doubt that he was deeply involved in the cult along with some of his family and friends.

Apart from Vuarnet, those who went missing last week and may be among the dead include his mother Edith, his Swiss girlfriend and her six-year- old daughter. His mother's car was found last Thursday evening in a parking lot in a suburb of Geneva near the French border.

Others who went missing include two French police officers who were questioned earlier this year in connection with the deaths in Switzerland in October 1994. They were carrying their pistols and ammunition.

French police found the 14 bodies at about 9am yesterday morning, but it appears likely that the cultists died on Friday. The Order of the Solar Temple is believed to regard 22 December, the winter solstice, as an especially significant date.