Increasingly, Swiss investigators suspect that these deaths, and those of 25 other cultists in the village of Les Granges-sur-Salvan, south of Cheiry, were not collective suicides but, for the most part, premeditated murders probably linked to the cult leaders, Luc Jouret and Joseph di Mambro. Warrants for their arrest have been issued.
In Canada, police confirmed yesterday that they are investigating a money-laundering operation run by certain members of the cult. Radio Canada, the French service of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, said Jouret and Di Mambro, ran an elaborate arms dealing network which delivered weapons to the international black market. The network said the millions of dollars in profits were laundered through Royal Bank of Canada Ltd and Bank of Credit and Commerce branch offices in Ottawa.
Police do not rule out that some members of the Order of the Solar Temple - the cult has gone under a variety of names - may have welcomed the prospect of death and consumption by fire.
But as they amass their evidence, the investigators are finding ever more clues that point to a carefully planned criminal act, the most violent in Switzerland this century.
At the Restaurant de la Lembaz in the centre of Cheiry, there was much carousing last Tuesday evening. The owners had converted their restaurant into a pizzeria only one day earlier, and they had invited all their friends to celebrate - including practically every member of the district's fire brigade. It was 10 minutes past midnight when word reached the pizzeria of a fire at a nearby farm, the Ferme de la Rochette.
Before the firemen arrived, two villagers who had seen smoke rising from the farm, dashed to the scene and smashed in the kitchen window. They saw four large plastic sacks, filled with petrol and tied together with a timing device. Behind a door they found the body of Albert Giacobino, the
72-year-old farm owner. He was lying on a bed, dead, his head wrapped in a plastic bag.
The Swiss police, who had arrived shortly after the discovery, began to search the rest of the farm. In a room converted into a conference centre, they found handbags, suitcases, clothes and Swiss, French and Canadian passports. They also noticed traces of blood on the floor and, pressing into the interior, a false door in a wall leading to another room.
In this room, draped with crimson satin wall-coverings and adorned with a Messiah- like painting of Jouret, inspectors found 18 bodies arranged in a sun-like circle, their heads pointing outwards. Inside the circle stood a golden chalice on an altar. Tall mirrors filled the room. In an annexe, converted into a small temple, lay three more bodies. The 23rd corpse was found in a separate room at the foot of a table.
Some bodies, like that of Mr Giacobino, had plastic bags over their heads. Some were handcuffed behind their backs; 20 had traces of bullet wounds. Investigators said on Thursday that some cultists had been injected with powerful drugs before their deaths. White, black, red and golden ceremonial robes were found on some bodies at the farm, and police also discovered a sword, three rifles and a box of ammunition. Empty champagne bottles littered the scene, and a freezer was filled with vegetables grown by sect members.
ALMOST 100 miles south of Cheiry, fires had broken out simultaneously at two chalets in Salvan. Investigators found 25 bodies: 17 female, seven male and one other too badly burned to be immediately identified.
None of the dead had bullet wounds, and one fireman said several corpses wore smiling expressions, as if they had felt exalted as they died. In one room, a man and a woman lay side by side on a bed holding hands; in another, a teenage girl and a small boy lay together.
No ceremonial robes were found on the bodies at Salvan, in contrast to the scene at Cheiry. However, as at Cheiry, police found a red-curtained chapel with a chalice on a table. There was also evidence of an attempt to cause a fire with sophisticated fuses that would have left no trace of what had happened.
This was also true of the third fire that broke out on Tuesday at Morin Heights north of Montreal, Canada. Quebec police initially found two bodies, but by Friday three more had been discovered: those of a man, his British wife and a two-month-old old baby.
The baby had been suffocated, and traces of blood have convinced police it was murder rather than a suicide pact.
However they came about exactly, the 53 deaths in Switzerland and Canada are clearly linked to the mystical theories and bizarre practices of Jouret, a 46-year-old Belgian born in what is now Zaire, who trained as a doctor at the Free University of Brussels and later moved into homeopathic medicine. Whether Jouret or his close associate, di Mambro, deliberately organised the deaths remains unclear. The whereabouts of the two men is unknown, and the most that can be said is that the longer they stay in hiding - if they are alive - the more suspicion will fall on them.
Much of the evidence points to murder rather than suicide. The police chief responsible for the Salvan area, Bernard Geiger, said: 'I formally exclude collective suicide by all. That idea belongs to the movies.' One of the most important clues lies in the fact that the Order of the Solar Temple is known to have been riven by internal disputes - about money and the cult's purpose - in the months leading up to the fires.
Robert Ostiguy, one of the Canadian victims, who was the mayor of a little town near Montreal, called Richelieu, had been trying to leave the sect. The widow of another Canadian victim, Robert Falardeau, who worked for Quebec's Finance Ministry, insisted that her husband 'would never have wanted to die in a thing like this'. A third Canadian victim was Jocelyne Grand'Maison, a journalist for the Journal de Quebec. Her widower, Paul, said she would never have committed suicide. 'It was murder. She was taken hostage.'
Another clue lies in two anonymous letters sent to Swiss newspapers on Wednesday. The first was a 22-page document that said the deaths were an act of 'transition' from this world, and gave sufficient details of the order's activities to make clear the author was deeply involved in them.
Analysis of the envelope showed that it had been posted in Geneva at 11am on Wednesday - that is, long after the fires had been put out. The author, who must have hoped to delude investigators into thinking he was part of a suicide pact, wrote: 'To everyone who can still hear the voice of wisdom, we address this final message . . . it is with boundless love, unspeakable joy and no regret at all that we leave this world.'
The second, much shorter, letter denounced the way in which the cultists' 'transition' from life had taken place, and attacked Jouret's 'barbaric, incompetent and deviant behaviour'. It was also posted in Geneva at 11am on Wednesday. Police believe that the authors of both letters are still alive, perhaps in Geneva, and are connected with the deaths in the two villages. This explains a series of police raids on apartments in Geneva.
Forensic evidence at Salvan, Cheiry and Morin Heights also undermines the theory of collective suicide. At Salvan, 15 bodies were found not in the two chalets that burnt down but in a third chalet where timing devices had failed to set off a fire. At Cheiry, witnesses said it was clear that Giacobino, the farm owner, had died before the fire on Tuesday night. 'The corpse was cold. He must have died by the previous afternoon,' one witness said.
The discovery of drugs, administered to the cultists at Cheiry, by injections or intravenous drip, gives further reason to believe that the deaths were planned. Moreover, the bullet wounds on the bodies do not correspond to any weapon found at the farm, which suggests that someone performed executions, then left the scene.
As for the plastic bags covering some victims' heads, several former cultists who knew Jouret said his group had used them in rituals to symbolise humanity sinning against nature. This notion was expressed in different ways: a Swiss bank clerk who used to attend some of Jouret's meetings said he had once issued an edict that lettuce must be washed seven times before it was served at dinner.
According to Jean-Francois Mayer, a specialist on Swiss cults, Jouret spent years forming a galaxy of small mystical sects at the centre of which lay the Order of the Solar Temple. They operated under names such as the International Chivalrous Organisation of Solar Tradition, founded in 1984, and the Rose and the Cross, a title resonant of earlier traditions that combined the rose as a symbol of human perfection with the cross as a symbol of divine perfection.
One sect, the International Association of Arcadia Clubs of Science and Tradition, has 350 members world-wide, including 121 in Switzerland, Mr Mayer said. Two-thirds of the members are women. All the sects hold frequent seminars on spiritual themes as well as homeopathic medicine and macrobiotic foods.
A Salvan villager, Nelly Decaillet, described Jouret as a good, sweet man. 'He often talked about the survival of the planet. He also talked about some warriors in the Philippines, whom he said he had visited and brought to Switzerland.'
JOURET'S career as a cult activist started with the Reformed Order of the Temple, a sect he tried but failed to take over in 1981. After founding Solar Tradition, he moved to Canada in 1987, taking some followers with him. He published numerous pamphlets and gave lectures, all the while building up a stockpile of weapons.
It is open to doubt whether he believed his own theories of the imminent destruction of the planet and the survival of a predestined few. Several former cult members said he and di Mambro had often seemed more interested in laying their hands on cultists' money than in constructing a coherent theory of existence.
Certainly, the majority of Jouret's followers were relatively wealthy. One man, Bruno Klaus, sold his Swiss farm for pounds 190,000 and gave the money to Jouret. His wife, Rose-Marie, sued the cult and received a settlement of pounds 95,000 out of court.
In Quebec, police discovered that the Order of the Solar Temple had infiltrated the province's electric power company, Hydro-Quebec, where a number of bombings of transmission towers have taken place this year. Jouret was convicted of illegal possession of weapons in 1993, given a conditional discharge and fined pounds 500. His lawyer said this week that he had not seen Jouret in 15 months. But several witnesses say they saw Jouret and di Mambro enter one of the chalets at Salvan the day before the fires. Their control of the cult, even if it was less tyrannical and more open to challenge in recent months, makes it inconceivable that they could have been ignorant about the planned deaths.
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