Quiet cult meets grisly death in the Alps

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The Independent Online
THE CULT members of the Order of the Solar Temple, who apparently committed a macabre act of mass suicide in two idyllic villages in the Swiss Alps, had come to the area four years ago, posing as ecologists who were conducting research into macrobiotic farming.

No one seems to have suspected that the French Canadians, French and Swiss who lived in or frequently visited a farm in Cheiry, high in the woods about 45 miles north-east of Geneva, and some chalets in Granges-sur-Salvan to the south- east, were members of an apocalyptic sect.

Still less did they suspect that their charming corner of Switzerland would one day attract the same degree of notoriety as Jonestown in Guyana and Waco in Texas, where other religious cults played out their doomsday scenarios.

Before buying a small farm and several chalets in 1991, the cult members, posing as a community of well-heeled environmentalists, had air and soil samples analysed. They showed every sign of being dedicated to a macrobiotic way of life.

There were no signs of bizarre or secretive behavior. As far as the locals were concerned, the strangers who moved into their midst were a community of back-to-the-land enthusiasts, who diligently tended their gardens but rarely showed their faces in the village. In the village of Chierry, the outsiders who came and went from the chalets but who never mixed with the locals were nothing but polite and friendly neighbours.

'As far as we were concerned, they were just normal people, always polite, always well-dressed,' said Edmond Thierrin, a retired village mayor who spent the previous evening inaugurating the remodelled Restaurant de la Lembaz, just 400 metres up the road from where the acts of apparent mass suicide and murder were taking place.

Only five people lived permanently on the farm, including the owner, Alberto Giacobino and an elderly female companion, a young couple and a young man. All three younger people had normal jobs. One worked at a nearby hospital.

'We often thought something wasn't quite right, but since there was never any scandal, never any excess noise, we never thought to interfere with them,' Mr Thierrin said. The former mayor's cousin, Armand, alerted the emergency services to a blaze at the La Rochette farmhouse on Wednesday morning, and he and a volunteer fireman friend were the first on the scene.

The firemen found the body of Mr Giacobino, 73, on his bed, with a plastic bag over his head, tied with an elastic band. More than five hours passed before the full extent of the drama was revealed. They took a look at the farm's gutted cowshed and garage. The shed had an extensive basement that was previously used as stables. It was here that the worst surprise of all awaited the firemen as they continued their investigations, knowing that there were many other residents of the farm besides Mr Giacobino.

Knocking against some wood panelling, they discovered a false door, beyond which there were bloodstains and empty champagne bottles scattered about. There was a document that spoke of 'the cross and the rose', and further along there was a corridor, a large room, and what passed for a chapel.

It was in these two rooms that the grotesque discovery was made of a further 22 bodies, some dressed in suits and ties and others in white, red and black capes. One of the dead bodies had a sword nearby and several women were wearing brightly coloured party dresses. Most of those found had plastic bags tight around their necks, although several had been shot through the head.

Another grim scene awaited police and emergency services attending fires at isolated chalets in the village of Granges-sur-Salvan. When the police entered the chalets they again found dead bodies with plastic bags over their heads. According to the fire chief on the scene, their faces showed that they had died without showing any sign of suffering.

(Photograph and map omitted)