Beam them up, Heidi – Remembering the Las Canadas suicide sect scare

It is nine years to the week since Tenerife suddenly leapt to international prominence, swept the prime slots on all the 24 hour news services and hogged the front pages of a host of newspapers around the world.

Bad news is good news in the media and Tenerife was hot news for all the wrong reasons as far as the tourism authorities were concerned that week in which the island became the focus for an unprecedented feeding frenzy.

The BBC report filed on January 8 1998 put it like this:

“Spanish police say they have prevented a possible suicide attempt by members of a cult based in Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands. The authorities in Tenerife say the 31 members of the cult, who are mainly British and German, were planning to commit suicide later today. Police have detained a German psychologist said to be the leader of the sect …”

The garbled accounts of that strange night relied heavily on police reports with a good deal of imaginative hearsay and unconfirmed rumours thrown in for good measure.

The police issued a statement which said the general belief among the cult members was the world would end at 7 pm on January 8. They intended to gather in a pre-arranged spot in Las Cañadas, confident that a space ship would put down to collect them – once they had all committed suicide.

In the nick of time – or so the general public were led to believe – the police were tipped off and, in the early hours, a veritable army of state police in riot gear descended on the streets around an ordinary terraced building in the La Salud district of Santa Cruz. Dozens of people were taken into custody.

Among those detained was a German psychologist, Heidi Fittkau-Garthe, a ‘new-age’ figure believed to be the ringleader of the so-called sect. She was arrested and charged with organizing an alleged attempt of mass suicide.

The furore was enormous. The international press pack homed in on the island, the existence of which some, mostly the Americans, had been in ignorance. But in the event the police had precious little to go on: just a web of allegations and denials, claims the group had indulged in orgies and drugs and dark hints of child abuse, crowned by a loony tale of space ships on the mountainside. Not a body in sight, however many alleged suicides had been averted.

There was a distinct feeling among the news hounds of disappointment. In the end Dr Fittkau-Garthe was detained in custody for twelve days before being released without charges. Since then she has kept a remarkably low profile, living in rustic simplicity on a finca in Arico, involving herself in esoteric studies, working for the Foundation for World Peace and growing lettuces.

Interviewed by a local daily some time ago, she told her interlocutor:

“The group was no sect and I have never worked in one. I was accused of planning the suicide of a group of friends who had merely come over to spend Christmas in Tenerife …

“What actually happened in 1998 was the result of an act of a daughter’s vengeance on her mother who was one of the group. Six months before they had had an enormous family row and it was the daughter who contacted Interpol and told them her mother and another hundred people were in the mountains of Tenerife intending to commit mass suicide.”

The daughter, she said, had informed the authorities that the group was a destructive sect.

“What happened was terrible. And the worst of it all were the lies that were told concerning children.”

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The closing decades of the twentieth century, seen from the perspective of the opening ones of the twenty-first, seem a lifetime away. Then the threat of destructive sects was a big concern: few can forget the images of collective suicide that were played out in Waco and Jonesville [should read: Jonestown - RNB]. They were the most infamous. Others, like the Children of God and the Solar Temple, touched Tenerife nerves, the former being at one time located here and the latter having island adherents and victims.

The sect scare in Tenerife on January 8 1998 certainly had a lot to do with the apparent over-reaction of police and press. These days the buzzword is terrorism and sects are taking a back seat. Suicide bombers certainly seem a more likely threat to the general public than space ship suicide pacts.

In the meantime there is a slim possibility the name of Heidi Fittkau-Garthe may surface in the media once again in the coming year: she is said to be trying to organize a peace rally to coincide with the Beijing Olympics.

It will be held in the mountains of Mongolia. High places still seem to hold a fatal fascination for the peace guru of Arico. AW

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