Three armed men hijacked a tourist helicopter on Monday and used it to free a cult leader and two of his followers from a prison on the French island of Reunion, in the Indian Ocean.
According to the island’s newspaper, La Quotidien, the men posed as tourists and used a gun and a firebomb, which they threathened to ignite, to hijack the helicopter in mid-flight.
Freed were cult leader Juliano Verbard, and two of his followers: Verbard’s lover Fabrice Michel, and Jismy Michel, Fabrice’s father.
On January 29 this year a judge refused a request by Fabrice Michel, his sister Corinne Michel and two other followers for early release. On February 10 Jismy Michel’s appeal for early release was also turned down.
Juliano Verbard, who was serving a 15-year term for rapes and sex assaults on children, and two of his jailed followers were hauled on board a chopper hijacked by three accomplices, said senior official Jean-Francois Moniotte.
Verbard, 27, was the guru of the self-styled “Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary”, a cult with no connection to mainstream Catholic institutions, on the island of Reunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean.
He escaped along with two followers, the father and son duo Alexin Jismy and Fabrice Michel, who were jailed for their part in a kidnap.
He was jailed in February 2008 for attacks on children aged nine and 13, whose mother was the sect’s treasurer. He is also under investigation in two other cases, another alleged sex attack and the kidnap of a 12-year-old.
Verbard launched his cult in 2002 after convincing scores of followers that the Virgin Mary appeared to him every month.
In previous media reports several years ago Verbard’s group was often referred to as the “Painful and Immaculate Heart of Mary”, instead of the “Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
On July 9, 2007, members of Verbard’s cult kidnapped Alexandre — a 12-year-old boy whom Verbard referred to as his successor — from his home. They forced him to participate in a midnight mass, and then returned him to his mother, who was related to one of the sect’s members.
On August 3, 2007, cult members again abducted the boy. Police freed Alexandre two days later, and Verbard was indicted and imprisoned on August 7 that same year.
Earlier, in August 2003, Verbard had been imprisoned for rape and sexualt assualt of two boys aged 8 and 13-years-old. Verbard was released from prison on August 6, 2004 after allegedly having been raped. He subsquently became a fugitive. On October 2006 he was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison.
While he was on the run, Verbard and both Michels were indicted for the rape of a young boy.
On February 2008 Verbard was sentenced to 15 years in prison for rape and sexual assault.
Verbard founded his religious group in 2001. He claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to him on the 8th day of each month. According to Verbard, the Virgin Mary referred to him as the ‘Lily of Love.’
Followers paid Verbard €20.– to attend prayer meetings during which the Virgin Mary allegedly gave him messages to share with them.
Verbard’s “Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary” appears to have been inspired by The Order of Saint Charbel, an Australian cult whose founder, William Kamm, has also been jailed after being convicted of sexual abuse.