The leader of a cult on the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion has been jailed for 13 years for making a dramatic prison escape in a helicopter that had been hijacked by three of his followers.
The court jailed 30-year-old Juliano Verbard along with his 27-year-old lover, Fabrice Michel, with whom he had contracted a civil union while in Domenjod prison, and Michel’s father, 54-year-old Jusmy.
The father and son received sentences of 10 and 13 years respectively.
One of the followers who had organised the escape received a 13-year sentence, the other two 10 years each.
Six women were found guilty of aiding the fugitives and given sentences of between six months suspended and eight years in jail.
The escape took place in 2009, when Verbard was serving time for rape and sexual abuse of several young boys, one of whom Verbard kidnapped and named his successor.
Three of Verbard’s male followers hijacked the helicopter and forced the crew at gunpoint to fly it to the prison. Once at Domenjod prison, they let down a rope ladder, allowing Verbard and the Michels to climb aboard. They were then dropped off several hundred yards away from the prison where a van was waiting to take them away.
Verbard founded Coeur Douloureux et Immaculé de Marie (Painful and Immaculate Heart of Mary), in 2001 after saying he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The cult is thought to have had about 40 followers.
In 2006 Verbard skipped bail just before he was to stand trial for molesting and raping a 13 year old boy, the son of devotees.
He was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in jail. A year later four members of his cult were charged with kidnapping. The had snatched 12 year old Alexandre Thelahire, whom they believed to be Verbard’s eventual successor. Taken from his home, the boy was forced to participate in a midnight mass with cult members before he was returned to his family the next morning.
At his trial Verbard admitted that he had lied when he claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to him in visions and claimed to have cut all links with the cult’s several hundred members.
He had already been condemned to terms of 18 and nine years for statutory rape of the sons of two of his followers in 2010 and 2011.