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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.”

Cult FAQ Frequently Asked Questions About Cults, Sects, and Related Issues

Includes definitions of terms (e.g. cult, sect, anticult, countercult, new religious movement, cult apologist, etcetera)

Plus research resources, and a listing of recommended cult experts
– CultFAQ is provided by Apologetics Index

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

Near-Death Experience

Police step in as acolytes of a German psychologist plan a space ride–or suicide–on a Spanish island

One sector of the city of Santa Cruz, capital of the Spanish island of Tenerife, is called el barrio de la Salud, meaning the healthy suburb. The local name proved a misnomer for a large group of visitors to the holiday resort last week, at least in the sense of mental health. Thirty-two Germans and one Spanish woman believed they were about to be lifted from Earth by a spaceship. Failing that, they were to commit group suicide. Their hopes were dashed but their lives saved when police entered a block of apartments in the suburb and detained them until the scheduled arrival of the spacecraft had passed.

The group’s leader, Heide Fittkau-Garthe, 57, a doctor of psychology with an office in Hamburg and a part-time resident of Tenerife for many years, was held for questioning. Her followers were required to remain on the island.

First reports said the group was a branch of the Solar Temple sect, which has arranged group suicides in France, Switzerland and Canada. But experts in both Spain and Germany say the group appears to be independent and based on faith in Fittkau-Garthe. Says Pepe Rodriguez, who runs a Barcelona-based anti-sect organization called EMAAPS, an acronym for Multidisciplinary Team for Assessment of and Help with Sect Problems: “It appears to be a group based on this woman. The structure, ritual and what’s known of its beliefs don’t indicate any link with the Solar Temple. Sects go through phases, such as oriental, religious, social, fundamentalist. In vogue now are groups thinking that after suicide they will board a spacecraft and be saved from the end of the world.” His view is supported by Renate Rennebach, a member of the German Bundestag’s commission investigating so-called sects, who says there appears to be no connection to the Solar Templars.

Cult FAQ Frequently Asked Questions About Cults, Sects, and Related Issues

Includes definitions of terms (e.g. cult, sect, anticult, countercult, new religious movement, cult apologist, etcetera)

Plus research resources, and a listing of recommended cult experts
– CultFAQ is provided by Apologetics Index

As with another apocalyptic group, Heaven’s Gate–39 of whose members took their lives in the U.S. last March in the belief that a UFO would lift them to a “next level”–the followers of Fittkau-Garthe are mainly well educated. Several have university degrees. Most are residents of Hamburg. The adults are aged from 20 to 60, and the group includes four girls and a boy aged 6 to 12.

The Canary Islands delegate for Spain’s central government, Antonio Lopez, said the followers are being regarded as “victims trapped in a process” and do not face charges. They were all maintaining silence last week, their chief concern being for the welfare of Fittkau-Garthe. It was unclear whether she would face charges.

Police had been watching the block of apartments in Santa Cruz for several days after the brother of a Munich-based member of the group alerted police about the planned mass suicide. The Spanish police are believed to have seized bottles of an unidentified liquid.

The site where the spacecraft was expected to land is on the slopes of Mount Teide, at 3,718 m the highest landmark in Spain. The group’s plan last Thursday was to drive most of the way in Jeeps, then walk to an appointed spot. Pepe Rodriguez, who has written seven books on sects, says he doubts that all of them would have died if no UFO had touched down at 8 p.m. “In other cases what has happened is that the group leader pretends to have received a last-minute message from the extraterrestrials saying the world has been given a new deadline,” he said. “Or a suicide ritual would have begun, and, as always happens, some acolytes would have changed their minds. Sometimes those who do so are executed, but we’ve had no indication in this case of execution plans.” Certainly in the case of other apocalyptic sects some of the deaths are murders; among the victims of the 1994 Swiss Solar Temple group “suicide” some had as many as eight bullet wounds in the head.

How a group of comfortably-off, educated people could become so seduced by Fittkau-Garthe that they would travel–on round-trip air tickets–to the Canary Islands to await a spaceship on the sides of a dormant volcano may never be known. Their figurehead’s voice could still be heard late last week on the answering machine at her Psychological Training Center in Hamburg. In a business-like but friendly tone Fittkau-Garthe invites callers to “leave a message of unlimited length.”

The Berlin-born psychologist married Bernd Fittkau, a professor of psychology. They had a son, now aged 20. The couple divorced 13 years ago after Heide had been to India in the mid-1980s and became a follower of Brahma Kumari, a group which promotes celibacy, veganism and Raja Yoga. According to Hansjorg Hemminger, co-author of a book on sects, Second-Hand Soul, Fittkau-Garthe set up the group centered on her in 1993, calling herself “The Source.” Her devout followers accepted her creed that the world faced destruction by an “earth-axis leap.” Last week they were waiting in Tenerife to be allowed to return to Germany to contemplate a near-fatal leap in credibility.

–With reporting by Ursula Sautter/Bonn