Switzerland: Firefighters find 23 bodies in a remote farmhouse and 25 more in three Alps chalets. Victims were apparently members of a sect led by a fugitive Canadian.
Volunteer firefighters responding to a farmhouse fire in this tiny village early Wednesday uncovered an underground chapel and the robe-clad bodies of 23 people, members of an obscure cult joined in an apparent murder-suicide by 25 other adherents in three chalets 100 miles away.
The 48 grisly deaths were caused variously by suffocation, gunshots and perhaps drug overdoses, police said. The victims included French, Swiss and Canadian citizens, ranging in age from 10 to 73. Some died with their hands clasped in prayer.
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Authorities believe the deaths may be connected to similar deaths in Canada on Tuesday.
In Cheiry, 19 of the victims were found in one 30-yard-long room hidden beneath a secret door under a carpet in the garage. On the wall was a drawing of a bearded man, a “Jesus Christ-like figure,” as one official described it, wearing a cape and carrying a rose. On a makeshift altar were the French words for “the cross and rose,” which authorities believe is the name of a doomsday sect based in the Canadian province of Quebec.
“It was as if we were entering a wax museum,” said Andre Piller, the Swiss prosecutor investigating the massacre here. “Everything was peaceful, and the people looked passive. It was very horrifying.”
Most of the victims here had been shot once or twice in the head, and 10 had plastic bags cinched over their heads as well. Police said they found 52 casings at the scene from a .22-caliber rifle. The victims were lying on their backs in a circle. Most were wearing what the police said were ritual robes of white and red, white reportedly being the lowest rank in the order. One man, whom police described as a “grand master” of the sect, wore a black robe.
“There was blood everywhere,” said Pierre Torche, 35, the town mayor and one of the first firefighters to discover the bodies. “It was a bizarre sight.”
In two other rooms of the house, police and firefighters found four other victims, including a 10-year-old boy, who had been shot in the head. A woman, possibly the boy’s mother, lay dead next to him.
The owner of the farmhouse, identified as Alberto Giacomino, 73, was found on his bed, with gunshot wounds and a plastic bag over his head. In addition to the boy, the victims included 10 men, one 18 years old, and 12 women.
Members of the sect evidently intended to disappear in a fireball. Throughout the house, located about 40 miles northeast of Geneva, authorities found plastic bags filled with gasoline and bottles filled with propane gas. Some were hooked up to timing devices and telephone lines, apparently so they could be detonated by a phone call.
Only a few of the devices worked, however, and none of the victims in Cheiry was burned, police said.
“We’re still reeling from what we found,” Piller told a late-night news conference. “We have no indication why they chose this day for their mass suicide. At the moment, we have no idea why these people died. We aren’t even sure whether it’s a homicide or a suicide yet.”
An audiocassette tape found at the scene contained remarks about astrology, the police said, but it gave no reasons for the deaths.
About the same time that firefighters were making their discovery here, fires broke out in three ski chalets in the Swiss Alps, near Granges-sur-Salvan. A total of 25 bodies were pulled from those smoldering chalets Wednesday. There were no signs of violence in those deaths; most of the victims appeared to have died before the fires, perhaps having been poisoned or drugged, police said.
Investigators linked the two events when they found cars from Cheiry at the Alps massacre site. And two of the chalets were owned by Luc Jouret, 46, said by authorities and cult experts to be the leader of two related extremist sects: the Cross and Rose and the Order of the Solar Temple. Literature for the Cross and Rose was found in the Cheiry farmhouse along with other religious artifacts, police said.
Although all the victims in Switzerland have not been identified, authorities said that Jouret, who once described himself as “the new Christ,” did not appear to be among them.
Authorities were investigating links to the sect in Quebec, where an arson fire in a duplex next to one owned by Jouret left two people dead Tuesday morning.
Those victims, a man and a woman, were not yet identified. But police said they believed they were members of the cult.
“We found medallions around their necks with the inscription T and S, which could stand for Temple Soleil,” Michel Brunet, a spokesman for the provincial police, said. Temple Soleil is the French translation of Solar Temple.
Brunet also said the Canadian fire, on a mountainside in the town of Morin Heights about 50 miles north of Montreal, was caused by the same type of explosive device blamed in Switzerland–five gas tanks linked to each other with wires and timers.
Quebec police have long had the Solar Temple cult under investigation. Police arrested several members last year and charged them with illegal possession of weapons.
Jouret reportedly fled from Canada to Switzerland in 1993, when Canadian authorities issued a nationwide arrest warrant charging him with weapons possession and conspiracy.
Montreal Crown Prosecutor Jean-Claude Boyer, who worked on the arms case, said members of Solar Temple “saw themselves as superior human beings whose survival was needed to relaunch the human race after a cataclysm they saw coming because of the deterioration in world affairs.”
But Boyer said Jouret and his associates “looked like businessmen; there was nothing crazy about them.”
On Wednesday, the two-story farmhouse in Cheiry was blackened and smoldering. On a table inside in a room undamaged by fire was a red rose in a vase. The shells of two burned cars and a tractor were in the barn.
The tranquil, picturesque town of 230 inhabitants was shocked by the deaths but even more astonished that a cult could be operating in the prominent hillside home without being noticed.
Giacomino bought the farmhouse four years ago and lived there with four other people, residents said. Torche, the mayor, said the property had been purchased by a company that wanted to do “biological cultivation” research and had chosen the spot because it received more sun than houses nearer the town center in the valley.
Many in town remembered seeing the owner buying cigarettes at the cafe or stocking up on building supplies that he said were being used to renovate the farmhouse.
“We didn’t know him well,” said one neighbor. “But he seemed OK, just a nice old guy.”
“I didn’t find anything strange about the fact that they kept to themselves,” said Torche, the soot from the fire still clinging to his gray fireman’s jumpsuit 12 hours later. “A lot of people up here do.
Swiss authorities surmise that the house was a meeting place for the sect.
When the firefighters first arrived at the house, shortly after midnight, they battled the blaze for nearly four hours. Then, joined by the police, they searched for what they thought would be just the residents, starting in the woods and moving into the living quarters.
It was only after finding four victims in the house that they discovered the door leading to the windowless underground chapel.
“It was frightful,” said Beat Karlen, a spokesman for the police. “When you enter into a place like that, where you find so many bodies, it’s atrocious. Just atrocious.”
Times staff writer Stanley Meisler in Montreal contributed to this report.