Magistrate rejects idea that outsiders killed cultists

AFP/April 24, 2001

Grenoble, France -- The French magistrate who investigated the Order of the Solar Temple on Tuesday dismissed claims that 16 cultists found dead in France had been slaughtered by a gang from outside the sect.

Luc Fontaine told the trial of leading cult member Michel Tabachnik that 14 members of the Order found dead in December 1995 had been drugged and shot by two other cultists, who set the corpses alight before taking their own lives.

He insisted that no others were involved in the killings, in a remote part of the French Alps, rejecting a theory promoted by some of the victims' families that killers from oustide the group carried out the massacre.

Between 1994 and 1997 some 74 members of the doomsday cult died in what the court has heard were combined ritual killings and mass suicides in Switzerland, Canada and France.

Fontaine said that in the December 1995 killing, two cultists -- policeman Jean-Pierre Lanchet and architect Andre Friedli -- shot the others, including three children aged 18 months, two years and four years. Among the cult members only the mothers of the children appeared to have tried to resist their killers, as they had injuries other than the bullet holes to the head that had finished the others.

All the victims had been drugged and had plastic bags placed on their heads. The killers poured petrol over the bodies, set them alight then shot themselves in the head and fell into the flames, Fontaine said.

Lawyers acting for relatives of some of the victims have alleged that the victims were killed by a mysterious group armed with flame throwers, saying that there was not enough petrol at the scene to explain the destruction of the corpses.

But Fontaine said that an experiment carried out with 16 pig corpses dressed in anoraks had proved that even with the 20 litres of petrol thought to have been used the cultists could have been burned.

In a carpark near the massacre site police found the identity documents of the dead cultists, apparently left to make their identification easier. Five adepts also left notes declaring: "I am giving up my bodily envelope."

"There is no need to search for outside intervention in the murders and double suicide," Fontaine said, noting that cultists who were not "called" to sacrifice their lives had been disappointed.

The judge was speaking during the trial of 58-year-old Franco-Swiss orchestra conductor Michel Tabachnik, who is charged with being a "member of a criminal group."

The court has heard that Tabachnik was considered the third most senior leader in the cult and had written tracts deigned to condition adepts and encourage a "dynamic towards murder". He denies the charges. The trial is expected to continue until April 30.

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