Cults: In the Reign of Fire

Time Magazine/October 17, 1994
By. Richard Lacayo

As a lecturer in Canada, France and Switzerland, Luc Jouret, a 46-year-old homeopathic physician and spiritual explorer, expounded New Age theories of child rearing and nutrition. But there were occasions when his audiences got a glimpse of a different Jouret, the would-be messiah who warned that the world would end soon in a convergence of environmental disasters and that only a select few would survive. Jouret liked to talk about the transformative power of fire: "We are in the reign of fire," he said on Swiss radio in 1987. "Everything is being consumed."

Last week Jouret's words seemed to hang in the air over the ashes at two sites in Switzerland and one in Canada where 53 of his followers and their children died. Police in two countries are trying to find out whether the deaths were mass suicide, mass murder or some bizarre combination of the two. An international arrest warrant has been issued for Jouret and fellow cult leader Joseph di Mambro, a 70-year-old French Canadian called "the Dictator" or "Napoleon" by some in the sect.

The grim tale began around midnight on Tuesday, when villagers in the tiny Swiss farm community of Cheiry, 45 miles northeast of Geneva, saw the moonless sky lit by flames over the farmhouse of Albert Giacobino, a wealthy retired farmer who had bought the place four years ago. Firemen who arrived at the scene found Giacobino dead from a gunshot wound. Tacked to a door of the farmhouse was an audiocassette with a rambling taped discourse about earth, sky and astrological alignments.

As firemen picked through the ruins of the partly burned barn, they discovered a number of undamaged rooms on the ground floor, including a chapel with mirrored walls and red satin draperies where 22 bodies lay, many cloaked in ceremonial white, gold, red or black robes. Most of the dead were arranged in a circle with their faces looking up at a portrait of a Christlike figure resembling Jouret. While some appeared to wear serene smiles, nearly all had suffered bullet wounds in the head. Ten had plastic bags tied over their heads. Several had their hands bound. In a final note of morbid festivity, the floor was scattered with empty champagne bottles.

About four hours later, in the Alpine village of Granges-sur-Salvan, 50 miles southeast of Cheiry, fires erupted at three adjoining ski chalets, including one that belonged to Jouret. This time police and firemen found 25 bodies, all of them badly burned, including the remains of at least five children. Earlier in the day two men identified themselves as Jouret and Di Mambro had got a local locksmith to admit them to the house. Both fires had been set off by the same elaborate system, in which plastic bags of gasoline and containers of propane gas were linked by electrical wires to a telephone. Its ringing could provide the electrical charge to ignite a fireball.

At the same time, police in Canada were raking through the rubble of a spacious chalet owned by Di Mambro in Morin Heights, 50 miles northwest of Montreal, where five bodies were found. Two were wearing red-and-gold medallions bearing a double-headed eagle and the initials T.S., for Temple Solaire, one name of Jouret's group. Three others- a Swiss man and his British-born wife, both former sect members, and their three-month-old-son - bore stab wounds.

For all the signs of foul play, at least some of the deaths may have been suicides, part of one more episode in a cult pathology to put beside the weird tragedies at Jonestown, Guyana and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. A victim was found with a letter to her family explaining that she had come to Switzerland to die. Jean-Francois Mayer, a Swiss authority on cults, made public three letters he said were posted to him by cult members before the fire. "We are leaving this earth," read one, "to rediscover, lucidly and freely, a dimension of truth and absoluteness."

Many other signs pointed to murder. The gun that fired the fatal shots in Cheiry was gone. One of the victims had been given a powerful drug. Swiss police speculated that Jouret, Di Mambro or both oversaw the death ritual in Cheiry, drove to Salvan to direct the second stage and then fled. "If this is suicide," said Andre Thierrien, a fireman in Cheiry, "then someone must have given them a helping hand." In Salvan, fully packed bags were found in apartments that had been rented by victims, suggesting that some had expected to make conventional departures from town.

There was also a motive for murder: money. Bank documents seized by police showed evidence of squabbling within the sect about finances. New members were charged steep initiation fees and required to sign away their assets. The sect acquired farms and lavish houses in Geneva, southern France and Quebec. A disaffected former follower, Rose Marie Klaus, told a Quebec newspaper last year that she and her husband had given nearly $500,000 to Jouret and never saw it again. Giacobino, the owner of the farm in Cheiry, was heard complaining to friends about Di Mambor's free-spending ways and threatening to pull out his investment.

Whatever the mixture of cold-blooded calculation and religious fanaticism that lay behind the deaths, all signs of both method and madness pointed to Jouret as the prime culprit. Born in Kitwit in the Belgian Congo, now Zaire, he went to Brussels in the 1970s for medical training, then moved around the world studying acupuncture and homeopathy, a system of treatment based on minimum doses of medication. Along the way he found himself drawn to the spiritual Arcana of the Knights Templar, a mystical brotherhood banned in France in the 14th century. Eventually he joined a French-based group called the Reformed Catholicism, yoga, alchemy and anti-communism under the leadership of an ex-Gestapo officer named Julien Origas. After Origas died in 1981, Jouret became leader.

Within three years he had left to set up his own Geneva-based cult, the Order of the Solar Temple, and a network of clubs that promoted his lectures and served as recruitment centers. He adapted Catholic rituals, including communion offered at masses where he played the priest. Like David Koresh, he eventually began urging his followers to stockpile an arsenal of weapons to prepare for the end of the world. In 1993 he fled Canada after pleading guilty of charges that he had tried illegally to obtain three gun with silencers.

Jouret is believed to have attracted up to 75 followers around Quebec and 200 more in Switzerland and France. Though some were recruited from among his patients, most learned of him through the lectures he gave on two continents. In 1988 and 1989 he was paid to speak at a public utility, Hydro-Quebec, where he talked of "self-realization" and recruited more than a dozen employees. Listeners who seemed receptive to his initial message might find themselves invited to join an inner circle where his full apocalyptic vision was unveiled.

Unlike the followers of Jim Jones and Koresh, Jouret's faithful did not live in tightly organized communes. For the most part they kept their day jobs and lived at their own addresses, often hiding their membership even from close friends. "We went about our daily lives, but we didn't belong to this world," said a former member who spoke anonymously on Swiss television. "Jouret made us feel we were a chosen and privileged congregation." But he still had the power to make them assemble when he called, though they may not have suspected the fate they were chosen for.

(Reported by Robert Kroon/Geneva, Thomas Sancton/Paris and Gavin Scott/Montreal)

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