Remains of the day

Time Magazine/October 24, 1994
By Michael S. Serrill

Allegations of Gunrunning in Australia and money laundering in Canada and Europe. A suicide note addressed to the French Interior Minister. Two more booby-trapped houses, primed to erupt in flames at a telephone call.

Those were some of the mysteries that tantalized investigators on three continents last week as they continued to probe the deaths of 53 members of the Order of the Solar Temple, and apocalyptic religious cult, in Switzerland and Canada two weeks ago. One question was answered: Luc Jouret, 46, the spiritual leader of the cult, was among those whose bodies were found in three burned ski chalets in Granges-ser-Salvan, east of Geneva. Jouret's charred remains, along with those of co-leader Joseph di Mambro, 70, were identified from dental records. The finding ended an international manhunt for the two men and left police to pull together from other sources basic facts about the Solar Temple, an organization that apparently milked followers of their money before taking their lives.

At least five children were among the 53 who died in what Swiss and Canadian officials believe was mass murder followed by mass suicide. Jouret, a Belgian born in Zaire, and Di Mombro, a French Canadian, apparently were among the suicides. Twenty-five people died at Granes-sur-Salvan, 23 in a barn in the village of Cheiry and five in the chalet north of Montreal. The sites were set on fire with devices made from canisters of gasoline and butane and a phone-activated detonator.

According to the evidence uncovered last week, most of the victims at Cheiry were shot, and the killer or killers then drove to Granges-sur-Salvan. "Some of the victims at Cheiry has as many as eight bullet wounds in the head," said a forensic expert at the University of Lausanne's Institute for Legal Medicine, which handled the autopsies. "That hardly suggested suicide." Police found 52 spent shells scattered at the Cheiry death site and later discovered at Granges-sur-Salvan the .22-cal. Pistol from which they had been fired. Canadian police said three of the five Quebec victims, who died about five days before the Swiss killings, were repeatedly stabbed; their suspected killers were believed to be among the suicides at Granges-sur-Salvan.

Why the mass deaths occurred remained unclear. The French daily Le Monde reported that the passports of Di Mambro and his French-born wife Jocelyne had been sent to Interior Minister Charles Pasqua only days before their deaths. A copy of a letter that began "Dear Charlie" was sent to the newspaper, claiming that the French embassy in Ottawa had been instructed by Paris to renew Jocelyne's passport last year, at a time when the couple were still living in Canada. It was Pasque's "desire to destroy" the Soalr Temple through "unsupportable harassment," the Di Mambros' letter said, that had led them to "decide to leave this terrestrial plane."

Some 300 officials and organizations worldwide received packets from the Solar Temple, all mailed by cult member Patrick Vaurnet, the son of one of France's best known skiers, on instructions from Jouret. Vaurnet, now in Swiss custody, was one of several well-connected converts to the Solar Temple, many of whom signed over their assets. Investigators suggested that the cult may have amassed as much as $93 million and that part of the money was used to support a posh life-style for Jouret and Di Mambro and to buy houses in Western Europe and Canada. Last week at least five more Temple properties were discovered. Two of them - an apartment near Montreuz, Switzerland, and a villa near Avignon, France - had been rigged to explode in flames.

Swiss, French and Canadian officials also probed the possibility that Jouret and Di Mambro had been involved in gunrunning or money-laundering schemes. Jouret had publicly urged followers to stockpile weapons to prepare for the end of the world and last year pleaded guilty in Canada to illegal arms possession. Canadian officials confirmed they were pursuing specific information implicating Di Mambro in money laundering, but they expressed skepticism at a report that Solar Temple leaders had purchased guns and other military equipment in Australia and resold the material in the Third World.

While Australian federal police found no such link, they discovered Jouret and Di Mambro had repeatedly visited the country beginning in the mid-1980s. People who met Jouret say he was fascinated by Ayers Rock, the huge monolith sacred to the Aborigines that rises from the desert floor in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. He apparently told acquaintances that the rock's "mystic appeal" had drawn to hold a religious service there. The Aborigines, who control access to Ayers Rock, turned him down.

(Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris, Robert Kroon/Geneva and Gaven Scott/Ottawa)

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