Devotion to a sect, then slow starvation

How could three members of a Miami family starve to death? Letters found in their apartment offer insight into the bizarre case in Apt. B.

The Miami Herald/November 6, 2010

On the wall was a President Supermarkets calendar with a kitten on the cover, and the days X'ed out, one by one.

In the bedroom, two women - a mother and her adult daughter - lay in side-by-side beds covered in blankets. Near the front door was the man of the house, Daniel Boli-Gbagra.

Like the women - his wife and stepdaughter - Boli-Gbagra, 48, was dead, wasted away in what police say appears to have been a case of slow, collective starvation.

Boli-Gbagra, apparently the last to die, had stuffed clothes under the door frame.

In the white-tiled, one-bedroom Miami apartment were books and hand-scrawled notes attesting to the family's devotion to a sect that believes in extraterrestrial beings and human cloning. As their lives flickered out, they wrote vivid, rambling letters in French invoking their faith and cataloging their physical and mental state.

To homicide investigators, death is a part of everyday life. They are summoned when a corpse is discovered and attempt to piece together the puzzle.

The strange deaths of Boli-Gbagra, his wife Magali Gauthier, 48 and her 23-year-old daughter, Tara Andreze-Louison, have yielded no such closure, just questions that have cops and the staff of the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's office genuinely perplexed.

"I've not had a case like this," said Dr. Emma Lew, Miami-Dade deputy chief medical examiner with 20 years' experience. "It's a fascinating case."

Seemingly they just gave up on society, said homicide Detective Roderick Passmore.

"It's one of those cases, when I retire, I'll never know," Passmore said.

Family life

What police do know about Boli-Gbagra is that he lived a quiet life in what was likely a noisy apartment, situated just off the Airport Expressway and the elevated tracks of the north leg of Metrorail. Cars and trains rumbled past day and night.

A former New York cabbie originally from the Ivory Coast, Boli-Gbagra had relocated by 2007 to South Florida, getting a job at Winn-Dixie in the produce department.

After putting down new roots, he filed for divorce from his then-wife, listing his expenses at $1,200 a month.

On May 4, 2009, Boli-Gbagra married Gauthier, originally from Martinique. A Miami-Dade County deputy clerk performed the civil ceremony.

The two of them and Gauthier's daughter lived at 1860 NW 41st St., Apartment B.

They weren't hermits. Because the family didn't have a car and walked everywhere, people along 41st Street saw them often. Sometimes the women dropped in at the Winn-Dixie where Boli-Gbagra worked. They also frequented the local branch of the public library across from the supermarket.

The women, both coiffed in distinctive Afros, communicated little, however, often not even looking up when neighbors said hi. Sometimes they would walk to the other side of the street to avoid contact.

As for Boli-Gbagra, "he was quiet, but he liked to talk when people talked to him," said Apoleon Louissaint, who trained him for his job at Winn-Dixie.

He favored plantains and boniatos but stayed away from soda.

"He liked to have a diet to clean the inside," he said.

Troubled duplex

Like a lot of South Florida real estate, the duplex they lived in had problems. It got tangled up in foreclosure as early as 2007. With the owner mired in bankruptcy, the bank took over the property.

When the water and electricity were shut off, tenants were offered checks to relocate. But Boli-Gbagra turned down the $1,500, even though, at some point, he lost his job at the Winn-Dixie.

With the taps shut off, Boli-Gbagra would turn to neighbors and others for water. He and the women could be seen pushing a shopping cart filled with water in milk jugs down the street.

Anthony Vargas, who lived next door, noticed that the daughter seemed disturbingly gaunt. He knocked on the door to check on the family's well-being, but there was no answer.

Another neighbor offered to get the family help from her church, but they declined.

Katty Snipe - Gauthier's sister, who lives in New York - told police she could not believe they didn't reach out to her for assistance.

Gruesome find

On the morning of April 13, a foul odor brought police to Apartment B.

It appeared that Gauthier had been the first to die, followed by her daughter, then Boli-Gbagra.

Investigators believe the deaths may have been spaced out over nearly two months.

Among the items found in the sparsely furnished apartment: several French magazines and books - including Let's Welcome the Extraterrestrials and Yes to Human Cloning - connected with the Raelian movement.

The movement was born in 1973 when then race-car journalist Claude Vorilhon met an extraterrestrial in a French "volcano park" and was enlightened, he said. Vorilhon took the name Rael.

The sect believes life was created by the "Elohim" - scientists who came from another planet.

Elohim is the word for "God" in Hebrew, but Raelians say it really means "those who came from the sky."

The Raelians, who built a headquarters near Montreal called UFOland, gained notoriety in 2002 when a scientist linked to the movement claimed to have created the first human clone. The announcement created a sensation, then was revealed to be a hoax.

The Raelians' website says there are 70,000 members in 97 countries, though experts think that could be grossly exaggerated.

Tortured Diary

Handwritten notes inside the apartment detailed the family's slow and agonizing decline.

"Today it has been eight days since we haven't had anything to eat," read one entry. "We don't have any money either. Without recourse, we will be headed toward death."

The letter writer beseeched "the hand of Elohim to come and help us. That was our constant prayer. . . . We are messengers here to accomplish the mission on behalf of the creatures of Elohim."

As the days passed, the pleas became more desperate.

"There are some days when I have asked you to give us something to eat because we are about to die from hunger. Yesterday was 16 days since we haven't eaten."

Another handwritten note, not dated or signed, says: "Today Daniel said that we had to pray for someone to give us something to eat . . . that all of America knew in what condition we were in and did nothing so now we have to pray to our god Elohim and they said that they would give us money to be able to eat."

Detectives believe from the letters that the family "somehow thought they'd be provided for," said Sgt. Eunice Cooper with Miami homicide. "How that provision was supposed to come is a mystery."

Susan Palmer, a Montreal sociologist who has studied the Raelians for more than 15 years, said the idea of asking Elohim for help does not fit in with Raelian doctrine.

"Rael is the only one who talks to the Elohim," she said. "I would guess they're likely newcomers [to the movement]. They don't really understand the culture. It doesn't fit in with the way the religion works. Raelians don't pray to the Elohim to get a job or money or food."

The questions

The bodies were carted off to the medical examiners office, the women cremated.

Someone created a memorial on the terra-cotta stoop of Apartment B - a white teddy bear with pink paws, three plastic Gatorade bottles with the tops cut off to hold candles, and a bluish vase holding artificial red roses and peach calla lilies.

Six months later, the flowers are scattered and the bear is weather-worn.

And for detectives, the mystery still haunts.

"A homicide is much simpler than this because with this you have nothing," Cooper said. "You have people you've met in death and no one knows about them - trying to piece together what they were like, how they lived." "There are so many things we'll never know."

Miami Herald researcher Rachael Coleman and staff writers Kathleen McGrory and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.

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