Cult leader jailed for prison escape by helicopter

RFI/June 2, 2012

Leader of a cult on the French Indian Ocean island of Réunion has been jailed for 13 years for making a dramatic prison escape in a helicopter that had been hijacked by three of his followers.

The court jailed 30-year-old Juliano Verbard along with his 27-year-old lover, Fabrice Michel, with whom he had contracted a civil union while in Domenjod prison, and Michel's father, 54-year-old Jusmy.

The father and son received sentences of 10 and 13 years respectively.

One of the followers who had organised the escape received a 13-year sentence, the other two 10 years each.

Six women were found guilty of aiding the fugitives and given sentences of between six months suspended and eight years in jail.

The escape took place in 2009, when Verbard, the founder and guru of the Painful and Immaculate Heart of Mary cult, was serving time for rape and sexual abuse of several under-age boys, one of whom he had kidnapped and designated his successor.

Three of his male followers, posing as hikers, hijacked the helicopter, dousing it and its pilot in petrol and forcing the pilot and engineer at gunpoint to fly to Domenjod prison.

They let down a rope ladder to allow the three prisoners to climb up and then set them down at a spot several hundred yards away where a van was waiting to take them away.

Police caught up with the fugitives in a small apartment in a poor area of the French-run island's main town Saint-Denis-de-la-Réunion.

At his trial Verbard admitted that he had lied when he claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared to him in visions and claimed to have cut all links with the cult's several hundred members.

He had already been condemned to terms of 18 and nine years for statutory rape of the sons of two of his followers in 2010 and 2011.

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