Boy, 12, free as cops nab guru

Herald Sun, Australia/August 7, 2007
By Idriss Issa

An island cult guru and fugitive child rapist has been arrested over the abduction of a boy, 12, who was found unharmed.

French police on the Indian Ocean territory of Reunion Island moved in after surrounding the house where Alexandre Thelahire was being held by the cult.

He had been seized on Friday from his home in the capital, Saint Denis, by four suspected members of The Painful and Immaculate Heart of Mary cult.

Its guru, Juliano Verbrand, claims to receive regular visitations from the Virgin mary.

The 25-year-old and nine of his suspected lietunenats as well as about 10 followers, were arrested, police said.

Alexandre was safe and had not been physically abused, deputy prosecutor Dominique Audureau said on radio.

French interior minister Michele Alliot-Marie praised the island's law enforcement services for quickly recovering the boy and arresting Verbrand, who had been on the run since 2006, when he was convicted of raping a 13-year-old boy.

Mr Audureau said Verbrand was the "most wanted man in Reunion and the mastermind of the cult", adding that he hoped "we hope we have put a definitive stop to this cult".

Alexandre's mother, Catherine, who is related to a cult member, said four masked men had broken into her home, bound and gagged her, and then bundled her son into a car.

She said cult members believed Alexandre was destined to take over from Verbrand as their guru, and they had taken him from his home once before, on July 9, before returning him the following morning.

Earlier, police said one of the suspected kidnap gang members had been detained on Saturday at the home of a cult follower.

The suspect admitted his role in the abduction and directed police to a spot where the boy had been held, but that place was empty when police arrived.

Road blocks were set up to recover the boy and steps taken to ensure he could not be smuggled out of the country.

Verbrand created the cult in 2001 after saying he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary. He is thought to have about 40 followers.

Sued by cult members who accused him of molesting their teenage children, Verbrand jumped bail before he was convicted last year and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

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