UNDER THE SPELL OF A MADMAN
A new book examines the rise and fall of Rock Thériault’s cult of horror
THE MACLEAN'S EXCERPT
The former cult leader spends 23 hours a day locked in his cell at Kingston Penitentiary. Rock Thériault’s crimes defy comprehension: sentenced in October, 1989, to 12 years (later reduced to 10) for a brutal attack that severed the arm of a follower, Gabrielle Lavallée; sentenced in January this year to life imprisonment for second-degree murder in the gruesome death in 1988 of another acolyte, Solange Boilard. Court testimony has revealed that Thériault, a 46-year-old hustler from Thetford-Mines, Que., committed some of the worst atrocities in the annals of Canadian crime. Yet a new book by two Maclean’s staffers, Ontario Bureau Chief Paul Kaihla and Senior Editor Ross Laver, lays out for the first time the horrendous scope of his barbarous acts-—and the terms of a previously undisclosed plea bargain. In return for the Crown’s commitment not to press other charges, Thériault pleaded guilty to second-degree murder—and will be eligible to apply for parole as early as 1999.
In Savage Messiah, published by Doubleday Canada this week, Kaihla and Laver recount “a veritable litany of horrors” that police investigators uncovered. The book also examines the vexing question of how 13 of Thériault’s followers, mainly young college dropouts and social misfits from Quebec, could fall inexorably under his spell, even as his unspeakable acts of violence escalated. In the following condensed excerpt, Thériault begins to exercise his bizarre hold over his flock as they establish their first commune, in a remote stretch of bush in Quebec’s Gaspé peninsula, in July of 1978:
Pitching tents in a clearing, they spent the first week trudging back and forth to the spot on the roadside where they had left their vehicles, lugging in heavy tools, cooking utensils and huge sacks of supplies as if they were pack mules. Rising at 5 a.m. and working until well after sunset, they cut down trees with a chainsaw and began to construct a crude octagonal log cabin to Rock’s specifications. The rough terrain made bringing in food difficult, so Rock introduced rationing. “We never ate breakfast,” Claude Ouellette recalled. “Thériault would have the women bring us a small lunch portion, but barely enough to keep us going. We were always hungry, always hoping we’d get our fair share at suppertime. And we knew if we disobeyed his orders we’d be punished by receiving smaller portions.”
By September, the cabin was ready. That same month, to symbolize the group’s break from society, Rock assigned biblical names to each of his followers based on their ancient meanings. His wife, Gisèle, became Esther (star);
Reprinted, with permission, from Savage Messiah: The Shocking Story of Cult Leader Rock Thériault and the Women Who Loved Him, copyright © Paul Kaihla and Ross Laver, published by Doubleday Canada Ltd.
Solange Boilard became Rachel (lamb); Gabrielle Lavallée became Thirtsa (charmer); Francine Laflamme became Hogla (partridge) ; Nicole Ruel became Debora (queen bee); Chantal Labrie became Ruth (companion); Josée Pelletier became Noa (comfort); Marise Lambert became Sara (princess); Maryse Grenier became Rebecca (ensnarer); her husband, Jacques Giguère, became Nathan (what God gives); Claude Ouellette became Boaz (the one with strength); Gabrielle Nadeau became Machia (beauty); and Jacques Fiset became Josuah (of whom God is salvation). Having led his tribe into the wilderness at God’s instruction, Rock decided to name himself Moses.
When they weren’t working like slaves, Rock lectured his flock about the decadence of modern civilization. To purify themselves they first had to recognize that society was corrupt and evil—Rock called it “the world of the dead.” Their families were among the worst transgressors. Night after night, Moses coaxed his hungry and exhausted followers to bare their secrets and discuss their troubled childhoods. As the list of grievances grew, he replayed them over and over again as evidence that their parents were agents of Satan. Now, deep in the bush and safe from society’s depravity, they had a new family. Rock was the father, Papy. Gisèle was their mother, Mamy.
‘Thériault entrenched this image in us,” Marise Lambert remembered. “We were not allowed to speak of any happy family memories. •We always tried to denigrate our parents because our parents were supposed to be bad. Our parents didn’t give us good things. Anything that was good had to come from Rock.”
The hunger, sleep deprivation and constant frenetic activity left Rock’s followers even more vulnerable to suggestion. ‘We really believed that he was a representative of God,” Gabrielle said. “I remem-
■ A charismatic hustler from small-town Quebec, Thériault (above with his commune ‘wives,’ and opposite) benefited from a plea-bargain deal that kept evidence out of court ber listening to him at one point and thinking there was something strange going on here. I told myself that I had to find five minutes the next day to think about it. But there was never any time.”
On the surface, it seemed simple: a dominant figure taking advantage of a collection of weak-willed acolytes. But on a deeper level, Rock and his followers had developed a kind of mutual dependence. His entire adult life had been spent trying to impress others and gain their approval. Now, he was surrounded by a group of people whose admiration for him knew no bounds. In their weakened states they had come to depend on him for the necessities of life. Driven by feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt, they sought to submerge their own identities in a more powerful and glorious entity. The harder Moses drove them, the more they sought shelter under the umbrella of his strength. It was as though the very act of suffering reinforced their psychological bond to Rock, just as their abject subservience supported his claim to be their absolute master. They needed him as much as he needed them.
As the obsequiousness of his followers fuelled his delusions, Rock’s obsession with religion became more intense. He seemed to find precedents in the Bible for every aspect of the group’s existence. His favorite passages in the Scriptures were the stories of King David and King Solomon, epics filled with violence, intrigue and calamity—and a seemingly unlimited supply of concubines. It wasn’t long before Rock decided that it had been selfish of him to withhold his sexual benefaction from the other women in the group.
The turning point came in October after Gisèle, who was six months pregnant, mentioned to Rock that several of the unmarried women were lonely. He had forbidden the single men and women in the group to sleep with each other or to mix with outsiders. “Finally I went to him,” Gisèle recalled, “and said, ‘Rock, it’s not normal. Those girls need men, and the men need women.’ He looked at me strangely. And after that he went to the girls and said, You know, Mamy said you need men. You can’t survive without men—it’s the law of nature.’ He put it in their minds that it was my idea.”
A few nights later, Nicole told Gisèle that she’d had intercourse with Rock in one of the lofts, while everyone else was working outside. Devastated, Gisèle ran off into the bush crying, with Rock in hot pursuit. He caught her, threw her on the ground and began to choke her. His eyes were wild with rage. “My name is Moses and I am your master,” he screamed. ‘You will obey me. If you don’t do what I tell you, the Lord will crush your skull.”
Then, one by one, Rock took each of the women to be his wife, with the sole exception of Jacques’s wife, Maryse Grenier. “It began during that first fall in the Gaspé,” Marise Lambert recalled. “It was one marriage ritual after the other, over a period of months. He planted the idea, using the story of King David and his wives. Some of us had no boyfriends or husbands, and we were out in the woods. So we weren’t opposed to this. In the Bible, the harem was very beautiful and good.”
As Thériault began to play out his sexual fantasies with the commune women, he abandoned what remained of his holistic lifestyle. The onetime proponent of vegetarianism and natural healing was suddenly consuming meat again and devouring Pepsi and potato chips as if they were going out of style. Many of the groceries were donated by sympathetic area residents, who made regular runs into the compound that winter by snowmobile. Not all of the
contributions were charitable. On at HHj Thériault’s loyal least one occasion, Rock ordered PB: followers suffered Gabrielle to have sex with a local under his command. shopkeeper in return for milk, meat Gabrielle Lavallée (above) and cheese. She complied reluctanthad her right arm ly, hoping to please her master. amputated in a brutal
After two years on the wagon, assault. Solange Boilard Rock had also rediscovered his love (below with her ‘master’) of alcohol. At first, it was just ceremosuffered many times at his nial wine, which he purchased by the hands before dying an case to use during prayers and while agonizing death in 1988. reciting from the Bible. Soon he graduated to beer and bottles of cognac. He could drink for hours without slurring his speech, but after downing half-a-dozen beers he would become boastful and belligerent.
Alcohol frequently evoked a kind of monstrous brutality in Rock. Often when he drank, he would keep his followers up all night. If anyone dared to fall asleep during one of his rambling sermons, he would grab a four-inch-thick wooden club and beat the offender in full view of his frightened assembly.
One of Rock’s favorite targets was Maryse Grenier’s baby boy, Samuel Giguère. As with every child who was not his own, Rock considered him an “animal” and ordered that he sleep apart from his parents in an unheated workroom. When Samuel cried, Rock instructed Jacques Giguère, the infant’s father, to strip him naked and roll him in the snow. The young child’s feet turned purple and his penis swelled up from sleeping on the cold ground.
Once, when Maryse Grenier began to talk about leaving the commune, Rock instructed Jacques to discipline her by cutting off one of her toes with an ax. Jacques shuddered at the thought of harming his wife, but Rock kept goading him. “What are you, a faggot?” he yelled. “Don’t you have any balls? If you want to be a man, you have to learn how to teach your woman a lesson.” Jacques broke into tears. Rock then grabbed the ax and threatened to cut off all of Maryse’s toes. Reluctantly, Jacques took the ax back. Aiming carefully so that he would not do more damage than was necessary, he swung and severed one of his wife’s small toes.
In 1982, Thériault was convicted of criminal negligence in the death of an abused two-year-old boy on the commune. Released from jail in 1984, he relocated his group on an isolated 200-acre tract of partly cleared land near Burnt River in central Ontario, 50 km northwest of Peterborough. Soon, the pattern of brutality re-emerged. Acting on reports of child abuse, the local Children’s Aid Society raided the commune in late 1985 and placed all 14 children in foster homes. In the following months, CAS workers documented a shocking litany of physical and sexual abuse. But what appeared to be a clear-cut case for making the children permanent wards of the Crown encountered unexpected opposition from an independent team of childabuse experts that had been asked by the family court to assess conditions at the commune.
With all of the evidence the Children’s Aid Society was compiling, CAS worker Georgia Brown felt sure that the application for Crown wardship, allowing the foster families to adopt the children, would be an open-and-shut case. Early on, Rock himself had said that he did not intend to contest the application because it would be “too expensive.”
What the CAS hadn’t bargained on were the findings of the court-ordered independent assessment. Incredibly, the team filed a 300-page report strongly recommending that every one of the children be returned to the Burnt River compound as soon as possible.
The assessment had been bungled from the start. Although the request for the evaluation was issued on Dec. 10,1985, it took the director of the family court assessment clinic until March to find a francophone who was willing to oversee the project. The director gave the contract to Rhéal Huneault, the dean of social work at Sudbury’s Cambrian College and the former director of a Children’s Aid Society in eastern Ontario. Huneault’s job was to prepare a social history of the commune, based in part on records compiled by social workers in Quebec.
For the psychological evaluations of the children and the mothers, Huneault hired a bilingual professor from Sudbury’s Laurentian University, Dr. Martine Miljkovitch. An expert in child abuse who received her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Paris in 1972, Miljkovitch knew Huneault because both were called in by the Sudbury CAS from time to time as consultants in cases involving francophone families.
Miljkovich set herself up in a borrowed office in the CAS headquarters in Lindsay, Ont. There, in a matter of a few weeks, she interviewed all eight of the commune wives and Rock himself. She also performed psychological tests on eight commune children between the ages of 3 and 9, spending about three hours with each (the other children were deemed too young to be evaluated).
One of the problems, Miljkovitch concluded, was that the commune adults exposed their children to sex at an “unreasonably early age.” Among other things, they were allowed to assist with childbirths, play with each other sexually and watch while adults made love and masturbated.
“It was an extremely liberal sense of sexuality,” she said in a June, 1993, interview. “There was a kind of naive attitude that you have to expose children to these things because they are part of nature.
Certainly, the children were allowed to have sexual activities among themselves, but the principles behind it weren’t bad. Rock Thériault would also demonstrate how the penis worked by masturbating in front of the children. But he didn’t do it for his own satisfaction; he did it as a form of education. I thought that was an important distinction.”
In fact, in her written assessment and during 11 days of testimony at the wardship hearing in the fall of 1986, Miljkovitch praised Rock’s pioneering spirit and his courage and fortitude in leading his group back to nature.
By contrast, she said, the government workers who had dealt with him since his arrival in the province were heartless and barbaric.
Seven years later, Miljkovitch stands by her assessment. During the 1993 interview, she insisted that it was unfair of the CAS to intervene so forcefully. “I think Rock was drinking from time to time, but I don’t think he was abusive to the point that the children should be taken away,” said Miljkovitch, who is now chief psychologist for Sudbury’s French-language public school board, in addition to her professorship at Laurentian. “You have to understand that he was under so much stress.”
Had it not been for Miljkovitch’s recommendation to return the children to the commune, the hearing on the Crown wardship application might have lasted only a few weeks. Instead, it continued for 45 days over a period of eight months, with 30 witnesses and 45 exhibits. Rock and his disciples showed up on the first day of testimony and then walked out. They fired their court-appointed lawyer and ignored repeated requests to return.
It was just as well, because Judge Lucien Beaulieu had little time for Rock and his antics. His 83-page ruling and reasons for judgment— which is dated Oct. 26,1987, but has never been made public—painted the commune leader as a calculating dictator who had taken over the lives of his followers and controlled them like sheep. Concluding that there was a substantial risk that the children would be “sexually molested or exploited” if they were returned to their group, he ordered that they be made wards of the Crown, with no parental access. The judge also had plenty of things to say about Huneault [and] Miljkovitch—none of them flattering. “After having seen the way they handled themselves during cross-examination, the court finds their testimony to be unreliable,” he wrote. On top of that, he added, Miljkovitch and Huneault were unqualified to carry out the assessment. They had used none of the standard techniques for uncovering abuse, failed to interview the foster parents, performed no psychological assessment of the natural parents and made no attempt to ascertain how the parents related to the children. Their findings were “disconcerting, illogical and without any stated purpose.”
In sum, Judge Beaulieu said, the assessment team’s submission was “one of the most deplorable reports the Court has ever seen.”
Over the next two years, Thériault’s violence reached a crescendo. On Oct. 6, 1989, police arrested the cult leader and several of his followers on assault charges related to the brutal amputation of Gabrielle Lavallée’s right arm. At the time, the authorities were also getting their first sketchy accounts of an even more horrifying incident on the commune in
the previous year—Solange Bollard’s agonizing death the day after Thériault cut her open and tore out a section of her intestines. As he pleaded guilty to the assault charges—presumably thinking that would put an end to any further investigation—Thériault was unaware that police were starting to look into Boilard’s death. On Dec. 18, 1990, an Ontario judge, concluding that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that the killing was premeditated, committed Thériault to trial on a charge of second-degree murder. But the legal dealing did not stop there.
There was even a pretty good chance that Julian Falconer, Thériault’s legal-aid lawyer, could knock the second-degree murder charge down to manslaughter by emphasizing that his client had been drunk at the time of the “operation.” If that happened, Rock would be out on the street within two or three years.
But the cops had one last weapon in their arsenal. Diligently, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Det. Const. Bob Bowen had compiled an exhaustive file on the major injuries sustained by each of the commune members. In some cases, he interviewed the victims four or five times, taking dozens of photographs of their scars. Those who were still loyal to Rock, like Nicole Ruel, refused to co-operate with the investigation, so Bowen subpoenaed their prison medical records. In the end, he catalogued 84 attacks Rock had committed against his followers since the cult had moved to Ontario in 1984. Bowen and his superior, Det. Insp. Bob Adams of the OPP criminal investigations branch in Toronto, were hoping to use the 277page brief to have Rock declared a dangerous offender. A successful application would keep Rock behind bars indefinitely, with no automatic entitlement to parole.
When Falconer got wind of the evidence that Bowen had compiled, he decided it was time to make a deal. His client would plead guilty to the second-degree murder charge in return for a commitment that the Crown would not press charges on any of the other criminal acts that had come to light during the three-year police investigation. That would force them to drop the dangerous offender application. Not insignificantly, a guilty plea would also ensure that most of the details of Rock’s sordid behavior over the years never entered the public record. □