COVER

Apocalysse Now

Mystery surrounds the violent deaths of 53 people linked to a bizarre cult

ROSS LAVER October 17 1994
COVER

Apocalysse Now

Mystery surrounds the violent deaths of 53 people linked to a bizarre cult

ROSS LAVER October 17 1994

Apocalysse Now

Mystery surrounds the violent deaths of 53 people linked to a bizarre cult

ROSS LAVER

ANN McLAUGHLIN

DAN HAWALESHKA

COVER

Death is the ultimate stage of personal growth.

—Cult leader Luc Jouret, in a cassette widely distributed through New Age stores in Quebec.

We are leaving this Earth to find, in all lucidity and freedom, a new dimension of truth and absolution.

—From a letter purportedly written by one of Jouret’s followers before police discovered the bodies of 53 people linked to the sect.

Mid-1980s: Luc Jouret brings followers from Switzerland and France to Quebec.

1987: Jouret and two others establish the Order of the Solar Temple in Quebec. 1990: Jouret eased out as main leader of the order, and founds another group called ARCHS (Academy for Research and Knowledge of Advanced Science). January, 1993: Jouret resigns from the order’s executive committee.

March, 1993: Jouret and two followers charged with possessing illegal weapons.

July, 1993: Jouret pleads guilty to reduced charges and leaves Quebec, apparently for Switzerland.

Oct. 4-5, 1994: At least 53 people linked to the cult die in Switzerland and Ste-Anne-de-la-Pérade, Quebec. Jouret is unaccounted for.

For close to a decade, Luc Jouret nursed two seemingly paradoxical obsessions. A self-styled homeopathic healer, he rarely missed an opportunity to lecture people on how, by following his teachings, they could achieve happier and more fulfilling lives. But among his closest associates, the 46-year-old Belgian and sometime Quebec resident dis played an even more powerful fascination with a darker subjectdeath. The world was hurtling towards Judgment Day, he claimed, and only those who subscribed to his strange blend of Catholicism and the occult would escape the impending cataclysm. Last week, the long-awaited apocalypse finally struck, but its only victims were Jouret's hapless followers-and, per haps, the charismatic cult leader himself.

Maurice Soudre was one of the first outsiders to witness the tragic consequences of Jouret’s rantings. A real estate agent in the ski-resort town of Morin Heights, 75 km north of Montreal, he awoke last Tuesday morning to the sound of a passerby rapping on his front door, alerting him to a fire next door. Soudre, believing that the 15-room mansion was unoccupied, telephoned the fire department, which extinguished the blaze within 30 minutes. Only later did police discover the badly charred bodies of a man and woman, as well as several pendants with the letters T and S intertwined, and another depicting one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse carrying a skull and sickle. The property, investigators said, belonged to Jouret and another man, Joseph Di Mambro, known to police in Switzerland as a wealthy member of the Order of the Solar Temple, the secretive sect Jouret helped to establish in the early 1980s.

At first, police in Quebec treated the fire as an isolated case of arson—probably the result of a suicide pact, they said, noting that the house had been rigged with an elaborate system of wires, timers and containers of gasoline. Less than 12 hours later, however, there was an even more shocking tragedy. In the picture-postcard Swiss farming village of Cheiry, 25 km southwest of Bern, police found the bodies of 23 people in a fire-damaged farmhouse belonging to the same sect. Twenty of the corpses had bullet wounds, and nine also had plastic bags tied over their heads. An additional 25 victims, including several children, were discovered in two bumed-out chalets at another cult property in Granges-surSalvan, 160 km to the south (page 18). As in Quebec, all the fires appeared to have been ignited by a sophisticated network of telephones, timers, heating rods and plastic bags filled with gasoline and benzene. Among the dead were as many as 11 Quebecers, including Robert Ostiguy, 50, mayor of the Montreal-area town of Richelieu, his wife, Françoise, 47, Joce-Lyne Grand’Maison, a 44-year-old journalist with the tabloid Le Journal de Québec, and Robert Falardeau, 47, a senior adviser in the provincial finance ministry.

Bizarre as those events seemed, there was more to come—tales of secret bank accounts, strange sex rituals and illegal arms dealing, topped off by a simmering transatlantic feud between Jouret’s group and a rival faction still active in Quebec. Sifting through the rubble in Morin Heights, police found three more bodies, bringing the total number of dead to 53. One theory was that Jouret had been embroiled in a power struggle with another branch of the Solar Temple, from which he had broken away in early 1993. Adding to the intrigue was speculation that Di Mambro was involved in the international arms trade—a story that seemed strikingly at odds with Jouret’s involvement last year in an amateurish scheme to buy used handguns. Still, an RCMP spokesman confirmed on the weekend that the force had indeed been looking into a money-laundering operation involving “certain members of the Order of the Solar Temple.” And in Ottawa, an official of the Royal Bank said it had alerted police in July to “unusual activity” in an account belonging to a Solar Temple member.

‘Before every ritual, he would have sex to give him spiritual strength for the ceremony’

Initially, Swiss authorities described the deaths there as a case of collective suicide. André Piller, an investigating judge in Cheiry, said that most of the bodies were clothed in ceremonial robes and were lying in a circle, hands clasped as though in prayer. There were no obvious signs of a struggle. But a day later, Piller revealed that some of the victims had been administered a “powerful, violent substance” before they died. And in Morin Heights, provincial police Const. Michel Brunet said that there were stab wounds on the bodies of a married couple found wrapped in a carpet and blankets in a basement alcove; nearby, their baby lay hidden behind a water heater, its head wrapped in a plastic bag. Piller said that while there were still grounds to believe that some of the victims committed suicide, other elements of the case “make us think of an execution.”

Mystery also surrounded the whereabouts of Jouret—who, by week’s end, was the subject of an international manhunt. “I don’t know if he’s alive or dead,” Piller said, adding that many of the bodies in Switzerland were badly burned and had yet to be identified. A locksmith in Granges-sur-Salvan told Swiss radio that the cult leader had visited him a day before the fire. “He said he had been away for a while and he needed a key to get into a chalet,” the locksmith said. “I have not seen him since.”

or all the unanswered questions, a fair amount is known about Luc Jouret’s activities over the years, both in Europe and in Canada. Born in what was then the Belgian Congo on Oct. 18, 1947, he grew up in Switzerland and obtained a medical degree in 1974 from the Free University of Brussels. Almost immediately, the handsome, darkhaired doctor became disillusioned with modern medicine. According to a leaflet distributed several years ago by an organization headed by Jouret, he spent 10 years “searching around the world for the origins of illness and the best way of healing. In China, he became interested in acupuncture. In the Andes, he practised high-mountain medicine. In Africa, he studied bush medicine, and in the Philippines he had special experiences with native ‘healers.’ His long journey led him to homeopathy, which he studied in Mexico and Argentina.”

By the early 1980s, Jouret was also exhibiting an intense fascination with religion and the occult. In Switzerland, he attracted a small following of wealthy people who apparently looked up to him as some sort of spiritual guide. Among the earliest followers were Bruno Klaus and Rose-Marie Opplinger, a married couple who met the homeopath after Klaus visited Jouret’s clinic complaining of an earache. Opplinger told Maclean’s that Jouret “led my husband to believe that he had cancer, and that he had cured him.” She added: “I compare Jouret to John Kennedy. He is a charismatic speaker, a nice-looking man. But one thing for sure is that he always went after rich people.”

In 1986, Jouret moved to Quebec, taking with him many of his followers. They settled in a place he described as “the promised land”—the sleepy village of Ste-Anne-de-la-Pérade, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River about 180 km northeast of Montreal. There, he and two partners founded the Quebec chapter of the Order of the Solar Temple, paying $235,000 for a former agricultural college and about 100 acres of land, which they converted into an organic farm.

Around the same time, the order purchased properties in Morin Heights and nearby St-Sauveurdes-Monts. For Jouret, money always seemed in plentiful supply.

“He asked all of us to empty our bank accounts,” said Opplinger, adding that she and her husband sold their farm in Switzerland and gave the proceeds—at least $300,000—to Jouret As the years passed, Jouret’s behavior became increasingly eccentric. “Money and sex—that’s all Luc Jouret was interested in,” Opplinger recalled. “Before every ritual, he would have sex with one of the women to give him spiritual strength for the ceremony. He wasn’t married, but he had many wives—he changed women all the time.”

In 1988, he announced to his followers that the world would soon be engulfed in warfare and famine. Only Quebec would be spared, he said. Late at night, with his followers dressed in hooded robes of red, black, gold or beige, Jouret would deliver long sermons about the decadence of modem civilization and man’s alienation from nature.

For the most part, Jouret and his followers kept their activities secret. He gave public lectures on the benefits of homeopathy, published a book titled Conscience and Medicine and recorded a series of “consciousness-raising” audio tapes, which are still on sale in some New Age bookstores and health-food shops in the province. He also created an offshoot organization called the Academy for Research and Knowledge of Advanced Science, and held seminars for business people on personal development. “The message was about how to position yourself in business,” said Hermann Delorme, an insurance salesman from Granby, Que., who joined the Solar Temple after attending about 20 of Jouret’s seminars. Added Delorme: “Sitting through those lectures was like attending a university course—your head was buzzing.”

It was apparently during that period that the cult leader met Jean-Pierre Vinet, a Hydro Quebec project manager who became a loyal follower. Through Vinet, Jouret recruited 15 Hydro employees, including two senior managers and a vice-president. Dozens of others attended his conferences but did not join the sect. A 1993 internal audit at Hydro found that the company had paid Jouret a total of $4,394 to conduct seminars for its employees. An additional $3,106 went to the employees themselves to cover expenses.

Last week, several cult watchers in Quebec insisted that there was never any reason to suspect that Jouret and his followers were obsessed by the idea of the apocalypse. Yet the theme of global cataclysm is present both in his writings and in his audio recordings. His book warns of an “unprecedented crisis in history”—a worldwide struggle that would culminate in the victory of the Holy Spirit over the forces of evil. And in a 1992 interview with Swiss radio, he issued a stark declaration that mankind “was at the hour of revelation, the hour of the apocalypse.”

In fact, by 1990, some of Jouret’s own colleagues in the order were questioning his stability. They complained that his predictions about the end of the world were becoming too specific, and they resented the hold he appeared to have over some of his followers. According to Jacques Larochelle, a lawyer who represented the Ste-Anne group last year, Jouret was eased out of the leadership of the Solar Temple, and finally quit its executive committee in January, 1993.

Up to then, the cult leader’s activities had attracted little or no attention from the Quebec police and media. But early in 1993, during an investigation into an obscure group known as Q-37, which had threatened violence against cabinet ministers, police intercepted several telephone conversations between Jouret and his followers. In one, he urged a woman to quit her job, buy a gun and take shooting lessons as soon as possible. In another, Vinet authorized Delorme to purchase three weapons for $400 each, “with silencers if possible.” On March 8, z 1993, Vinet and Delorme were « both charged with possession of I illegal weapons. Police also issued B a warrant for Jouret’s arrest, but E discovered that he had fled the I province for Switzerland. A few I months later, he returned and in July, 1993, all three men pleaded guilty to a reduced charge. The judge gave each man a conditional discharge and a fine of $1,000, adding that he sympathized with Jouret’s claim that he needed a firearm for self-defence.

According to Delorme, the weapons charge was enough to convince him that he wanted no more part in Jouret’s activities. “I had a close look at it and decided this wasn’t for me,” he told Maclean’s last week. Still, most of the other followers remained loyal to their leader. Whether they had any inkling of the fate that awaited them was still unknown last week, but over the past few months Jouret’s Quebecbased followers gradually began to congregate at the cult’s two properties in Switzerland. Vinet, for one, left Canada about six months ago, saying he was going to Europe, Delorme said. Another former resident of Ste-Anne, Swiss-born Guy Dunand, reportedly returned to his native country in August. The same month, Richelieu Mayor Robert Ostiguy, a member of the sect since the late 1980s, told colleagues that he was going to Switzerland on vacation. Grand’Maison, the Quebec City journalist, flew to Europe on Sept. 22, telling her husband, Paul Audsley, that she was going to visit friends. A week later, Falardeau followed, taking an unapproved absence from his job in the Quebec finance ministry.

In the weeks ahead, police in Switzerland and Canada will try to determine the full extent of Jouret’s involvement in last week’s 53 deaths. Did he counsel them to commit suicide, or were the killings orchestrated as part of a secret power struggle within the cult? According to one longtime Solar Temple member, treasurer Roger Giguère, Falardeau was actually the grand master of the temple’s Ste-Anne-based faction, and had travelled to Europe only because he believed Jouret was trying to lure members away from his organization. Other members of the Ste-Anne group—who, it must be said, have a vested interest in pointing the finger at Jouret—have implied that a financial scandal was about to erupt in his organization. As investigators sifted through the ashes, the case remained as mysterious as the power Jouret wielded over his followers.