It is approaching midnight in the darkened Swiss mountain town of Salvan, and all, once again, seems as it should be. Footsteps of the last departing customers from Marie-Jo Pistoletti’s bar echo off the stone building in the narrow main street as the matronly owner locks up her empty hotel. It is October and Salvan seldom has overnight visitors this time of year. A week ago, the town was overrun by police investigators and journalists, lured by the mysterious fires that ravaged three chalets just up the mountainside, where 25 members of the Order of the Solar Temple cult died. But the outsiders are gone now, leaving those with names on Salvan’s mailboxes alone with their thoughts, which is fine when people can get together as they did tonight in Madame Pistoletti’s smoky bar to drink beer and peddle theories about what really happened on Oct. 5. But many residents talk of being nervous when they go home, and of having trouble sleeping. Midnight’s stillness, which once brought tranquillity, now heralds anxiety.
So Jean-Luc Favre, a local businessman who used to run a real estate office across from Madame Pistoletti’s hotel, waits to walk her home. And as she turns the key in the lock, he asks her about their old friend, Dominique Bellaton. It was a distressed Favre who identified Bellaton’s burnt corpse from among the dead, and he thought of her then as a tragic victim of cult leader Luc Jouret’s evil manipulations. But now reports from Quebec were alleging that the 36-year-old Bellaton was also a murderer who, just before she died, had travelled to Morin Heights, Que., where, with another cult member, she savagely killed a man, his wife and their three-month-old son. “Is it possible,”
Favre asks Pistoletti, “that the
Dominique you knew, the woman you used to drink coffee with, the woman who used to play with my children, is capable of stabbing someone 50 times?”
“Never,” she snaps, setting her jaw. “Not possible.”
“But she did,” Favre says, and an anguished wince creeps across his face. “We were duped,” he says sadly. ‘We never knew her at all.”
And that is the lesson of the gruesome, disturbing and bizarre tale of the cult of the Solar Temple: the deaths of most of the 53 victims made sense only to them. It was just the bewildered outside world that demanded a more rational explanation: money, a power struggle, anything tangible. Most people were no different from Jean-Paul Martin, the Salvan arson investigator who, while picking through the rubble of the chalets looking for some scientific insight into the tragedy, muttered: “It is hard to speak of logic in this affair.”
Who, after all, expected Jouret to turn up
among the dead? Surely he had fled the scene, having killed, or encouraged the suicides of, the others. They had given him their money when they joined his cult, so Jouret must have had millions. Why would he kill himself? But last week, there was white-coated pathologist Thomas Krompecher, grinning with satisfaction outside his Lausanne laboratory as he acknowledged that he had indeed positively identified Luc Jouret’s charred remains from dental records. “It was not an easy identification,” he said.
But there were just so many clues to this mystery, so much room for speculation. Nothing was off-limits. Italian newspapers reported that Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro, the other senior member of the cult whose body was identified last week, were mixed up with a Sicilian Mafia family. A Radio-Canada reporter, basing his story on one anonymous source, announced that the cult was a front for international arms smuggling. Never mind that Jouret had been convicted for his part in an incompetent attempt to buy a handgun in Quebec 18 months ago.
The likely explanation for the deaths has less Tom Clancy-style intrigue. It appears that most of the cult members died because Jouret was able to convince them that the apocalypse was truly at hand, that authorities in Canada and France were persecuting them, and that salvation could only be obtained by dying together. In the end, the cult appears to have been exactly that: a cult, with its own tortured and twisted beliefs.
Even before Jouret’s body was identified, investigators and Canadian government officials were given to sneering at the arms dealing charges. What they did take seriously were the allegations that the cult’s leaders were laundering money. In particular, investigators focused on the myriad bank accounts and properties owned by Di Mambro, a French passport holder who had several properties in Canada and Switzerland. There is plenty of evidence to indicate that Jouret and Di Mambro were flipping parcels of real estate between them (page 14).
At the same time, Maclean’s has learned that Royal Bank of Canada executives were told by the RCMP last March that French police were interested in Di Mambro’s activities. The RCMP did not actively pursue the case because the French either did not know, or would not say, exactly what crime might have been committed. Di Mambro and other cult members had bank accounts scattered across Canada in the Royal and other—so far unnamed—banks. Some were under Di Mambro’s name, others were under seven different names with addresses in Switzerland, Montreal, Ottawa and New York City. They included Les Editions Atlanta Inc. and Productions Atlanta. The signing officers of those corporate shells have now been linked to the cult, including Robert Ostiguy, the mayor of Richelieu, Que., who died in one of the Swiss infernos.
In July, a Royal Bank employee at Ottawa’s Sparks Street branch, where Di Mambro had consolidated his Canadian accounts, noticed a flurry of large deposits. “It’s usually the girls who are the front line who see it,” said Brian Carroll, the Royal’s vice-president of corporate security. “When you are doing the same thing all the time and these transactions start occurring you say: ‘Jeez, this is kind of funny. Why would a guy need this kind of money?’ ”
The Royal became alarmed because the money kept flowing in from various countries. When confronted on several occasions by Royal officials about the large deposits, Di Mambro offered different excuses. One was that the money was needed for educational fees in Canada for one of his children. “Further investigation revealed this was not the case,” said Carroll. “You start
seeing where this money is coming from and you start verifying different sources and everything starts falling into place. We weren’t sure if it was a cult or what type of organization they were involved in.” Carroll said the bank asked so many questions that Di Mambro and Ostiguy must have been aware they were under investigation by the time they went to Switzerland last month.
Certainly, the cult members’ final days were marked by a flurry of activity and furious planning. Although the exact details may never be known, it now seems that Jouret and Di Mambro summoned as many of the cult members as possible to Switzerland without divulging their ultimate aim. Since the chalets in Salvan and the farmhouse in Cheiry, where 23 others died, could not accommodate all the expected arrivals, extra apartments were booked at La Barmaz, a chalet in Les Maricottes, a small town next to Salvan.
But few, if any, members were aware that they were coming for a last supper. Even now, the tomato plants outside the Salvan chalets are still covered to protect against early frost. Orders had been placed for winter firewood, and some members of the group had even made inquiries about buying another property in the area. “That doesn’t sound like people preparing to kill themselves, does it?” asks Favre.
Di Mambro and Jouret did not attempt to hide their presence in Salvan in the days before the fire. Di Mambro made several appearances at one of his favorite haunts, the St. Christophe restaurant in nearby Bex. “He loved our big stone fireplace,” said St. Christophe’s fastidious maître d’, Richard Golaz. Di Mambro liked it enough to often bring large groups to the restaurant, and he did so again in the final days. He lunched with 12 others on the Friday before the fires, with 10 companions on Saturday, and dined with another, smaller group on Monday night, including Camille Pilet, a retired millionaire executive who oversaw some of D i Mambro’s and Jouret’s finances.
The staff knew Di Mambro well. A waiter who would only give his first name, Christophe, remembers that Joel Egger, the now-dead cult member who is suspected (along with Dominique Bellaton) of the Morin Heights murders, was with the group that ate in the restaurant on the Saturday afternoon before the fires. If Egger is one of the Quebec killers,
he operated under a very tight schedule.
Fernande Giroud also remembers seeing Luc Jouret that Saturday afternoon. Along with three others, the sect leader sat on the balcony of her Le Danfieu restaurant overlooking Salvan for two hours. “They were pacing around, making calls on portable phones, and writing furiously on big, big sheets of paper,” she recalls. “I wish now that I had looked at what they were writing.”
There are many people in Salvan who are casting their minds back, wondering how they could not have been aware of the cult in their midst, searching for missed signals of the catastrophe to come. Jean-Luc Favre certainly believes he should have known better. More than anyone in Salvan, he knew the group which he came to call “The Tribe.” As their real estate agent, he helped them to navigate Swiss laws preventing foreigners from owning property. Like so many others in Jouret’s orbit, Favre says that the homeopathic doctor cured him of depression after he separated from his wife by prescribing certain drugs and remedies. Favre still seemed stunned by the events 2
that consumed the people he thought he knew so well. He sold the first chalet to Di Mambro around 1990, although the transaction was channeled through Di Mambro’s son Elie, who had a Swiss resident’s permit. Originally, the property was tended to by Tony Dutoit and his English wife, Nicky, the couple found murdered in Morin Heights along with their infant son, Emmanuel. ‘Tony said he was the spiritual child of Di Mambro,” recalled Favre. “He said his own father had paid no attention to him.”
But at some point—Favre thinks it was in 1992—“there was a blowup between Tony and the rest of the group.” The Dutoits left for Canada, and Dominique Bellaton arrived to take over the gardening and upkeep of the property. By then, Jouret was living in the second chalet adjacent to Di Mambro. Bellaton moved into the ground floor apartment in Jouref s chalet and came to work with Favre at his real estate office. “We got along well,” says the balding Favre, who now does promotions for a Lausanne-based tobacco company. “She told me that she had a travel agency in Canada, and wanted to set up a company here to run trips between Canada and Switzerland.” Favre said he was interested enough in the idea to help Bellaton, a Canadian, register the company, although she put up 45,000 Swiss francs—about $35,000— of the 50,000-franc start-up costs.
The money trail, through bank accounts in several countries, may be all that is left for investigators to go on as they autopsy the Solar Temple itself. So many of the principals are dead. Even Patrick Vuarnet, a 26year-old French professional golfer and son of 1960 Olympic gold-medal skier Jean Vuarnet, could provide few answers. Vuarnet was arrested last week after admitting that he had mailed the cult’s final testament to Swiss media as Di Mambro had instructed him. Vuarnet told a French magazine that both he and his mother, Edith, were Solar Temple members and could not understand why they, too, had not been summoned for the cult’s blazing finale.
There is no shortage of unanswered questions about the puzzling Order of the Solar Temple, particularly whether and why money was being laundered by its leaders. Nor is there yet an explanation of why some members were shot while others were drugged, and how many went willingly to their ends. There was certainly nothing voluntary about the death of three-month-old Emmanuel Dutoit. “You know, I was in pretty bad shape after I identified Dominique’s body,” said Favre. “And I was thinking that because she said she had no family, I’d take her body somewhere here in the mountains—not in Salvan but somewhere around here—and give her a proper burial. But not now.” Confusion and sadness had been replaced by anger. “Not after what she did to that baby,” he said. “I guess there were two Dominiques, and I only knew one of her.”
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