ORDER OF THE SOLAR TEMPLE – TRIAL BY FIRE

There is nothing so despicable as a secret society that is based upon religious prejudice and that will attempt to defeat a man because of his religious beliefs. Such a society is like a cockroach … it thrives in the dark. So do those who combine for such an end.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, 27th US President, 1909-13

On October 4, 1994 in Morin Heights, a small ski resort near Montreal in Canada, the fire brigade was called out to a burning condominium, beside which they discovered the remains of two badly charred bodies. Initially investigators, who had run a quick check on the building’s registered owners, thought the two bodies were most likely those of Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret. Di Mambro, it later transpired, was the leader of a secretive sect, known as the Order of the Solar Temple, while Luc Jouret was Di Mambro’s right-hand man, a self-styled prophet whose main role was to recruit new members to the cult. But, as an autopsy later confirmed, neither body belonged to these two men; indeed one of the corpses was that of a woman. So perhaps investigators were looking at the bodies of the couple that were renting the condominium? This theory was also quickly dismissed when fire-fighters, having extinguished the flames inside the building, went in to investigate. On close inspection of the rooms, three further corpses were discovered hidden at the back of a wardrobe – those of a man, a woman and a child. But the grisly horror of the scene did not stop there, for all three bodies were found to be covered in blood. The corpses were those of the property’s tenants: Tony Dutoit, Nicki Dutoit and their child, a baby boy called Christopher-Emmanuel. It was quickly established that, rather than dying from the fire, all three had been stabbed to death – Tony a total of fifty times in the back, Nicki several times in the back, chest and neck, and finally Christopher-Emmanuel (who was only three months old), six times in the chest with what appeared to have been a wooden stake. Police put their time of death at a minimum of four days prior to the outbreak of the fire, so it would seem that the murderer had stored their bodies before deciding to burn down the building. But what of the other two corpses? Who were they – the people who had murdered the Dutoits, or yet more victims of a multiple killer?

The police were baffled, although early on they did make one crucial discovery: that the Dutoits had been members of the Order of the Solar Temple. Police also learned of a rumor that the leader of the order, Joseph Di Mambro, had sent out assassins to murder the Dutoits’ baby boy because he believed Christopher- Emmanuel to be the anti-Christ. Arrest warrants were issued for both Di Mambro and Luc Jouret but, unsurprisingly, the pair were nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in Switzerland, more fires were breaking out, fires which no one at first had cause to suspect might be connected to the murders in Canada.

At midnight on October 4, 1994, less than a day after the Morin Heights’ deaths, Swiss fire-fighters were called to the home of an elderly farmer, Albert Giacobino, who lived near the tiny ski resort of Chiery. On entering the burning building, Giacobino’s body was found slumped across the kitchen table with a plastic bag over his head. Investigators initially concluded that he had committed suicide, however, on closer inspection, it was discovered that Giacobino had been shot in the head. Police also discovered that the farmhouse and outlying buildings were peppered with incendiary devices. It all seemed very strange, but the Swiss authorities could not even guess at this point just how sinister these findings really were. One of the outlying buildings appeared to have been turned into a meeting room inside which belongings lay scattered about, although there was no sign of the owners of these items. Then one of the investigators, realizing that the building seemed much larger from the outside than it looked inside, started searching for a hidden door or panel. Suddenly all was revealed: an entire section of wall was found to slide back, on the other side of which lay a secret chamber decorated from floor to ceiling with scarlet furnishings. To the investigator’s horror, in the middle of the floor lay eighteen corpses, arranged in a circle with their feet in the middle and their heads towards the outside. Many of the corpses were dressed in what appeared to be red, gold and black ceremonial capes, and some had plastic bags over their heads. A second secret room or chamber was then discovered in which lay another three corpses. There was a great deal of blood in both rooms, indicating that many of the victims had been shot. Forensic specialists estimated the time of death to have been on October 3, at around the same time as the Canadian murders had occurred, allowing for the time difference. Serge Thierren, one of the many investigators who attended the farmhouse massacre, described it thus:

It was a horrible scene. Some of the bodies were in the chapel, in the basement and some in what looked like a conference room with a round table. There were empty champagne bottles lying on the floor.1

Tragically, there were further such deaths to come only two days later. In another Swiss ski resort, Granges-sur-Salvan, located a little over 100 miles away from Chiery, the fire department was called out to deal with a fire in three adjacent chalets. On entering the buildings twenty-five corpses were discovered (including three teenagers and four children), many of whom had been shot in the head several times. The obvious conclusion was that the two tragedies were closely related, but what was the link? The answer to that came when all of the dead from both incidents were identified through dental records and discovered to have belonged to the Order of the Solar Temple. Autopsies also revealed that only fifteen out of the forty-seven had been willing suicides. An international search for the leaders of this now murderous cult was swiftly launched.

Joseph Di Mambro was born on August 19, 1924 in southern France and, though he trained as a clockmaker and jeweler, from an early age he expressed an interest in esoteric religions. In 1956, at the age of thirty-two, he became a member of the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC (Ancient and Mystic Order of the Rosy Cross), and continued his involvement with this group until 1969, by which time he had founded his own brand of religion, one for which he had more than a few disciples.

Moving from southern France to settle near the Swiss border, in 1973 Di Mambro founded the Center for the Preparation of the New Age, a society to which those who joined had to donate vast sums of money in order, Di Mambro said, that he could care for the whole community. This was not the sect’s only dubious practice, for Di Mambro also persuaded members that he was the reincarnation of several political and religious leaders ranging from the Egyptian god Osiris to Moses. He also ruled that he alone could decide who was to marry whom and who was allowed to bear children. The idea behind this latter ‘law’was that all cult members were, in fact, reincarnations of famous personages and to produce children of a superior quality it was vital that marriages and procreation only took place between suitable candidates. His own son, Elie, was apparently one such gifted child whose destiny was to usher in the New Age, while Di Mambro’s daughter, Emmanuelle, was supposedly one of only nine ‘cosmic children’ and as such was allowed no physical contact with anyone save immediate family members. Extraordinarily, his ideas drew many respected citizens, some extremely wealthy, to the sect. In 1978, Di Mambro founded a core group of followers initially known as the Foundation of the Golden Way and afterwards, around 1984, renamed the Order of the Solar Temple.

Di Mambro had always felt he needed a second-in-command, someone who could dedicate himself to the recruitment of new members. He turned to a man to whom he had been introduced a couple of years before, a Belgian medical doctor by the name of Luc Jouret. Born on October 18, 1947 in the Belgian Congo (present-day Zaire), Jouret was a charismatic, eloquent individual who soon doubled the number of new recruits to the order as well as inspiring existing members by claiming not only to have been (in a former life) a member of the fourteenth-century order known as the Knights Templar, but also to being the third incarnation of Christ.

By 1989, the Order of the Solar Temple appeared to have a worldwide membership of 600, with followers living not only in Canada, Switzerland and France, but also in the USA, Spain and the French Caribbean. Jouret was in his element, traveling between all these countries, giving lectures and seminars and receiving large donations. A report in Time Magazine by journalist Michael Seville estimated that Jouret and Di Mambro had accumulated a fortune of approximately $93 million over the years by reigning in their followers’ assets. So what could followers expect in return for their generous donations? According to Luc Jouret, after members had died and left their physical bodies, they would rejoin each other via ‘death voyages’ on another planet named Sirius. Jouret also, during his lectures, advanced the theory that the end of the world (‘the time of disasters’) would arrive due to human neglect, but that a handful of chosen people (‘noble travelers’) would transcend this cataclysm before it occurred and ascend to Sirius via a pathway of fire. In fact fire was, disturbingly, a recurrent theme where Luc Jouret was concerned.

Obsessed from an early age by stories of the Order of the Knights Templar, an ancient monastic military order formed in AD 1118 by nine men from the First Crusade who banded together and vowed to protect pilgrims traveling to the Holy Lands, Jouret was particularly absorbed by the manner of their deaths. Over a period of 200 years the Knights Templar grew to be one of the most powerful secret organizations in Europe, not only fighting alongside King Richard I (the Lionheart) of England but also enjoying the support of, amongst others, Pope Innocent II. Feared as warriors, they were also revered for their wealth and essentially invented banking as we now know it today. Their powers seemed limitless, but such wealth and power inevitably caused jealousy and fear among other equally powerful European rulers. Finally, in 1307, King Philip (the Fair) of France, desperately in need of funds to support his war against Edward I of England, decided to move against the Knights Templar on the grounds that they had committed heresy. On October 13 he had all the knights arrested, seizing their lands and assets and forcing them to confess a whole gamut of sins including the worship of the Baphomet, homosexuality and sodomy, trampling and spitting on the holy cross and heresy. In 1310 King Philip had fifty-four of their number burned at the stake, and Pope Clement V subsequently made membership of the order illegal. The last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay, was burned on March 19, 1314, and during his ordeal he is said to have cursed both King Philip and Pope Clement, claiming they would die within the year. Whether the story is apocryphal or not, Clement did pass away one month later and Philip seven months after that.

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Swiss-born Luc Jouret was, with Joseph Di Mambro, one of the leaders of the Solar Temple secret society. Both committed suicide along with twenty-one others at a farmhouse near Chiery in the Swiss Alps in 1994.

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The sinister chapel of the Order of the Solar Temple which was discovered at the farmhouse in Chiery behind a secret sliding wall panel. On the floor lay eighteen corpses.

Jouret was enthralled by the Knights Templar, having fed off the stories surrounding their grisly deaths. He traveled extensively giving lectures claiming that elite members of the Solar Temple could absorb the original Knights Templar’s spirituality by donating large sums of money. Ludicrous as these claims sound, there were plenty of men and women willing enough to believe Jouret and become members of the group. The academic, Jean François-Mayer, quotes from the statement of one such individual attesting to these beliefs:

I, a Lightbearer since the most remote times, the time which was given to me on Planet Earth is completed, and I go back freely and willingly to the place from which I came at the beginning of times! Happiness fills me, because I know that I have fulfilled my duty, and that I can bring back in Peace and Happiness my capitalized energy enriched through the experience which I have lived on this Earth – back to the source from which everything comes. It is difficult for the man of the Earth to understand such a choice, such a decision – to leave willingly one’s terrestrial vehicle! But such is it for all those who carry with them Light and Cosmic Consciousness and know where they go back.2

Given such a mindset, it was only a matter of time before members of the group began talking about ‘the end of the world’ and how when that time came, members of the Solar Temple would leave this world and go on a death voyage together, back to the planet Sirius.

But why the precise dates that the two leaders finally chose? Sadly, it appears that, far from having any spiritual significance, the truth of the matter was far more worldly. Several members of the cult had become disenchanted with Di Mambro and Jouret and were demanding the return of their investments. Undoubtedly a factor in this rebellion was the demise of another cult. In February 1993, a fifty-four-day siege at Waco in Texas had begun when David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidians sect, decided the time was ripe for his cult to commit mass suicide. Eighty-four followers (including many children) died in the ensuing fire, pictures of which were broadcast around the world. This caused a huge drop in the number of new recruits into cults, not to mention a wave of desertions by people desperate to leave the cults they had already joined. Membership of the Solar Temple plummeted.

It was a worrying time for Di Mambro, but his troubles were only just beginning. Later that same year a long-time member of his group became wise to Di Mambro’s implementation of laser tricks to make the spiritual ‘Grand Masters of the Solar Temple’appear to believers. This man was Tony Dutoit; the same Tony Dutoit whose body was later found stuffed in a cupboard in Canada with fifty knife wounds in his back. Thierry Huguenin, a Swiss dentist, also spoke of the type of tricks Di Mambro liked to play on his disciples.

Two women began to get undressed as the first notes of Wagnerian music sounded. As they revealed their underwear, a lightbulb detached itself from the spotlight, severed the head of a rose and smashed at the foot of the altar. Jo [Di Mambro] brandished a sword and cried, ‘By the powers invested in me, I trace a protective circle around this holy assembly.’3

It all sounds exceedingly childish, yet to members of the cult it was obviously a serious display of Di Mambro’s powers. Nevertheless, sceptics such as Dutoit were adding to the pressure on Di Mambro, who was also being investigated by several banks for money laundering. As if to add insult to injury, his own children, Elie and Emmanuelle, had begun growing less inclined to believe their father’s teachings. Indeed, Elie was more than happy to expose his father’s fakery, which he did on a number of occasions, causing at least a dozen members to leave the Solar Temple.

But if Di Mambro had problems, he wasn’t alone, for Luc Jouret also had his fair share of concerns. At some point prior to 1994 he was voted out as Grand Master of the Canadian branch of the Solar Temple due to his increasingly eccentric behavior, coupled with his controlling leadership style that many key members had grown to resent. Several testimonies state that prior to the beginning of one of the Solar Temple’s many rituals, Jouret would insist on having sexual relations with a female member of the cult in order to give him ‘spiritual strength.’ But it was Jouret’s leadership style that really led him into trouble and finally saw him being demoted. In turn, this led to major disagreements among the European branches of the society and angered Di Mambro, who had always trusted Jouret implicitly. As several investigative journalists later discovered, however, this wasn’t the first time Jouret had been ousted from office. Prior to joining the Order of the Solar Temple, Luc Jouret had belonged to a racist, neo-Nazi magical organization, co-founded by a former Gestapo officer called Julien Origas. After a failed grab for overall control of the group Jouret left, only to join Di Mambro’s Solar Temple where he made the same mistake all over again. The police were also interested in Luc Jouret’s business dealings as it had come to light that he had begun dealing in illegal arms. Along with two other Solar members he was convicted and fined $1,000.

Di Mambro and Jouret both, therefore, had reason to be concerned about the Solar Temple’s future and, more importantly, their own positions as leaders. The straw that appeared to break the camel’s back concerned Tony Dutoit. Dutoit’s wife, Nicki, had previously been ordered by Di Mambro not to have any children but, desperate to start a family, she ignored Di Mambro’s directive and gave birth to her son, Christopher-Emmanuel. On hearing the news, Di Mambro immediately declared the child to be the anti-Christ, sent by negative forces to challenge his daughter’s position as the true messiah.

The only way out of this seemingly messy state of affairs, or so it seemed to Di Mambro and Jouret, was to declare that the time had come for both them and their followers to leave this Earth and proceed to a higher level of spirituality. Fire was required for the transition to be successful, so on October 4, 1994, following the murder of Tony Dutoit and his family, their building was set alight. Their murderers (later identified as thirty-five-year-old Gerry Genoud and sixty-year-old Colette Genoud) then committed suicide, believing they were on the path to Sirius. At almost the same moment, on the other side of the world, leaders Di Mambro and Jouret were putting the finishing touches to their own (and several others’) suicides in the Swiss farmhouse owned by Albert Giacobino. After the deaths at Chiery and those of October 5 at Granges-sur-Salvan, there was a temporary cessation of activity among the surviving members of the Solar Temple. To what this was due has never been established, but one can surmise that with Di Mambro’s and Jouret’s deaths, the Solar Temple was finding it difficult to function. Nevertheless, a little over a year after the first three mass suicides, even more blood was to be shed.

In December 1995, in a sparsely wooded area better known as the Well (or Pit) of Hell located just outside Grenoble in France, sixteen people (including three children, six-year-old Tania Verona, nineteen-month-old Curval Lardanchet and four-year-old Aldwin Lardanchet) were found dead. Some of their number had suffered terrible burns while fourteen of them were discovered spread out in the telltale, wheel-like pattern later identified as a star. That day had been the apex of the winter solstice and all the corpses were later identified as having been members of the Solar Temple. Although some of the dead had obviously committed suicide, others showed signs that they had been brutally murdered. One woman’s jaw was badly fractured, other people had gunshot wounds and nearly everyone in the circle was shown to have taken a combination of the drugs Myolastan and Digoxine. A few had left suicide notes stating that the purpose of their actions was to leave this life and travel to a higher spiritual plane. Chillingly, the notes also indicated that another mass suicide was going to take place.

A year passed with no further incidents, but police were still keeping a close eye on remaining Solar Temple members, paying particular attention to the winter and summer solstice and equinox dates. Perhaps, because nothing occurred on either occasion, they were lulled into a false sense of security, or perhaps they simply didn’t have the resources to keep a constant watch over everyone. Whatever the case, the surveillance was relaxed only for tragedy to strike yet again.

On March 22, 1997 in the small village of St. Casimir in Quebec, yet another mass suicide took place, bringing the total number of Solar Temple deaths to seventy-four. Gathering at the spring equinox on 20 March, five adult members of the group along with three teenagers tried to set off an incendiary device intended to burn both them and the building to the ground. Luckily, the device failed, allowing the teenagers enough time to persuade their parents that they didn’t want to die. Once released, the youngsters fled to a nearby house, but the adults continued with their plan, and this time they succeeded. Having taken tranquillizers, they arranged themselves on the floor in the sign of the cross, then set light to themselves. Later a note was discovered explaining that the victims believed this the only way to transport themselves to another planet.

The authorities may have failed to prevent this tragedy but they were much luckier the following year, for in 1998 they discovered that a German psychologist had gathered together twenty-nine members of the Solar Temple in the Canary Islands with the express purpose of staging yet another mass suicide. Meanwhile, back in France, relatives of the Grenoble victims were pressing the authorities to arrest any surviving members of the cult, especially any surviving leader, with a view to prosecuting them.

One such leader was Michel Tabachnik, a world-renowned musician and conductor, who lived in Paris but had worked for both the Canadian Opera Company and the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He was indicted for ‘participation in a criminal organization’ involving ritual killings, and was brought to trial in Grenoble on April 16, 2001. Although previously not thought to be a main player in the organization, further investigation concluded that he had been a facilitator in the 1994 suicides and all those that followed. In fact, Tabachnik had written a great deal of the group’s literature (which was sold to believers for huge sums of money), and therefore had played a vital role in the priming of members to believe self-annihilation was necessary to achieve the Temple’s goals.

At the trial, the French magistrate, Luc Fontaine, forwarded the opinion that two of the deceased members of the cult – a police officer named Jean-Pierre Lardanchet (whose two sons also died in the 1995 tragedy) and an architect by the name of Andre Friedli – had been the men who, at the Grenoble mass suicide, shot and murdered several cult members who weren’t willing to take their own lives. It was a pattern that had been repeated at all the other incidents – two chosen members of the Temple shooting all those who weren’t on a high enough spiritual level to achieve suicide. Afterwards, the crime-scene reconstruction demonstrated how Lardanchet and Friedli then poured gasoline over the bodies before setting them alight and afterwards killing themselves. It was all extremely grisly and unsurprisingly, given that prosecutors were pressing for a jail term of between five and ten years, Tabachnik denied all charges. After all, there was very little concrete evidence, apart from the writings, to link him directly to the deaths. Yet two former Solar Temple members testified that the order to commit suicide came only from the higher echelons of the group, which included Tabachnik. They also testified that it had been Di Mambro and Tabachnik who had set up the Solar Temple, having traveled together to Egypt where they had been inspired by the ancient pharaohs and where Di Mambro had interpreted ancient carvings for his acolyte, informing him that the god Sothis (later known as Sirius) represented knowledge. In addition to this evidence, during the course of the trial, The Times newspaper in London printed an interview it had conducted with the son of a former member.

Edith Vuarnet, the wife of an Olympic ski champion, could not resist the lure of the cult, despite the fact that fifty-three members of the order had already died.

The first that [Alain] Vuarnet or his father knew of the sect’s existence and their family’s connection with it was in October 1994, when fifty-three of its followers perished in three fires in villas in Switzerland and Canada. The names of Mme Vuarnet and Patrick, her youngest son, were mentioned in a police report.

‘It was as though our world had fallen in,’ says the tall, athletic Vuarnet, who now heads the family business. ‘But in a sense we were relieved – the two gurus had killed themselves. A few months later, I asked my mother whether she still saw other members of the Order of the Solar Temple. She went pale and replied, “Alain, after all that those people have done, do you really think I could have anything to do with them?”’ A year later, in the early hours of December 16, 1995, Edith and Patrick were among sixteen Solar Temple members who climbed through the forests of the Vercors mountains in southwest France to a clearing known locally as the Pit of Hell.4

Alain Vuarnet then proceeded to describe how, back in 1990, his mother had been suffering from a mild bout of depression when she met Luc Jouret. She wanted to find something she could believe in, some type of faith, and Jouret’s cult obviously fitted the bill.

Meanwhile at the trial, Tabachnik, although admitting he had become involved with the group, stated categorically that he was not one of its leaders, but simply someone who had been duped by Di Mambro. ‘My great difficulty, your honor,’ he said during one particularly grueling eight-hour court session, ‘is to explain my role in what happened, because I was completely naïve.’5 But the lawyer acting on behalf of the families of some of the Grenoble victims dismissed this defence. ‘ Tabachnik,’ said Francis Vuillemin,‘is trying to pass himself off as an imbecile, when in fact he is trying to treat others as imbeciles. In truth he was the doctrinarian behind the deaths.’6

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Respected international conductor and composer Michel Tabachnik was suspected of involvement in the deaths of the members of the Solar Temple sect but was acquitted of all charges. He went on to win many accolades for his music and was recently appointed chief conductor of the Noord-Nederlands Orkest.

The prosecution then went on to try to prove, through witness statements, that Tabachnik had been one of the leaders who had announced the end of the cult shortly before the first series of three massacres and that he, therefore, knew precisely the nature of the coming events. Yet no matter how much mud the prosecution flung at Tabachnik, no matter how much they tried to link him to the Solar Temple’s leaders, on June 25 he was acquitted of all the charges.

Naturally, Tabachnik’s own lawyer, Francis Szpiner, was delighted with the result, declaring that the trial judges had rightfully resisted media pressure to convict his client. However, contrary to this opinion, the Association de defence de la famille et de l’individu – an anti-cult organization – declared the result disappointing and called for the government pass a law banning the existence of cults. ‘With this law on the books,’ stated the association’s lawyer, Francis Buillemin, ‘Michel Tabachnik wouldn’t have been able to escape punishment.’7 Tabachnik walked from court a free man and has remained so, despite prosecutors appealing against his aquittal. Today he continues to enjoy a successful career as a highly respected conductor.

Police authorities in France, Switzerland and Canada all decided that there was a very real possibility the millennium might prove the spark to ignite another series of mass suicides. In Quebec, approximately seventy-five investigators focused on sects operating in the province and officer Pierre Robichaud of the Sureté du Quebec was quoted as saying:

They [the Order of the Solar Temple] say they are inactive, but unfortunately, we cannot say without doubt that, yes, they are inactive.We are not worried but, unfortunately there are things we cannot predict. Tomorrow, another massacre like the one in St. Casimir can blow up in our face. It is a very touchy matter.8

In Switzerland, too, moves were afoot to prevent another tragedy, this time by opening a public information center on religious cults so that, while not infringing upon people’s beliefs, the public could at least become aware of the danger involved in joining certain groups. François Bellanger, president of the information center said:

We are not fighting these groups. We live in a country where the freedom of religion is sacred. We want to provide neutral and relevant information. In collecting, analysing and providing this data, we are going to act very carefully.9

And this softly, softly approach does seem to have worked for, since the Grenoble suicides and the trial of Michel Tabachnik, there have been no further mass suicides. This does not, of course, necessarily mean that such a thing will not reoccur in the future. Interestingly, in his final report after the Tabachnik trial, Judge Fontaine recorded the following: ‘Structured like a multinational, the Order was truly a giant commercial operation with financial interests on three continents.’ Whether this statement pointed to the fact that many people believed (and still believe) the cult to be a front for organized crime has, however, never been proved. What is certain is that millions of dollars moved through the Solar Temple’s accounts, and that it included amongst its members many highly influential people such as police officers, politicians, civil servants and, allegedly (according to a Channel Four TV documentary), Princess Grace of Monaco. It may also be true that Di Mambro and Jouret were being manipulated by someone even higher up in the organization than themselves – someone whose name, in the true nature of a secret society, has never been revealed.