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Letter Offers Possible Clue to Swiss Cult Mass Suicide

By Scott Kraft
Los Angeles Times

The first solid clue to the motives behind the murder-suicide of 52 members of an extremist sect in Switzerland and Canada arrived Thursday in a letter to a cult expert. In it the group said it was "leaving this Earth to find a new dimension of truth and absolution, far from the hypocrisies of this world."

In Canada, police in Quebec Province said they found two more charred bodies in the rubble of a building that once served as headquarters for the group, known as the Order of the Solar Temple. In all, 48 bodies have been discovered in two Swiss villages and four in the Canadian town of Morin Heights.

The typewritten letter, contained with three other documents in a large, yellow envelope, were sent to Jean-Francois Mayer, a prominent cult specialist in Lausanne, Switzerland, who has studied the apocalyptic group and knew its founder, Luc Jouret.

Although the envelope was postmarked from Geneva, just 30 miles away, the date was illegible. It was signed "Monsieur D. Part," an apparent reference to the French word for "depart," and listed a nonexistent return address in Zurich.

Mayer said he was convinced that the letter and the documents, entitled "Transit to the Future," "The Rose Cross" and "In the Love of Justice," were from Jouret's group. The letter complained that Jouret and his sect had been "persecuted" in Canada.

"I had asked myself until this morning whether this was suicide or murder," Mayer said Thursday. "Unfortunately, what I read here confirms the hypothesis of collective suicide."

The Swiss authorities, who were continuing their efforts to identify the victims, did not doubt the authenticity of the letter. But they still suspected that murder, as well as suicide, played a role in the grizzly demise of the Swiss, French and Canadian cult members, who died in a farmhouse and two Alpine chalets - all outfitted with sophisticated incendiary devices that were triggered by either a timing mechanism or a telephone call.

In Cheiry, Switzerland, where the 23 other cult members died of gunshots and suffocation, investigating prosecutor Andre Piller said Thursday that preliminary autopsy results indicate that "a powerful product, not yet identified, was administered by either injection" or intravenous drip.

Of the 23 victims, 20, including a 10-year-old boy, had been shot at least once in the head or chest. About half of the victims also had black plastic garbage bags cinched over their heads.

Meanwhile, the international search continued for Jouret, the 46-year-old homeopathic doctor who authorities and cult experts say led the sect. Jouret, who received his medical degree in Belgium and held Canadian citizenship, practiced medicine in France, just across the border from Geneva, until 1987, when he moved to Canada.

Cult experts in Europe said they thought Jouret, if he followed his own apocalyptic teachings, probably died along with his followers in Switzerland or in Canada.

No one yet knows if Jouret is among the victims of the murder-suicide.

Jouret had been known to cult experts for more than a decade, although he had lately disappeared from view.

In the peaceful Swiss village of Granges-Sur-Salvan, where no resident can remember a single murder in the town's history, investigators ended their search of a third burned-out chalet without finding more bodies Thursday.

Arson investigator Jean Claude Martin stood among the blackened remains of the house and marveled at the skill of the person who set the fires in the three chalets here.

"It's difficult to talk of logic here," Martin said. "But the person who did this really knew about fire. It was a complete system. This person was very intelligent."

Unlike Cheiry, where town residents believe that the five permanent residents of the farmhouse were engaged in macrobiotic plant experiments, the residents of Granges-Sur-Salvan, population 100, had long been suspicious of the comings and goings at Luc Jouret's chalets.

Although few residents remember ever seeing Jouret, they recall that many wealthy people, driving expensive cars and dressed nicely, frequented the chalets. The lights in the houses often burned until well past midnight, and several residents suspected that the people were involved in drug dealing.

Police had been alerted by town residents, but the authorities declined to say whether they investigated. If they did, say cult experts, it might have contributed to the sect's feeling that it was being harassed.