Sex, money, strange rituals and mysticism, charismatic leaders, weapons, doomsday belief.
All these elements above typically associated to varying degrees with cults, came to a head on this day in international death and murder starting in a quiet town in Quebec.
Morin Heights, north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountain region is known as a tourist town, mostly connected with skiing.
On October 4, 1994, while the town was slowly gearing up for the winter ski season, a fire broke out in a house that left five people dead.
At first it was thought to be an accident that left two charred bodies, but investigators soon found three stabbed bodies, including a baby, in an adjacent building. They discovered the fire had been deliberately set with a series of timed incendiary devices, but not all had gone off.
They had stumbled onto the first deaths of an international cult known as the “Ordre du Temple Solaire”- (Order of the Solar Temple), whose dogma consisted of a strange mix of Catholicism, Rosicrucian beliefs, elements of ancient Egyptian beliefs, shamanism, doomsday scenarios and combined with Templar-like mystical rituals, and regalia, and a strict hierarchy, where one advanced through financial donations.
It was a cult where, in Quebec, it had attracted several high-ranking members of the provincial power authority, Hydro-Quebec.
Beginning with talks of love, well being and fulfillment, as one became pulled in, eventually as well, the belief that death through fire (to purify the soul) would result in a new life on “Sirius”.
Collective suicide and murder
The day after, in Switzerland in two separate incidents, 48 more followers of the cult were found dead. While some were believed to have willingly committed suicide, others were thought to have been killed.
The dead included cult founders Luc Jouret, 46, a Belgian-born physician who claimed he was a reincarnated from the time of the Templars and even a reincarnation of Jesus, and Joseph di Mambro, 70, of France who split his time between Quebec, France and Switzerland. Di Mambro had already been suspected in an arms smuggling and money laundering operation.
In the 1980’s Jouret had already begun gathering followers to his strange beliefs of “personal development” and in 1986 moved to Quebec along with several followers where others joined as he began preaching about impending doom as he and followers were dressed in long hooded robes, often with the red cross of the Templars.
The cult had been investigated in 1993 in another ski village next to Morin Heights for illegal weapons and suspicion of an assassination plot against the then provincial public security minister. After a raid on a cult “crypt”, police suspected a mass suicide was being planned. Jouret, charged with weapons offences, fled to Switzerland immediately afterward followed by some members apparently believing the police presence had “contaminated” their crypt.
Then just a day after the bodies of Quebec members were found, police in Switzerland found 23 more bodies in a burnt farmhouse in canton Fribourg, and another 25 in canton Valais.
Among the dead were a number of prominent Quebeckers, including the mayor of the city of Richelieu and his wife, a journalist with a Quebec City newspaper, and a senior advisor in the Quebec finance ministry.
Police believe many were killed in a ritual murder while some may have been willing participants.
Cult leaders Jouret and di Mambro had preached that by following their teachings they would be happier and fulfilled but that the apocalypse was coming. and that followers must die by fire to achieve bliss in an afterworld. The badly burned bodies including the third leader who took care of finances, were found, Jouret’s indentified only by dental records.
Many of the dead in Switzerland were found arranged in a circle with their heads facing outward. Many had been drugged, some had plastic bags over their heads, all many had been shot in the head, while inner circle leaders had taken poison.
But the strange ritual and deaths of the OTS did not stop in 1994.
Sixteen more were found dead in a star formation in a ritual killing and suicide by gun and fire in the Vercors mountains of France in 1995.
Then in March 1997, police discovered the five burned bodies believed to be connected with OTS, in the small town of St Casimir about 80 kilometres from Quebec City.
Is the cult finished?
It is believed elements of OTS may still exist. An internationally renowned Swiss musician and conductor was twice charged for being associated with the OTS- “a criminal organisation” but was aquitted both times, in France in 2001, and in Switzerland in 2006.
As with all such cults, the motivations and trying to understand what really happened and why, will remain forever elusive.