Dec 27, 1995

Cult Horror Maims Prominent French Family

NY Times
December 27, 1995

PARIS, Dec. 26— A 27-year-old man identified by the French authorities today as one of 16 people found dead last weekend after an apparent cult rite had said he feared for his life after a similar massacre a year ago.

The man, Patrick Vuarnet, one of three sons of the former French Olympic ski champion and ski entrepreneur Jean Vuarnet, said after the murder-suicide of 53 members of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Canada in October 1994 that he and his mother had both been members of the apocalyptic cult.

I fear for my life," he told the magazine L'Express then. "My mother and I are both still wondering why we didn't receive the call."

Mr. Vuarnet disappeared from Geneva, where he lived, 10 days ago. On Saturday, his charred body and those of his mother, Edith, his companion, Ute Verona, and Ms. Verona's 6-year-old daughter, Tania, were found among the 16 bodies laid out radially around the remains of a campfire in the Vercors region of southeastern France.

All the bodies had at least one bullet wound and had been doused with incendiary fluid. The police in Switzerland, where most of the dead cult members lived, are investigating the possibility of multiple suicide, or multiple murder followed by a suicide or suicides, and have not ruled out mass murder committed by others still at large.

The remains of the two known leaders of the group -- Luc Jouret, a Belgian doctor, and Joseph di Mambro -- were found among those immolated in October 1994.

Of the latest victims, the Vuarnet family is well known in France. The head of the family, Jean Vuarnet, nearly 63, helped found the ski resort of Moriaz in the French Alps and was also closely associated with the nearby resort of Morzine. He heads a business that licenses the family name to manufacturers of stylish sunglasses and ski equipment.

Mr. Vuarnet said on French television this weekend that he was aware that his wife and the youngest of his three sons had kept contact with members of the cult even after its two leaders and 51 of their followers were found burned to death last year.

"They were lovely people," he said of those he met, but he said they had deceived him. "To be a convincing liar you have to seem nice," he said.

Jean Vuarnet was in seclusion today, according to his lawyer, Didier Borge. "As far as I know, all the people he knew who had belonged to the Order of the Solar Temple are dead now," Mr. Borge said.

The French authorities said they would release a list of all of those found dead in the Vercors after the completion of autopsies that began only today, but it is expected to be identical to a list of 16 people associated with the cult whose relatives reported them missing this month.

The service revolvers of two French policemen on that list were found among the bodies last weekend. One of the men, Jean-Pierre Lardanchet, was missing with his wife and two children, aged 2 and 4. In all, the bodies of three children were found last weekend.

French cult experts said the Order of the Solar Temple mixed elements of Christianity, astrology and medieval legend about the Order of Knights Templar, dissolved in 1312, and speculated that the 13 adults died or were killed as part of a winter solstice ritual; the solstice, which marks the shortest day of the year, occurred last Friday.

In an interview published in L'Express after the massacres last year, Patrick Vuarnet said he had been introduced to the cult by an astrologer in Geneva, and had decided to join after discussions with his mother, described by friends as an emotionally unstable woman who felt neglected by her husband.

"The theme of the passage from life to death came up again and again," he said then. "Jouret explained that there was nothing to fear -- quite the contrary." He added, "I began to feel close to sacrifice.

"What I thought was true is false, and I failed to recognize that. I have burned all my capes and got rid of all my papers."

But his attitude may have changed again by the weekend of Dec. 17. The authorities believe that he then drove his mother, his companion and her child the 150 miles from Geneva to the forest above the French village of St.-Pierre-de-Cherennes for the final passage.

Jacques Guyard, head of a French parliamentary commission on sects that was set up in 1994, said there were 1,300 of them active in France, with 150,000 members. He said the commission would propose closer supervision and new laws to make it harder for sects to claim immunity from prosecution for crimes.