Solar Temple Cult Member Die in Fire
Even before the deadly fire, the Order of the Solar Temple still lingered in the public consciousness. Books on the cult surfaced last fall, sparked by its notorious history, and a documentary film aired on a French-language television network on March 22. Ironically, that was the same day that flames shot through a two-storey house in St. Casimir, 80 km west of Quebec City, leaving behind yet another testament to the cult's horrific hold on its adherents. Inside the charred home, police found ceremonial paraphernalia, including white, red and gold robes and an engraved sword - and five bodies. That brought to 74 the number of lives claimed by the bewildering sect since 1994. And even as autopsies were being performed last week on the latest victims, one Quebec writer familiar with the cult raised the possibility that the deadly Solar Temple saga is far from over. "My profound conviction," says Guy Fournier, who interviewed close to two dozen members of the Solar Temple for his recent book, Cercle de la mort, "is that there will be other suicides."
It is a chilling prospect - and one that others familiar with the cult's troubled history do not rule out. The five St. Casimir suicides, or "departures" as they are known in the cult's lexicon, are the latest in a series of fiery deaths - "voyages" that adherents believe take them to the star Sirius. The cult catapulted to international notoriety after mass suicide-murders in Morin Heights, Que., and Switzerland in 1994 claimed the lives of 53 people, including the cult's front man, Luc Jouret, a Belgian homeopath, and another leader, Joseph Di Mambro, a Canadian. Other victims, many of them well-educated and successful, included the former mayor of Richelieu, Que., a Quebec City journalist and a Hydro Quebec vice-president. A year later, 16 more people died in a second suicide-murder in France. "What surprised me is that it didn't happen sooner," says Fournier of the latest deaths in St. Casimir. "There are still a lot of people who are disappointed not to have been called by the gurus in 1994 - to not have been part of the most triumphant voyage."
The voyage to Sirius was one that, apparently, three teenagers in St. Casimir did not want to make. Firefighters found them in a shed near the burning house where their parents, Didier Quèze and Chantale Goupillot, along with Swiss-born Bruno Klauss and Pauline Rioux, a Quebecer, died of smoke inhalation after ingesting sedatives. Their grandmother, Suzanne Druau, died before the blaze, likely from a drug overdose. Perhaps as shocking as the deaths was word from police that Quèze and Goupillot intended to include their children, two boys and a girl aged 13 to 16, in the suicide pact. But the teenagers negotiated their survival after learning of the plan when an initial suicide attempt failed - just two days before the fire.
What actually happened inside the house during that two-day period remains largely a mystery. Police, citing confidentiality requirements, would only say that there were several aborted attempts to carry out the suicide by activating a fire-starting mechanism that consisted of an electric stove, propane tanks and gasoline containers. According to the police, all eight people in the house - including the teens - were somehow involved, although they refused to be more specific. This week, police will submit their report to the Crown prosecutor, who in turn will decide responsibility in the deaths and whether any charges should be laid. Meanwhile, the children, who are the first known survivors of a Solar Temple ritual death, remain under the care of Quebec's youth protection authorities.
Little is known about their parents and the other victims. Quèze, 39, a native of Switzerland, shared the house with his French wife, Goupillot, 41, and their children, while running a bakery business in Cap Rouge, 60 km from St. Casimir. Goupillot's mother, Druau, lived nearby, and unlike the other four victims, was not a Solar Temple member. But Fournier, who interviewed Quèze last summer, says that he seemed unhappy and acted "like an orphan who has just lost his parents." According to Fournier, Quèze told him, "I'm asking myself the role I can still play on earth."
That reaction, says Fournier, was similar to what he heard from others who remained Solar Temple believers or sympathizers after the earlier mass suicides. And it certainly conforms to the experience of former member Hermann Delorme, who left the cult in 1992. Delorme, who pleaded guilty the following year to an illegal weapons charge (he was asked to buy pistols and silencers by a high-ranking Solar Temple member), believes that the St. Casimir victims felt lost without those who had previously died. After leaving the Solar Temple, Delorme says, "I felt that myself for a period of months - and I had only been involved for close to three years. Imagine how it must be for people that went eight, 10 and 15 years."
Much of that loyalty to the cult can be traced to the charismatic Jouret, who as well as being one of the Solar Temple's leaders also held seminars on personal development for business people. When he moved to Quebec in 1986, the Belgian brought many followers with him and attracted new ones in the province. Fournier believes that Jouret's popularity endures, saying he has yet to encounter any cult members who speak badly of him. "The people remain very attached to him and very attached to what he taught," Fournier says. Delorme, who first saw Jouret at a personal development conference, liked what he heard - and as a result ended up joining the cult. But eventually, he says, the experience warped his perceptions - especially Jouret's teachings that Solar Temple members were chosen to function as the conscience of the world - and that the rest of society constituted a "planet of fools." "Our egos really got in the way of our logical thinking," Delorme says of the Solar Temple. "We weren't thinking logically or rationally any more. We thought we were superior beings."
Police estimate there are as many as 40 people in Quebec still linked to the Solar Temple. But last week, facing criticism for not monitoring the cult more closely, they maintained that they had no information suggesting any danger. Last June, during the summer solstice, they had kept Solar Temple members under surveillance after rumors surfaced of another impending ritual killing. But nothing happened, and police subsequently concluded that the cult was no longer an active movement. That conclusion is shared by Mike Kropveld, the executive director of Info-Cult, a Montreal-based resource centre on cult behavior. Kropveld says there is no indication that the Solar Temple now has any organized formal structure in Quebec. But, he adds, "do people meet? Obviously, some people did - as evidenced by what happened."
In the end, there is little consensus on what can be done to avoid future incidents. Some observers say the police cannot be expected to solve the problem. When Quebec coroner Roger Michaud tabled his report last June on the 1994 murder-suicides, he said there were limits on what the authorities can do. "Stupidity has no vaccine against it," Michaud commented. Kropveld wants governments to study the impact of religious movements that "go off the deep end," but he also remains unsure of what can be done to prevent more deaths. "People committed to wanting to take their own lives, who are adults - I don't know if you can really stop them," he says.
There is, meanwhile, evidence that the Solar Temple tried to expand in 1993. Leanna Boyd, chairman of a provincial committee in Manitoba that monitors cult activity, says an individual who had been approached by Temple members in 1993 in Winnipeg turned pamphlets containing material promoting the cult over to her group. She also received reports that the Temple had been spreading its message in other parts of Western Canada. Those expansion plans appeared to have died with the 1994 fire; since then, Boyd says, there has been no evidence that the cult has been active outside Quebec. But she notes that there was one striking difference between the Solar Temple and other cults. Instead of targeting vulnerable people on the fringes of society, she says, the Temple was trying to enlist wealthy individuals. "I remember thinking at the time," says Boyd, "that was unusual. But I don't think they were successful." As the fiery deaths in St. Casimir proved, however, the unpredictable Solar Temple cannot be relegated to the past tense.
Maclean's April 7, 1997