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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

48 Bodies Found in Bizarre Cult Mass Death

CHEIRY, Switzerland -- Police on Wednesday found 48 bodies after mystery fires in two Swiss villages linked to a Canadian-based cult led by a charismatic doctor who was said to have portrayed himself as a new Christ.

Twenty-two of the bodies, many clad in black-and-red cloaks and with bullet wounds to the head, were found in a hidden basement under a burnt-out barn in Cheiry, a picture-postcard farming community near the city of Fribourg in western Switzerland.

Another, that of a 73-year-old Geneva man who had hired the buildings four years ago and told local people he was setting up a garden research center, lay in a nearby farmhouse with a plastic bag over his head. He had also been shot.

In the Alpine mountainside hamlet of Granges-sur-Salvan, 160 kilometers to the south, firemen pulled 25 corpses from the smoldering ruins of two chalets and a police spokesman said it was feared more bodies were in another house still burning.

A local official and fireman who was among the first to find the Cheiry bodies at 5 A.M. said some were in a secret chapel apparently set up by members of the cult, the "Order of the Solar Temple," headed by the homeopathic doctor, Luc Jouret, 46.

A portrait of the handsome, dark-haired Jouret, who Swiss television reports said was the author of a book in which he identified himself as a new Christ, hung on the wall in the chapel, the official, Serge Thierrin, said.

"It was a horrible scene. Some bodies were in the chapel, and some in what looked like a conference room with a round table. There were empty champagne bottles lying on the floor," a visibly shaken Thierrin said.

Police said Jouret was also the owner of two of the chalets at Granges. In Canada, police in Quebec said a house he owned there at Morin Heights had also burned down late Tuesday, in what they called a deliberately set fire. They said two as yet unidentified people had died.

Jouret was described by experts on cult groups as dashing and charismatic, and was believed to be of Belgian origin.

Albert Longchamp, who has researched cults in French-speaking western Switzerland, said Jouret had been giving conferences for years on "the reign of fire."

"He spoke of the magic of fire, of catastrophe, of ruin. It was attractive, just like fire attracts a crowd," Longchamp said in an interview with Swiss television.

Jouret had between 150 to 200 followers stretching from Geneva to beyond Lausanne in the late 1980s in three groups, before one group splintered off in apparent disagreement, according to several experts.

There was no immediate indication whether Jouret, reported to have fled from Canada to Switzerland after he and other cult members were prosecuted for weapons offenses, was among the dead in the three incidents.

Investigating magistrate Andre Piller told a news conference in Cheiry that 15 of the bodies of both men and women found there had documents on them identifying them as Swiss, French or Canadian citizens. But no names were immediately released.

Though there was immediate speculation that the two incidents were a collective suicide similar to that of 917 members of the American Jonestown cult led by the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978, police said it was too soon to be sure.

One unnamed official quoted by Swiss television said it could not be excluded that the dead in both Cheiry and Granges, which nestles among vineyards overlooking the town of Martigny, had been "coldly liquidated."

Piller told the news conference in Cheiry the bodies there were lying on their stomachs or on their backs in a resting position, some with plastic bags over their heads. There were no obvious signs of any struggle.

Beat Karlen, spokesman for Fribourg's cantonal police, said the dead were in what appeared to be ceremonial capes in black, white, red and beige. Some of the women were in gold robes.

"They were all smartly dressed, and some of the men were in suits and ties," he said. Many of the robes were marked with what were apparently cult symbols.

Police said the farm and the basement in Cheiry had been booby-trapped with sophisticated devices which caused new fires when touched. At Granges, firemen found wires running from one of the chalets to a wooden shed.

Stunned local villagers in both Cheiry and Granges described a lot of "comings and goings" at the chalets, but were unaware of any cult activities, although at least one resident said he had suspected a connection with the drugs trade.