Accused conductor became leader of new doomsday cult: magistrate

GRENOBLE, France, April 24 (AFP) - The orchestra conductor accused of being a leading member of the Solar Temple cult was a key figure in the events that led to the deaths of 74 cultists and became the leader of a new sect, a court heard Tuesday.

Luc Fontaine, the French magistrate who investigated the deaths of 16 members of the cult told the trial of Michel Tabachnik that the 58-year-old musician had founded the Rosicrucian Alliance after the killings began.

"From the start he defined a project that sent chills up the spine: 'The return to the father'," Fontaine said, explaining that for followers of the Solar Temple dying was a journey to "Sirius" to be reunified with a spiritual father.

Tabachnik is charged with being a "member of a criminal group".

The court has heard he was the third most senior leader in the cult and had written tracts designed to brainwash followers into taking part in murder and mass suicide. He denies the charges.

Fontaine claimed the writings, which were sold to cultists for large sums, had a "criminal logic" and that Tabachnik was the only leading member of the Solar Temple to have survived the killings to go on to lead the new cult.

The investigating judge, who investigated the Order of the Solar Temple for four years, also dismissed claims that 16 cultists found dead in France had been slaughtered by a gang from outside the sect.

Fontaine told the trial that in December 1995, 14 members of the Order had been drugged and shot by two other cultists, who set the corpses alight before taking their own lives.

He insisted that no others were involved in the killings, in a remote part of the French Alps, rejecting a theory promoted by some of the victims' families that killers from outside the group carried out the massacre.

Between 1994 and 1997 some 74 members of the doomsday cult died in a series of combined ritual killings and suicides in Switzerland, Canada and France.

Fontaine said that in the December 1995 killing, two cultists -- policeman Jean-Pierre Lanchet and architect Andre Friedli -- shot the others, including three children aged 18 months, two years and four years.

Among the cult members only the mothers of the children appeared to have tried to resist their killers, as they had suffered injuries in addition to the bullet wounds to the head that had finished off the others.

All the victims had been drugged and had plastic bags placed on their heads. The killers poured petrol over the bodies, set them alight then shot themselves in the head and fell into the flames, Fontaine said.

Lawyers acting for relatives of some of the victims have alleged that the victims were killed by a mysterious group armed with flame throwers, saying that there was not enough petrol at the scene to explain the destruction of the corpses.

But Fontaine said that an experiment carried out with 16 pig carcases dressed in anoraks had proved that even with the 20 litres of petrol thought to have been used the cultists could have been burned.

In a carpark near the massacre site police found the identity documents of the dead cultists, apparently left to make their identification easier. Five victims also left notes declaring: "I am giving up my bodily envelope".

"There is no need to search for outside intervention in the murders and double suicide," Fontaine said, noting that cultists who were not "called" to sacrifice their lives had been disappointed.

The trial is expected to continue until April 30. Tabachnik is to give evidence Wednesday.