Cult link to conductor tested

GRENOBLE, France -- A Swiss orchestra conductor who worked for the University of Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the 1980s goes on trial today for his alleged connection to a doomsday cult that lost 16 members in a mass murder-suicide.

Grenoble magistrate Gerard Dubois will preside over the trial of Michel Tabachnik, 58, who is believed to have had links to Joseph Di Mambro, leader of the Order of the Solar Temple.

Authorities hope Tabachnik, a freelance conductor who lives in Paris, can tell them more about the mysterious religious cult, whose devotees believed that suicide instantly transported them to a new world.

The trial comes after several inquiries into the charred bodies of 16 cult members found two days before Christmas 1995, laid out in a star formation in a snowy forest clearing in the French Alps.

All 16 victims, including four children, were found shot in the head. One theory by French police is one member shot the others before burning the bodies and committing suicide.

Tabachnik, who is charged with association with criminals and could face 10 years in prison and a fine equivalent to $223,000, has always denied any involvement.