The wife of an Olympic ski champion could not resist the lure of the Order of the Solar Temple despite the fact that 53 sect members had already died in a mass suicide. Our reporter interviews her son
Alain Vuarnet saw the signs of death in his house and did not recognise them. There was his mother, Edith, repeating every gesture seven times, washing the door handles in alcohol, leaving in the middle of supper to see “friends”. And there was his brother Patrick — distant, uncommunicative, evasive. “I never understood what it all meant,” says Vuarnet today. It is five years since Vuarnet’s mother and brother perished in a mass suicide organised by the Order of the Solar Temple, a sect devoted to the destruction of its followers. Since then he has been torn with guilt at his failure to detect the truth. His family is well known in Geneva and in the sporting world. After winning the downhill skiing event in the winter Olympics of 1960, Alain’s father, Jean, founded the sportswear company Vuarnet, producer of exclusive skiwear, sunglasses and watches. The family also owns the Portes du Soleil ski resort in Avoriaz. But the apparently gilded lives of its members have been damaged irrevocably by the tragedy. The first that Vuarnet or his father knew of the sect’s existence and their family’s connection with it was in October 1994, when 53 of its followers perished in three fires in villas in Switzerland and Canada. The names of Mme Vuarnet and Patrick, her youngest son, were mentioned in a police report. “It was as though our world had fallen in,” says the tall, athletic Vuarnet, who now heads the family business. “But in a sense we were relieved — the two gurus had killed themselves. A few months later, I asked my mother whether she still saw other members of the Order of the Solar Temple. She went pale and replied ‘Alain, after all that those people have done, do you really think I could have anything to do with them?’” A year later, in the early hours of December 16, 1995, Edith and Patrick were among 16 Solar Temple members who climbed through the forests of the Vercors mountains in southwest France to a clearing known locally as the pit of Hell. The group included three children — six-year-old Tania Verona, the daughter of Patrick’s girlfriend, Ute; Curval Lardanchet, 19 months, and his four-year-old brother, Aldwin. In the pit of Hell, all 16 of them took the sedatives Myolastan and Digoxine. Curval and Aldwin’s father, Jean-Pierre Lardanchet, an off-duty French police officer, and Andre Friedli, a Swiss architect, then used rifles to shoot the others. They arranged the bodies in a circle, feet inwards, set fire to them, and killed themselves with Magnum pistols, according to a French judicial investigation. To sect members, this was “the transit to Sirius”. “It was customary for these people to meet in the woods at midnight,” says 39-year-old Vuarnet. “But did they know they were going to be drugged, shot and burnt when they went there that night?” Now a French court is attempting to answer that question. Yesterday in Grenoble, Michel Tabachnik, a prominent Swiss orchestral conductor, went on trial for his role in what the judicial authorities call the “assassination” of 14 of the 16 Vercors victims. The third highest-ranking member of the sect, Tabachnik knew of preparations for the murders at the pit of Hell but did nothing to stop them, according to the investigating magistrate, Luc Fontaine. Tabachnik is pleading not guilty. But whatever the verdict, the case will be watched with keen attention by families of the victims in Switzerland, Canada and France. It is, after all, the only public hearing to result from the five massacres involving the Solar Temple between 1994 and 1997. The Swiss authorities have closed their inquiry into the 1994 fires that killed 48 people without pressing charges. So too have investigators in Canada, where six members died at the same time as their counterparts in Switzerland, and five more bodies were discovered three years later. “It is important for the truth to be known,” says Vuarnet. “We have always been seen as the model of a balanced, successful and solid family where all the members loved each other. And look what happened.” In 1990 his mother, aged 60, was feeling low. Her children had left home and her husband was monopolised by his business interests. It was then that she met a Swiss homoeopath called Luc Jouret. “She had always had a spiritual side to her, and an interest in ecology,” says Vuarnet. “At the time, she was looking for faith in something. Jouret told her that he could help her to eat better, to respect the earth more. That led to conferences, which led to initiation rites, which led to brainwashing. “Until then she had been incapable of lying. Yet for four years she hid her second existence from us. Every value that she had — family, children, husband, society — was undone. They convinced her that she had to cut herself off completely from the outside world. And she did. “It is only in retrospect that I understand. To be honest, my mother wasn’t getting on too well with my father at the time, so I just put her behaviour down to that. He was consumed by his work, and she was looking for something else. “But she did behave curiously. She would make dinner and then go out — or go out at 10pm in the middle of dinner.” On a family yachting holiday in the Balearics, Vuarnet recalls, he suddenly felt the tension start to mount. His mother announced that she was feeling unwell and insisted on returning to Geneva straightaway. “I know now that she must have got a call from the sect,” he says. In a book that he wrote in the year following his wife’s death, Jean Vuarnet recounts other tales of strange behaviour. The figure seven was symbolic for the sect, and Mme Vuarnet would wash the lettuce seven times. So was hygiene. “I should have asked myself why she washed the windows, the door handles and even the dishes in alcohol,” her husband he wrote. “Before shaking someone’s hands, she had to observe them for a long time to see whether they gave off ‘positive energies’.” Then there were the trips with Patrick — ostensibly for gardening and sunbathing — to the village of Sarrians in southern France, where it transpired that many of the sect’s members had houses. There were no cries for help, no appeals for understanding. “One day,” says Alain Vuarnet, “I asked her straight out: ‘Maman, are you having an affair?’ She said no, and we never spoke about it again.” Vuarnet is not a man given to displays of emotion. There are no tears and his voice is calm, yet his face reddens and he looks weary as the grief resurfaces. He only found out that his mother and brother were mixed up with the cult when two journalists from L’Express magazine arrived at the family villa in the Alps. They told Alain that Patrick featured in the police dossier into the 1994 massacres. “I telephoned him in Geneva and told him to come down,” says Vuarnet. “We all sat at the table and as the journalists asked their questions, he explained everything. My father and I couldn’t believe it or understand it. Then I looked at my mother and saw that as Patrick was talking, she was nodding her head. I realised that she was a member of this sect too. My father was furious, and in shock.” His mother insisted that she had left the sect, although Vuarnet recalls his wife saying on one occasion “Alain, I think she’s lying”. Meanwhile, Patrick refused to have any contact with his father or brother. “I hardly ever managed to see him during that time,” says Vuarnet. “He had always had trouble living up to the expectations of our father, a man who was successful in everything. He came across the Order of the Solar Temple at about the same time as my mother, in 1990. He was 21 years old and impressionable. They flattered him, told him he was part of the elite, and drew him in.” Although the trial may answer some outstanding questions about the sect, Vuarnet is not sure that the full truth behind the mass suicides will ever be uncovered. The Order of the Solar Temple, founded in the 1970s by a French Canadian called Joseph di Mambro, encouraged belief in a mixture of medieval Templar beliefs and New Age fantasy. Inventing the ideology as he went along, di Mambro told his followers that they had special powers and would form the small elite destined to reach Sirius. Thierry Huguenin, a Swiss dentist who would have been the 54th victim of the 1994 massacres if he had not escaped, offers this description of a Solar Temple ceremony: “Two women began to get undressed as the first notes of Wagnerian music sounded. As they revealed their underwear, a lightbulb detached itself from the spotlight, severed the head of a rose and smashed at the foot of the altar. Jo brandished a sword and cried ‘By the powers invested in me, I trace a protective circle around this holy assembly’.” It was mumbo-jumbo with light tricks and the occasional hologram thrown in. But it fooled members, who tended to be well-heeled, well-educated and well-connected. Like others, Edith and Patrick Vuarnet appear to have been targeted because of their wealth and mental fragility. Di Mambro, who died along with Jouret in the fires in Switzerland, had a lavish lifestyle, with some 12 houses and several bank accounts containing hundreds of thousands of dollars, all funded by the sect’s members. “He was a crook with convictions for financial offences,” says Vuarnet, “and a lot of people gave him a lot of money. They were manipulated. But was he being manipulated by someone above him, someone we don’t know about? Was it all just a front for organised crime?” This question has hung over the Order ever since it attracted global attention with the first massacres in two Swiss villages in 1994. Suspicion has been sharpened by the vast sums — millions of dollars — that moved through its accounts, by the power and influence of a membership that included police officers, civil servants and politicians, and by the web of companies set up by di Mambro. In his final report, Judge Fontaine pointed to the areas of uncertainty: “Structured like a multinational, the Order was truly a giant commercial operation with financial interests on three continents,” he wrote. But he concluded that this construction was serving the interests of just one person — Joseph di Mambro. It all went up in smoke, he said, with its founder. The judge maintains that the massacre in the pit of Hell, which he spent six years investigating, involved a group of fanatics who felt aggrieved at missing the inital “journey to Sirius” and were determined to catch up. Tabachnik, he says, had no direct role in the assassinations but “knew that the ultimate goal of the initiation process was the transit, and that the concrete application . . . might need homicidal gestures”. In an interview with Le Journal du Dimanche, 58-year-old Tabachnik rebutted the charges: “I was very close to this movement but I was never part of the hierarchy of the Solar Temple,” he was quoted as saying. “I cannot understand why I am being sent for trial.” Vuarnet He does not believe the judicial hypothesis that his mother and brother were shot dead by two men — Lardanchet and Friedli — who went on to commit suicide in the pit of Hell. “Look,” he says, “They are supposed to have fired a bullet into their mouths and fallen into the burning circle face down. But if you shoot yourself in the mouth, you fall on your back. This doesn’t add up.” But if Vuarnet is correct and Lardanchet and Friedli did not place themselves in the circle, who did?