Coroners search for answers to mass suicide
California group designed sites on World Wide WebMarch 27, 1997
Web posted at: 1:00 p.m. EST (1300 GMT)
RANCHO SANTE FE, California (CNN) -- The bodies of 15 victims of a mass suicide were transported Thursday to the San Diego Medical Examiner's Office, where officials hope to determine the cause of the mysterious deaths.
Thirty-nine men and women were found Wednesday at a Southern California mansion lying on their backs, arms at their sides and each covered across the face and chest with a purple shroud. Earlier, officials had said they thought the members ranged in age from 18 to 24, but later reports indicated the ages were uncertain.
Lt. Jerry Lipscomb of the San Diego Sheriff's Department said a liquid was found near the bodies of the victims and that they may have "ingested a drug that would cause their death." He said it was unclear what type of drug may have been used.
The group, known as Higher Source, sent two farewell videotapes that described their intentions to commit suicide to a former member, said Nick Matzorkis, a Beverly Hills businessman who employs the former member.
Matzorkis told CNN that members believed it was time to "shed their containers," perhaps to rendezvous with a UFO they believed was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Higher Source has existed for 20 years and runs a business designing Web sites for other companies. Matzorkis said a Web site titled Heaven's Gate described some of the members' beliefs, including their view of suicide as a "willful exit."
"We have thoroughly discussed this subject and have mentally prepared ourselves for this possibility as can be seen in a few of our statements," the site says.
"It is in these last days we are focused on two primary tasks. One, of making a last attempt of telling the truth about how the next level may be entered. [Our last effort at offering to individuals of this civilization a way to avoid suicide]. Two, taking advantage of the rare opportunity we have each day to work individually on our personal overcoming and change in preparation for entering the Kingdom of Heaven."
The victims were found in various rooms of the home in Rancho Santa Fe, an exclusive community about 20 miles (32 km) north of San Diego. It is believed to be the biggest suicide ever on U.S. soil.
"They're dressed similarly, all lying in a prone position, hands at their side as if asleep," said Cmdr. Alan Fulmer of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. He said the victims were wearing dark pants and tennis shoes, and there were no signs of trauma or blood.
The numerical breakdown of women and men was not available early Thursday, Fulmer said.
He would not disclose how the victims may have died or how long the bodies had been at the house. Authorities were not releasing victims' names, pending the notification of relatives.
The Sheriff's Department received an anonymous phone call at midafternoon from someone who said there had been a mass suicide and provided the address of the mansion.
An attorney for the homeowner, Sam Koutchessahani, said his client rented the mansion in October 1996 to what he described as a religious group.
Fulmer said there were no religious artifacts found near the bodies, and the corpses did not appear to be arranged in any ritual manner.
Little contact with neighbors
The cream-colored, tile-roofed Spanish-style mansion sits on an estate in Rancho Santa Fe, a community that has been described as the Beverly Hills of San Diego.
The estate, which has a swimming pool and tennis court, was for sale and was listed on the market at $1.6 million, according to a report from CNN affiliate KUSI-TV. It likely would have rented for $10,000 to $20,000 a month, the station reported.
A neighbor, Bill Strong, said five to 10 people, including men and women but no children, had been living at the mansion. He said he noticed vans and trucks coming and going from the residence, and one had New Mexico license plates.
Other people who lived nearby reported that the group had little contact with neighbors. Dyson and Dyson Realty agent Scott Warren, who said he showed the house recently, told KNBC-TV that the sale was hindered by the activity of what appeared to be a religious "cult" meeting there.
"We just thought they were pretty bizarre," Warren said.
Koutchessahani also acknowledged having trouble selling the house, said neighbor Arnie Kaplan, who said he joked in October: "I can't sell it. I'm renting to a bunch of monks."
Several rooms in the house contained computers; members told Warren they were developing World Wide Web pages.
"They kept referring to the temple as very self-sufficient and how proud they were," said Bob Dyson, owner of the real estate agency. "It was very clean and neat. A lot of bunk beds, and they referred to each other as brother and sister." (258K/23 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
There was no indication the deaths were related to Saturday's mass suicide in Quebec of five members of the Order of the Solar Temple. More than 70 members of that group have committed suicide in the last three years.
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