39 dead in apparent mass suicide in Calif. Bodies at mansion are males, ages 18-24

a cult, Higher Source No sign of trauma Cause of deaths, identities of victims unknown, deputies say

March 27, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. -- Police found the bodies of 39 young men, apparently cult members who believed they were sent to earth as angels, lying dead on their backs yesterday in a luxurious home -- victims of what authorities were calling a mass suicide.

The cult they belonged to, called W.W. Higher Source, practiced celibacy and abstained from smoking and drinking, according to Milt Silverman Jr., an attorney for the owner of the home where the men died. They were apparently celebrating a "holy week" when they died, Silverman said.

But police said they found no apparent religious artifacts in their initial pass through the house yesterday. Instead, they simply found bodies, scattered about the two-story home -- many resting on beds or cots. The victims, who appeared to be white and Latino, did not look bloodied or bruised. Indeed, they looked so peaceful that one officer said they appeared to be sleeping.

None, however, showed any signs of life.

And there was no identification on any of the corpses. Nor was there a suicide note.

Deputies could not say last night how the men died. They said all signs pointed to suicide but did not rule out that some victims could have been killed.

"We don't know what we have yet," said San Diego County Lt. Gerald Lipscomb. "It appears to be a suicide, but it could be something other than that."

The deputies also suggested that the body count of 39 was not definitive, as they had not finished searching the entire three-acre estate, which boasts tennis courts, a swimming pool, a sauna, a putting green and an indoor elevator.

Deputies approached the rambling ranch house after receiving an anonymous phone tip about a mass suicide about 3: 15 p.m. The first to arrive entered through an open side door wearing surgical masks and came across 10 bodies in the living room -- all young men, all dressed in dark pants and dark sneakers, all lying peacefully on their backs. There was no sign of struggle and no indication of trauma.

Stunned and nearly overcome by what Cmdr. Alan Fulmer described as a "pungent" smell, the deputy retreated and called for backup. Sheriff's officials did not describe the odor in the home in any detail but said two deputies were getting blood tests.

"We want to have their blood checked to see if [there is] any kind of substance that will tell us what happened," Lipscomb said.

The Sheriff's Department sent a hazardous materials team to investigate possible toxic fumes in the house late yesterday.

As media helicopters roared overhead and sheriff's deputies congregated outside the residence on Colina Norte, neighbors culled their memories for any hint of something odd in the suddenly macabre hilltop house with the stunning ocean view.

Several said the only thing out of the ordinary that they noticed in recent days were a few new vehicles, including a Ryder rental truck and a van. Most of the cars spotted coming and going from the house over the past several months have had out-of-state license plates, they said, including at least one from New Mexico.

Property records show that Sam Koutchesfahani, the owner of Tan Trading and Consultant Group, bought the nine-bedroom, seven-bathroom home in May 1994 for $1.325 million. He recently put the home on the market, reportedly asking $1.6 million.

A real estate agent, who did not want to be named, said she tried to show the home to buyers but "there was always some sort of religion meeting going on."

Koutchesfahani pleaded guilty to tax evasion and fraud in San Diego Federal Court last year. He admitted that he set up a scheme to help foreign students from the Middle East remain in the United States by bribing community college officials to illegally enroll them and certify them as California residents. Koutchesfahani acknowledged that the scheme netted him up to $350,000.

Koutchesfahani, now out on bail, is due to be sentenced in July. Federal officials said they are investigating whether there is a link between the fraud case and the suicides.

Koutchesfahani's attorney, prominent San Diego criminal attorney Silverman, said the tenants ranged in age from 18 to 65. The oldest was called Father John; another leader was addressed as Brother Logan.

The group's members believe they were sent to earth as angels and described themselves as having met in the Midwest, with chapters in Arizona and New Mexico, Silverman said. The tenants requested that the house not be shown to prospective buyers this week because it was their holy week, Silverman added.

"They appeared to be peaceful, sincere, loving people," Silverman said.

Others familiar with the cult said the men referred to their rented home as "our temple," and insisted that all visitors take off shoes and don surgical booties or socks. The mansion was stocked with bunk beds and several computers, and the tenants reportedly said they were developing a page for the World Wide Web.

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