PARIS — Each of 16 burned bodies of cult members found on an Alpine plateau over the weekend had one or more bullet wounds, investigators said Sunday, and vials of toxic drugs and sedatives also were found, suggesting that some were killed and others committed suicide.
"This appears to be an act of collective murder, with two or three suicides," said Jean-Francois Lorans, the Grenoble prosecutor handling the case in eastern France. Among those killed were three children, ages 2, 4 and 6, he said, adding that "it is inconceivable that these children took their own lives."
Lorans said he was opening a formal judicial investigation into the deaths on the grounds of murder and criminal conspiracy. But he stopped short of suggesting that anyone other than those found dead was responsible for murder.
The evidence collected at the scene, and during preliminary autopsies, indicates that the ritual, by members of the doomsday sect the Order of the Solar Temple, closely resembled the deaths of 53 other temple members on an October day last year in Switzerland and Canada. Among the victims last year were the two leaders of the organization and their families.
The incidents in October 1994 and the one last week included deaths by gunshot, drugs and asphyxiation. As in 1994, investigators this time also found dark-colored trash bags tied around the heads of some of the victims.
Investigators also found two 9-millimeter guns, carried by two French policemen who were members of the sect and are believed to have been among the victims, and two .22-caliber weapons. Police said .22-caliber bullets were found in the skulls of the victims while 9-millimeter bullets were found in some of the bodies as well.
Investigators said the deaths appeared to have occurred a week before the discovery of the bodies Saturday on a plateau in the French Alps. Nearby, several missing cult members had abandoned their cars, which led police to the site.
The charred bodies were arranged in a star formation, with the feet facing the cold ashes of a fire. Cult experts say the formation symbolized the group's desire to die in the shape of the sun, purified by fire. In a note found by police in a Geneva home, one of the missing cult members said: "Death does not exist, it is pure illusion. May we, by our inner life, find ourselves together forever."
"We were wrong to believe that the death of the group's guru, Joseph di Mambro, in Switzerland last year had resolved all the problems," Massimo Intrivigne, an Italian sociology professor and author of books on cults, said Sunday.
While the charismatic Di Mambro was a powerful figure, the sociologist said, many members who survived him were intellectuals and well-to-do community leaders who apparently continued following his doomsday ideology.
Although the cult was wealthy, with holdings in Switzerland and Canada, investigators have found no evidence to support allegations that the ritual deaths last year were related to money laundering.
Based on missing-person reports filed last week, the dead were presumed to include the two policemen, two architects, and Edith and Patrick Vuarnet, the wife and a son of French ski champion Jean Vuarnet. Also missing were Patrick Vuarnet's Swiss girlfriend and her daughter, 6.
Jean Vuarnet, who won a gold medal in downhill skiing in the 1960 Olympics, told French television that he was "truly angry because I cannot understand what happened--beyond the sadness of our disappointment in not having been able to stop this tragedy."
Another of Vuarnet's sons, Alain, said Swiss police informed him and his father three weeks ago that the sect was being revived. But when Alain Vuarnet asked his mother about that, he said, "She looked me straight in the eye and said they [police] were still poisoned [against the cult]. She was lying."