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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Community's Tranquillity Shattered

Neighborhoods: Exclusive gated area where deaths occurred has been quiet haven for the wealthy since 1920s.

March 27, 1997|GREG KRIKORIAN and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RANCHO SANTA FE — It was planned as a place of light and graceful ease, but for at least 39 members of an obscure, computer-oriented group called W.W. Higher Source, this gated community in the rolling hills of northern San Diego County somehow became the site of a cybernetic dark night of the soul.

"It was rented out to some monks or lamas," Carol Kappan said of the house on Rancho Santa Fe's Colina Norte, where the apparent mass suicide occurred. "I never saw them. [Sam Koutchesfahani, the owner] said he was going to rent it to some monks, which he did.

"It is a religious sect of some kind. I haven't seen them. They were very low key," said Kappan, who lives in one of the street's four other houses.

About 30 miles north of San Diego, Rancho Santa Fe, which was laid out in 1927, is the oldest planned community in California and has been declared a historic landmark.

Its name derives from the tract's original owner, the Santa Fe railroad, which used the land to grow eucalyptus trees for railroad ties. As the era of railway expansion rumbled to a halt in the 1920s, the company developed its land as a haven for wealthy seekers of sunshine and quiet with a taste for golf, polo and the pleasures of the nearby Del Mar race course.

And so it has remained.

With a population of slightly more than 12,000 living in homes priced from $1 million to about $3 million, Rancho Santa Fe has a median personal income of about $60,500. Current residents include 1950s singer Patti Page, diet guru Jenny Craig and retired actor Victor Mature.

There is no home mail delivery, because most of the lots are so big.

There are no street lights, and deed restrictions allow only two styles of houses--Spanish Mediterranean and ranch. Most, like the scene of the apparent mass suicide, are Spanish Mediterranean.

Perhaps the only gothic aspect to the community's normally sun-burnished life is the longtime residents' habit of referring to both the local homeowners' association and its regulations as "the covenant."

"It's a very close-knit community, but also very private," said Walt Ekard, who recently completed nine years as Rancho Santa Fe's town manager. "If you don't know your neighbors, it's not unusual. One of the reasons people move here is that they don't want to be flashy. They want to live in peace."

The sprawling 9,200-square-foot mansion at 18241 Colina Norte, where the bodies of W.W. Higher Source's presumed members were discovered Wednesday, is typical of the area.

Set on several acres, it is at least 100 yards from its nearest neighbor. The winding cul-de-sac is overhung by mature trees. The two-story, palm-hedged house with a red-tile roof is set up from the street behind flowering hibiscus and bougainvillea and a border of meticulously sculpted shrubbery. Its amenities include a swimming pool, tennis court, putting green and elevator.

As darkness fell Wednesday, the lighted pool glinted amid an expanse of tile decking. Nearby, an oblong wooden dining table stood bare, surrounded by six empty chairs.

According to Holly Manion, a longtime local Realtor and resident, 18241 Colina Norte is in the original section of Rancho Santa Fe, on a high point in the unincorporated part of San Diego County. "The views are fabulous. It is one the highest points in the covenant. The views stretch out all the way to the ocean."

Manion said she has shown the house, which is currently up for sale, in the past, but "I doubt I can show it tomorrow," she added.

"It is a very, very nice house, with high ceilings, a wonderful spacious master suite and wonderful landscaping," Manion said. In fact, the first law enforcement officers on the scene Wednesday looked into the rambling, cream-colored house and reported finding a full pantry, expensive furniture and decorations in a "Southwestern" motif.

Three vans and a truck were parked in the arching drive; the shades on the expansive windows and french doors were drawn. All but a single side door were secured.

Koutchesfahani reportedly told another neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous "that he rented it to members of a cult, and that they were paying him in cash, because they didn't want to pay taxes."

The neighbor visited the house once, to retrieve her dog, who had wandered away. She said she saw several white men in their 20s and 30s.

"They were all clean-shaven. They were all dressed California casual," she said. "If you saw them on the street, you wouldn't think anything except for their hair, which was close-cropped and looked like amateurs had cut it, except they all had the same haircut.

"If they were noisy, we wouldn't have heard it--there's enough of a separation between the houses," she added.

She and the other neighbors, however, did hear the hordes of law enforcement officers, journalists and gawkers who jammed Colina Norte in the hours after dusk.

"This is chaos," said 16-year-old Drummond Doroski, whose family lives on the cul-de-sac. "We've got cars lined all up and down this street."

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