A phone call. A knock on the door. For former members of a doomsday cult, life’s normal interruptions conjure up chilling visions of imminent death.
A week after the bodies of 16 members of the Order of the Solar Temple were found in the French Alps - 14 of them charred and laid out in star formation - some ex-followers fear they may be next.
“I’m absolutely convinced that this was the act of an assassin,” Silvio Muller said Saturday. His 43-year-old daughter’s body was among those found Dec. 23 in a snowy forest near Grenoble in southeastern France.
“How can anyone believe that people went voluntarily to commit suicide? How can a mother leave her children and kill herself?” said Muller. “The leaders of this sect are Machiavellian. This sect is a secret society so powerful that even the best investigators are powerless to fight it.”
Muller and other victims’ relatives and friends formed the Association for the Defense of Victims of the Order of the Solar Temple to pool their efforts to find out what happened to their loved ones and try to prevent more deaths.
Authorities said Saturday that a well-known Swiss psychotherapist, Christiane Bonet, was among the dead. Investigators were trying to determine whether she and the others died willingly or were coerced.
Investigators launched a murder probe after the bodies of two cult members - French police officers who authorities believe shot the 14 others and set them afire before committing suicide - were found.
The death ritual was similar to others carried out by the shadowy sect in October 1994 in Switzerland and Canada in which 53 people died.
“I remain very vigilant. If I am contacted by other members of the Order, I will ask to be protected,” a former cult member told the French daily Le Figaro on condition of anonymity for fear of being tracked down.
A former Order of the Solar Temple member told the French newspaper Le Dauphine Libere that the victims in the latest ritual - including three little girls - “all consented” to their deaths.
But one victim, Patrick Vuarnet - a son of Olympic ski champion and ski entrepreneur Jean Vuarnet - had told the magazine L’Express in 1994 that he feared he would be among the next to die. His mother, Edith Vuarnet; his female companion, Ute Verona; and her 6-year-old daughter, Tania, also died.
The Order of the Solar Temple is rooted in centuries-old secret Roman Catholic societies. Cult experts have speculated that last week’s deaths were timed to match the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year.
More such collective suicides among France’s 15 doomsday cults are increasingly likely as the century nears its end, French police have said.
A police report published Friday in French newspapers warns of the belief in the Age of Aquarius, popularized in the 1960s, that 500 years of violent Western civilization will be followed by 2,100 years of peace and tolerance.
“The conjunction between the start of the Age of Aquarius and the end of the millennium risks creating more massacres,” said the report.
That has other former cult members fearing they may be forced to “see another world,” as some of the latest victims wrote before their deaths.
“Last year, we thought the activity of the Order of the Solar Temple would stop with the deaths of its leaders,” an ex-member told Le Figaro. “But others have taken over, and you can’t take their esoteric stories lightly.”