Death in a Swiss Village

updated 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT HARDLY SEEMED OUT OF THE ORDINARY when Robert Ostiguy, mayor of the little Quebec town of Richelieu (pop. 3,000) and a successful former building-supplies entrepreneur, left for Switzerland in early September, saying he would be gone only a few days. "I thought it was for some business deal," says his son Sylvain.

A few days became a week, then two, although Ostiguy did phone home every day to speak with his wife, Françoise. Then on Sept. 26, he called and said he needed her to join him. Although she was afraid to fly, Françoise, who had helped Robert run his business, left the next day. She called home once, but as the Ostiguys' younger son Stéphane, 24, a graduate student in biology, later observed, she did not sound like herself. Her sons never heard from her again. "I thought she didn't have time," recalls Stéphane, "or it was the time difference."

Then at 7 a.m. on Oct. 5, the Ostiguys' phone rang. Sylvain, 25, a computer business owner who still lives at home, answered. The caller was a friend who told him to turn on the TV; news was just breaking about a mass cult suicide in Switzerland. That night, to Sylvain's horror, he heard that the bodies of Robert, 50, and Françoise, 47, had been found, along with 21 others, among the half-burned-out ruins of a farmhouse in the village of Cheiry, 45 miles northeast of Geneva. It belonged to a member of a cult known as the Order of the Solar Temple in Canada and the Order of the Solar Tradition in Europe. Another 25 bodies were uncovered 100 miles away in three chalets at Granges-sur-Salvan in the Swiss Alps, and five more were found in a cult villa in Morin Heights, Canada, about 50 miles northwest of Montreal. With an estimated 300 members, the cult preached a hodgepodge of Catholicism, conservationism and apocalyptic notions. Officials in both countries quickly determined that many of the deaths were not suicides as originally believed, but rather murders. Three Quebec victims, including a 3-month-old child, had been stabbed to death. Those found in Switzerland had been shot, suffocated with plastic bags over their heads or burned to death. The fires had all been set off by incendiary devices connected to telephones or automatic timers. And a gun used to shoot some of the victims was found at Granges-sur-Salvan.

Swiss police soon issued an international arrest warrant for Luc Jouret, 47, the Solar Temple's spiritual leader. Charismatic and handsome, the Belgian physician did not appear to be among the dead. Authorities, however, did identify the body of his colleague Joseph di Mambro, 69, a French-Canadian known as the Dictator for his autocratic manner and considered to be the financial mastermind of the cult, which is believed to be about 10 years old. Disenchanted sources within the group speculated that rising tensions between the leaders over control of the sect—and over vast sums of money they had invested in various properties—may have been a motive for the murders. "There was fundamental dissension in the sect, especially between the Europeans and the Quebecois," recalled one former member, speaking anonymously on Swiss radio.

At first glance, Robert Ostiguy, a conservative pillar of his community, would hardly seem the type to succumb to the suave charms of Luc Jouret. Yet like Jouret, he was fascinated by the hereafter; he also believed in reincarnation and was interested in the occult. The son of Amédée Ostiguy, a farmer and owner of a building-supplies company (who also once served as Richelieu's mayor), Robert read and reread a paperback book on the prophecies of the 16th-century French astrologer Nostradamus. "The only thing we discussed was the search for the truth," says Michel Desroches, 52, a city council member and friend for more than 30 years. "Never sex. Robert just wanted to know. We would discuss the philosophical place of human beings on earth."

Such conversations aside, Desroches says, Ostiguy was "a very secret man." In fact, the only people in town who seemed to know anything about his relationship with the Solar Temple were his sons, who believed that their parents had left the group five years ago. Even Ostiguy's mother was shocked. "I didn't know anything about a cult," says a teary-eyed Rose-Amande, 85. "He never talked about it. Never."

Growing up, the Ostiguy boys felt as if nothing was hidden. Although their father was fairly strict, says son Stéphane, "everything was sharp, clear, precise." Francoise, on the other hand, was gentle and full of encouragement. "She was the best mother in the world," Sylvain recalls. "She would do anything for us. She'd give her right hand for us to be happy." Of their parents' relationship, he adds, "They were always together. My aunt used to say they were like the goose and the gander. Wherever one went, there went the other."

Whatever may have happened in Switzerland, few in Richelieu believe that the Ostiguys committed suicide. "My father had an enormous respect for life," says a devastated Stéphane. Adds Desroches: "He had no reason. He enjoyed life too much, in his sober way." And Ostiguy's nephew François Lareau, who is one of many in town still struggling to come to terms with the deaths, says with a sigh, "We're still putting together the pieces of the puzzle. Maybe they'll never fit."

LEAH ESKIN in Quebec and JOANNE FOWLER in Switzerland

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