No one has been able to explain satisfactorily why more than 70 members of the predatory Order of the Solar Temple have been killed, or where millions of dollars have gone

The muscular man who landed at Montreal's Mirabel airport on Swissair Flight 138 from Zurich had little time to admire the glorious fall foliage in Canada's Laurentian hills. Joel Egger, a fanatical 34-year-old Swiss member of the secret Order of the Solar Temple, headed straight for a green chalet in nearby Morin Heights to rendezvous with Jerry and Colette Genoud, a Swiss couple who had moved to Quebec six weeks earlier, and Dominique Bellaton, mother of the Order's Cosmic Child, supposed to be a new Christ.

The next day, September 30, 1994, Nicky and Tony Dutoit arrived at the chalet with their infant son. Nicky, a cheerful British woman who used to make ceremonial capes for the Order, and Tony, a Swiss craftsman who served as general handyman, had left the cult three years before. But they still liked to see their old friend Bellaton.

Egger lured Tony to the basement. When Tony reached the dark bottom of the stairs, Egger grabbed a baseball bat and swung it viciously, crushing Tony's skull. Then Egger took a kitchen knife and cut Tony's throat from ear to ear. Again he plunged the knife into Tony--50 times in all.

Then he went upstairs where he and Jerry Genoud ritualistically stabbed Nicky to death, then killed the three-month-old baby, whom the cult's leaders had designated the Antichrist, gouging his chest 20 times. Before leaving for Zurich, Egger and Bellaton placed a wooden stake on the infant's multilated body.

Jerry and Colette Genoud cleaned the chalet thoroughly, then hooked timers to an ignition system connected to containers of gasoline. The Genouds died when the chalet burned on October 4.

At 11:55 p.m. the same day, 5,000 kilometers across the Atlantic, villagers in the Swiss hamlet of Cheiry saw flames shooting from the stables of a hillside farm. Firemen found a man's body lying on a bed, a plastic bag over his head. They also discovered an underground room and 22 corpses laid out in a circle, dressed in white, gold or black capes. Most had plastic garbage bags over their heads. All had been given hypnotic drugs and tranquillizers; 20 had been shot point-blank in the head and face.

At 2:50 a.m. that night two chalets in the Swiss village of Granges sur Salvan burst into flame simultaneously. After breaking in--openings had been nailed shut from the outside--firemen found 15 bodies in one, ten in the other. As at Cheiry all--including Joel Egger, Dominique Bellaton and the Cosmic Child--were members of the Solar Temple.

Just another bunch of wackos who had wiped themselves out, most people thought. But most of the dead were coldly, methodically murdered. And no one has been able to explain why they died. With more than 70 persons killed, the case has to rank as one of the most mysterious criminal affairs in recent years.

Compounding the mystery is the Order's many layers; behind the pseudo-religious facade and mystical flimflam was a sophisticated operation for managing far-flung financial interests. One awed Swiss examining magistrate called the money movements colossal.

Numerous companies and associations fronted for the cult, helping mask money flows of millions of dollars through dozens of bank accounts in several countries on three continents. So confusing are Solar Temple dealings that a secret Swiss investigation report called Helios, which Reader's Digest has obtained, concludes, "It is impossible for us to say how much money the Order handled."

Doing most of the handling was Joseph Di Mambro. Aged 70 when he died in the flames at Granges sur Salvan, Di Mambro was an unlikely looking leader: dumpy, with weak brown eyes behind thick glasses, a toupee hiding balding pate.

Born in the south of France, the son of an immigrant Italian glassworker, Di Mambro became a watch repairman. But he earned so little he was exempted from income tax. Then, in the 1950,s he joined the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC, an international secret organization that teaches reincarnation and promises "metaphysical assistance to those in need through a unique and mystical system of direct healing attunement."

Di Mambro quickly learned the uses of numbing mumbo jumbo and impressive ceremonies, and rose to head a Rosicrucian lodge in France. But in 1972 he was convicted of fraud, breach of confidence and bouncing checks, and was sentenced to six months in jail. That didn't stop him from getting on with his life's work of fleecing the gullible. He created a series of his own small occult outfits before becoming a founder of the Solar Tempe.

Di Mambro moved easily in the shadowy circles of the dozens of orders of European Templarism, some of which have served as covers for extreme right-wing movements. Usually recruited by stages, beginning with innocuous lectures on subjects like homeopathy, yoga and stress management, prospective members were screened for attitude and income. One favorite hunting ground was the giant Canadian electrical utility, Hydro-Quebec, where 15 employees were Templars.

If they had the right profile, interested parties would be invited to join an order claiming to be heir to the medieval Knights Templar, the wealthy, swashbuckling Christian warriors who guarded the Hold Land and protected pilgrims from the infidels. Initiation rites include swearing absolute secrecy, loyalty and fidelity. Article 5 of its secret regulations states: "The names of its officers, its internal organization and its activities must in no case be divulged by members to outsiders or even to other members."

Perhaps one of the most surprising things about the Solar Temple is its respectable, middle-class membership. Among the dead, for example, are:
  • Robert Falardeau, a 47-year-old accountant at the Quebec Ministry of Finance, whose occult career ended with three bullets in his head.
  • Albert Giacobino, a wealthy Swiss landowner of 72, suffocated with a garbage bag.
  • Joce-Lyne Grand'Maison, a 44-year-old journalist at the Journal de Quebec, whose love of the esoteric earned her two bullets in the head.
  • Camille Pilet, a 68-year-old multimillionaire retired sales manager for Switzerland's famous Piaget watches, who was given an overdose of tranquillizers.
  • Robert Ostiguy, the prosperous, personable 50-year-old mayor of the Montreal suburb of Richelieu, who owned a family hardware store, invested nearly $300,000 in the Order and was thanked, like his wife, Francoise, with two bullets in his face.
A list of members kept by Nicky Dutoit--complete with their measurements for capes--reveals 567 names in nine countries when she left the Order. One of the most prominent is Michel Tabachnik, a former director of the Youth Orchestra of Quebec who conducted all over Europe. Like most former members, he has largely shied away from the media since the killings.

Di Mambro, who preferred to stay behind the scenes, had as a front man a Belgian homeopath, Luc Jouret. The handsome young doctor had the charisma Di Mambro lacked, and became the Order's top drawing card. His lectures included the meaning of life (merely a passage to death) and the apocalypse (imminent).

"He gave the impression he knew the answer to every question you could ask," says Hermann Delorme, a Canadian former member. "But he lost you in such a whirlwind of tangled ideas that you felt completely ignorant of the fundamental principles of life."

Members were told they were an elite, better than ordinary people. Says a former member: "They made you feel special." One of Di Mambro's techniques was to tell new members they were the reincarnation of persons from ancient times. He persuaded one woman she had been the Egyptian queen Hatchepsout, another that she had been Anthea, queen of the fabled submerged island of Atlantis. Di Mambro himself claimed to be Moses reincarnate. He also told members he was acting on orders from the Masters of Zurich, mystical beings who lived beneath the Swiss city.

Solar Temple ceremonies were held in darkened inner sanctums. "During ceremonies we would hear sounds from the star Sirius, followed by apparitions of chandeliers, swords and so on, leading up to the appearance of the Masters," recounts a former Canadian member.

Sometimes the Master held a sword and tapped the floor in a coded message. Or it could be King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, that materialized before the members' ecstatic eyes. Or the slow, hovering appearance of the Holy Grail, the chalice Christ used at the Last Supper. The apparitions were cleverly designed holograms.

"Di Mambro would tell us, 'Do you realize that we are the only people on the planet to see these things?'" writes Thierry Huguenin, a Swiss former member who barely escaped being the 54th victim in October 1994 when he sensed trouble at the chalets in Granges sur Salvan and fled.

At Sureté du Quebec headquarters in Montreal, I examined some of the stage props confiscated by police from Canadian Solar Temple sanctums. King Arthur's Excalibur was a large, tinny broadsword crudely painted fluorescent green and red. In a dark room, black light made it appear suspended in midair, blood dripping from its tip.

Another sword had a small nine-volt battery taped to its hilt. Electrical wires, masked with black tape, led to a tiny red light at the tip. If the Master pointed the sword at a female member and mystical light flashed, it meant she would conceive via theogamie--impregnated by cosmic spirits without sexual contact. When the tip once touched Dominique Bellaton--who happened to be Di Mambro's mistress--and produced a flash, he announced grandly that she had conceived the Cosmic Child and would give birth to a new Christ.

The baby turned out to be a girl, but this was hidden from members. She was given a variant of a boy's name, Emmanuelle. When Nicky and Tony Dutoit named their baby Christopher Emmanuel, it was an outrage in Temple eyes that made the infant the Antichrist.

Many members sacrificed everything they owned to the cult. Besides paying dues of up to $300 a month, they often sold homes and other assets and turned over the proceeds to the Order. Thierry Huguenin sold his share of a small business and gave the $32,000 to Di Mambro, receiving $107 a month pocket money in return. Swiss police estimate Albert Giacobino donated more than $2 million and Camille Pilet several million dollars over five years.

The contributions allowed Di Mambro to live like a king. He traveled around the world, staying at the best hotels, buying pricey real estate, driving Jaguar and Mercedes automobiles.

Money also poured into the order's coffers from complex real-estate deals. Police have never established how much money the Solar Temple channelled through such operations--or from whom. Says Swiss journalist Arnaud Bedat, who has investigated the Solar Temple affair: "Huge amounts of money have disappeared, probably headed for some financial safe haven."

Meanwhile, wiretaps on Solar Temple phones revealed increasing doubts and unrest among members. There were questions about finances, the Masters of Zurich, even the special effects at ceremonies. Temple leaders began trying to procure firearms. Hermann Delorme got them three 9-mm pistols for $400 each and two silencers. "That was when I realized they wanted to kill off the members," Delorme says.

The trap on members began closing on September 29, 1994, when Joel Egger took his flight from Zurich. It would keep closing, and killing, for the next 2 1/2 hears. Satan stage settings and a "testament" left behind saying cultists had died "in joy and plenitude" were designed to give the impression of a mass suicide pact.

To be sure, some 25 fanatical members gathered with Di Mambro and Jouret at the two chalets in Granges sur Salvan may have been ready for "the transit to Sirius" preached for years by the two gurus. The intravenous injections of a lethal mix of opiates, curare and tranquillizers, followed by a fire, seem to indicate voluntary death. But then, why would the chalets' openings have been nailed shut from the outside?

Authorities were still trying to understand the October 1994 deaths when, 14 months later, the Temple reached out again to kill its members. Thirteen adults and three children aged two to six were shot in the head and burned on December 16, 1995, in a remote area of southeastern France called the Vercors. An examining magistrate said, "We are faced with a veritable criminal organization."

Criminal, too, is the way it has poisoned people's minds. Five members who felt they had missed the Temple's earlier "transits" died in March 1997 when they drugged themselves and set fire to their house in the Quebec village of St. Casimir.

Does the Solar Temple still exist? "It does, and someone is pulling the strings behind it," says Janine Tavernier, head of France's anticult Union for the Defense of Families and the Individual. "I can tell you there will be more Solar Temple tragedies. Some former members still talk as if they are programmed."

Thierry Huguenin, a Solar Temple member for 15 years, sums up the risks of succumbing to the blandishments of cults. "The spiritual quest is noble and legitimate," he writes in his book, The 54th. "But everyone must be careful to remember that many swindlers will try to turn your faith to their profit, even if it means killing you."

Reader's Digest International Editions, December 1997