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39 dead in apparent mass suicide in Calif.

Police found the bodies of 39 young men, apparently cult members who believed they were sent to earth as angels, lyingdead on their backs yesterday in a luxurious home -- victims of whatauthorities were calling a mass suicide.

The cult they belonged to, called W.W. Higher Source, practiced celibacyand abstained from smoking and drinking, according to Milt Silverman Jr., anattorney for the owner of the home where the men died. They were apparentlycelebrating a "holy week" when they died, Silverman said.

But police said they found no apparent religious artifacts in theirinitial pass through the house yesterday. Instead, they simply found bodies,scattered about the two-story home -- many resting on beds or cots. Thevictims, who appeared to be white and Latino, did not look bloodied orbruised. Indeed, they looked so peaceful that one officer said they appearedto be sleeping.

None, however, showed any signs of life.

And there was no identification on any of the corpses. Nor was there asuicide note.

Deputies could not say last night how the men died. They said all signspointed to suicide but did not rule out that some victims could have beenkilled.

"We don't know what we have yet," said San Diego County Lt. GeraldLipscomb. "It appears to be a suicide, but it could be something other thanthat."

The deputies also suggested that the body count of 39 was not definitive,as they had not finished searching the entire three-acre estate, which boaststennis courts, a swimming pool, a sauna, a putting green and an indoorelevator.

Deputies approached the rambling ranch house after receiving an anonymousphone tip about a mass suicide about 3:15 p.m. The first to arrive enteredthrough an open side door wearing surgical masks and came across 10 bodies inthe living room -- all young men, all dressed in dark pants and dark sneakers,all lying peacefully on their backs. There was no sign of struggle and noindication of trauma.

Stunned and nearly overcome by what Cmdr. Alan Fulmer described as a"pungent" smell, the deputy retreated and called for backup. Sheriff'sofficials did not describe the odor in the home in any detail but said twodeputies were getting blood tests.

"We want to have their blood checked to see if [there is] any kind ofsubstance that will tell us what happened," Lipscomb said.

The Sheriff's Department sent a hazardous materials team to investigatepossible toxic fumes in the house late yesterday.

As media helicopters roared overhead and sheriff's deputies congregatedoutside the residence on Colina Norte, neighbors culled their memories for anyhint of something odd in the suddenly macabre hilltop house with the stunningocean view.

Several said the only thing out of the ordinary that they noticed inrecent days were a few new vehicles, including a Ryder rental truck and a van.Most of the cars spotted coming and going from the house over the past severalmonths have had out-of-state license plates, they said, including at least onefrom New Mexico.

Property records show that Sam Koutchesfahani, the owner of Tan Tradingand Consultant Group, bought the nine-bedroom, seven-bathroom home in May 1994for $1.325 million. He recently put the home on the market, reportedly asking$1.6 million.

A real estate agent, who did not want to be named, said she tried to showthe home to buyers but "there was always some sort of religion meeting goingon."

Koutchesfahani pleaded guilty to tax evasion and fraud in San DiegoFederal Court last year. He admitted that he set up a scheme to help foreignstudents from the Middle East remain in the United States by bribing communitycollege officials to illegally enroll them and certify them as Californiaresidents. Koutchesfahani acknowledged that the scheme netted him up to$350,000.

Koutchesfahani, now out on bail, is due to be sentenced in July. Federalofficials said they are investigating whether there is a link between thefraud case and the suicides.

Koutchesfahani's attorney, prominent San Diego criminal attorneySilverman, said the tenants ranged in age from 18 to 65. The oldest was calledFather John; another leader was addressed as Brother Logan.

The group's members believe they were sent to earth as angels anddescribed themselves as having met in the Midwest, with chapters in Arizonaand New Mexico, Silverman said. The tenants requested that the house not beshown to prospective buyers this week because it was their holy week,Silverman added.

"They appeared to be peaceful, sincere, loving people," Silverman said.

Others familiar with the cult said the men referred to their rented homeas "our temple," and insisted that all visitors take off shoes and donsurgical booties or socks. The mansion was stocked with bunk beds and severalcomputers, and the tenants reportedly said they were developing a page for theWorld Wide Web.

Though all the victims were men, visitors to the home said they sawseveral women living there. They said the cult members -- many of them in crewcuts -- boasted that their temple was economically self-sufficient.

Distraught neighbors said they knew an out-of-state religious cult hadbeen renting the ranch house since October. They reported that the residentsof the house appeared to dress in uniform -- sometimes black, sometimes white-- and called themselves monks.

When the group first moved into the palm-fringed mansion on the ColinaNorte cul-de-sac last fall, neighbor Bill Strong said the home's owner toldhim: "Meet your new neighbors. They're going to be opening a monastery or aconvent."

Another neighbor, Arnie Kappan, said the owner told him: "Look, if I can'tsell the house, I'll rent it to a bunch of monks."

Strong and other neighbors described Koutchesfahani's tenants as quiet,private people who kept the shades drawn and rarely interacted -- not unusualin a neighborhood that attracts people looking for posh privacy.

"They could not have been quieter, nicer neighbors," said Shelby Strong,who lives next door. "I suppose this could have been a good place to hideout," her husband, Bill Strong, said.

In a neighborhood so quiet you can hear cars crunching across graveldriveways, neighbors noticed oddities about the new tenants but apparentlywere not bothered.

"You knew they weren't ordinary working people going to a job at 8 in themorning. They didn't have a regular schedule," Bill Strong said. But he addedthat "they certainly didn't disturb any of the neighbors here. There wasnothing to object to."

Martine Tamayo, a landscaper at a neighboring house, said he had at timesseen older people in wheelchairs at the house, but that the residents wereyounger men who always dressed alike, in monochromatic uniforms of black orwhite.

"They looked different. Not mean or anything like that, just different,"Tamayo said. "They never said hi, just minded their own business."

Neighbors said they never saw more than a handful of people at the house;they were astounded at the number of bodies found. But local Realtors said theRancho Santa Fe community, which tightly regulates architectural styles andlandscaping aesthetics, does not restrict the number of people who can live ina home.

Investigators released few details yesterday about the cult reportedlyinvolved in the mass suicide.

They would not speculate about any possible connection between the groupin Rancho Santa Fe and the recent spate of murder-suicides among followers ofthe Order of the Solar Temple, a cult based in Switzerland but with branchesin Europe and Canada.

On Saturday, five followers of the Order of the Solar Temple died whenfire engulfed in a house they were occupying about 40 miles southwest ofQuebec City in Canada. Over the past three years, 74 members of the cult havedied in murder-suicides.

Perhaps the most dramatic cult suicide in recent memory occurred in 1978,when 913 followers of Jim Jones died in Jonestown, Guyana. Most had committedsuicide, apparently by drinking grape punch laced with potassium cyanide. Aswith the Solar Temple cult, some of the Jonestown deaths were not suicides,but murders.

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