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, lying dead on their backs yesterday in a luxurious home -- victims of what authorities were calling a mass suicide.

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

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

None, however, showed any signs of life.

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

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

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

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 boasts tennis courts, a swimming pool, a sauna, a putting green and an indoor elevator.

Deputies approached the rambling ranch house after receiving an anonymous phone tip about a mass suicide about 3:15 p.m. The first to arrive entered through an open side door wearing surgical masks and came across 10 bodies in the 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 no indication of trauma.

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

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

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

As media helicopters roared overhead and sheriff's deputies congregated outside the residence on Colina Norte, neighbors culled their memories for any hint of something odd in the suddenly macabre hilltop house with the stunning ocean view.

Several said the only thing out of the ordinary that they noticed in recent 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 several months have had out-of-state license plates, they said, including at least one from New Mexico.

Property records show that Sam Koutchesfahani, the owner of Tan Trading and Consultant Group, bought the nine-bedroom, seven-bathroom home in May 1994 for $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 show the home to buyers but "there was always some sort of religion meeting going on."

Koutchesfahani pleaded guilty to tax evasion and fraud in San Diego Federal Court last year. He admitted that he set up a scheme to help foreign students from the Middle East remain in the United States by bribing community college officials to illegally enroll them and certify them as California residents. Koutchesfahani acknowledged that the scheme netted him up to $350,000.

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

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

The group's members believe they were sent to earth as angels and described themselves as having met in the Midwest, with chapters in Arizona and New Mexico, Silverman said. The tenants requested that the house not be shown 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 home as "our temple," and insisted that all visitors take off shoes and don surgical booties or socks. The mansion was stocked with bunk beds and several computers, and the tenants reportedly said they were developing a page for the World Wide Web.

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

Distraught neighbors said they knew an out-of-state religious cult had been renting the ranch house since October. They reported that the residents of 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 Colina Norte cul-de-sac last fall, neighbor Bill Strong said the home's owner told him: "Meet your new neighbors. They're going to be opening a monastery or a convent."

Another neighbor, Arnie Kappan, said the owner told him: "Look, if I can't sell 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 unusual in 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 hide out," her husband, Bill Strong, said.

In a neighborhood so quiet you can hear cars crunching across gravel driveways, neighbors noticed oddities about the new tenants but apparently were not bothered.

"You knew they weren't ordinary working people going to a job at 8 in the morning. They didn't have a regular schedule," Bill Strong said. But he added that "they certainly didn't disturb any of the neighbors here. There was nothing to object to."

Martine Tamayo, a landscaper at a neighboring house, said he had at times seen older people in wheelchairs at the house, but that the residents were younger men who always dressed alike, in monochromatic uniforms of black or white.

"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 the Rancho Santa Fe community, which tightly regulates architectural styles and landscaping aesthetics, does not restrict the number of people who can live in a home.

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

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

On Saturday, five followers of the Order of the Solar Temple died when fire engulfed in a house they were occupying about 40 miles southwest of Quebec City in Canada. Over the past three years, 74 members of the cult have died 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 committed suicide, apparently by drinking grape punch laced with potassium cyanide. As with the Solar Temple cult, some of the Jonestown deaths were not suicides, but murders.