The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California on March 27, 1997 · Page 33
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The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California · Page 33

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Thursday, March 27, 1997
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LOS ANGELES TIMES THURSDAY, MARCH 27, 1997 A33F DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY pi.-'-, V" . . ... ! "X f; ; . . .r, i , - i . ... 4 ,. - : i in. r i . a,. - r x vy"--.-;--. L .. .... . - "- i '' !! ? A V L: J Photos by DENIS POROY Associated Press A San Diego sheriff's investigator, left, photographs back patio of house where bodies were found. Officials secured the area after receiving an anonymous tip about a possible mass suicide inside the sprawling home. GROUP: 39 Found Dead in Apparent Suicide Continued from Al pears 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 deputy to arrive entered through an open side door wearing a surgical mask 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. Neighbors Talk About Group Stunned and nearly overcome by what sheriff's 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 Wednesday. The Los Angeles County coroner's office also sent a team to help handle the bodies. 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 they noticed in recent days were a few new vehicles, including a Ryder rental truck and a van. Most of the cars they had spotted coming and going from the house over the past several months 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 for it. 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 U.S. District Court in San Diego last year. As part of the plea-bargain, 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, a federal official said. Koutchesfahani acknowledged that the scheme netted him up to $350,000. Koutchesfahani, now free 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. Silverman, Koutchesfahani's attorney, 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 believe that members 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 said. "They appeared to be peaceful, sincere, loving people," Silverman said. Others familiar with the group 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 computers, and the tenants were reportedly programmers who operated a business designing pages for companies looking to advertise on the Internet. Though all the victims were men, visitors to the home said they saw several women living there. They said the group members many of them in crew cuts boasted that their temple was economically self-sufficient because of the computer programming work. Rancho Santa Fe real estate agent Bob Dyson said A Wealthy Enclave A look at Rancho Santa Fe, an unincorporated section of San Diego County that is one of the most exculsive places in Southern California: Profile of Rancho Santa Fe In this secluded community, gated million-dollar estates are tucked away behind green foliage on one- to four-acre lots. The swank area is sprinkled with polo fields and country clubs. Population: 12,180 Average household Income: $163,228 Average household size: 2.8 Households: 4,280 Housing units: 4,641 Note: 1996 estimates Us Angeles lit- ' Tp' V- ! I E N C I Nl T A S San Diego " Qp--. COUNA V-J f; i-'ffSr'X s NORTE w o ( ... v 5 ueaxn scene A 1 ( 1 i i - r) - SAN DIEGO y- Cardiff COUNTY (se) bythe V Y Sea - miles DEL DIOS HWY. 1 White 83 Hispanic 12 Asian 5 mmmm i 34 and under 35-44 45-54 55 and over: 10 26 28 37 Note: Does not add up to 100 due to rounding Source: Claritas Inc., based on 1990 census and 1996 estimates "I'm unaware of any place like it anywhere in America. Every once in a while I can hear a neighbor." San Diego Padres owner John Moores, a Rancho Santa Fe resident Average House Size Square feet Rancho Santa Fe 4,338 Bel-Air 3,491 Beverly Hills 3,409 Indian Wells 3,345 Calabasas 3,019 Source: AxiomDataQuick Largest Number of Expensive Homes Million-dollar homes Beverly Hills 1,474 Newport Beach 1,019 Brentwood 913 Rancho Santa Fe 793 Malibu 732 Home Sales Over $1 Million Beverly Hills Rancho Santa Fe Newport Beach Brentwood Pacific Palisades In 1995 130 88 59 54 52 from Rancho Santa Fe to a commercial area. They frequently spotted one man in particular.- a longhaired and barefoot man who often stood waiting for a bus. "They looked different. Not mean or anything like that, just different," Tamayo said. "They never said hi, just minded their own business." Tamayo and other neighbors said they never saw more than a few people at the house at any one time; they were astounded at the number of bodies found. But real estate agents 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. The deaths jarred neighbors in Rancho Santa Fe known more for its polo ponies than for its cults or criminals. 1992 Mystery The last time their neighborhood received such notoriety was back in 1992, when a mysterious English businessman named Ian Spiro apparently shot his wife and three children to death in their home and then committed suicide by swallowing cyanide in a remote desert spot. The Spiro case bedeviled residents because, even though police concluded that Spiro killed his family and committed suicide, conspiracy theories about the deaths abounded. Spiro's background as an Contributing to The Times coverage of the deaths in Rancho Santa Fe were staff writers Alan Abrahamson, Nick Anderson, Tina Daunt, John Glionna, Larry Gordon, Anne-Marie O'Connor, David Reyes, Tim Rutten, Stephanie Simon, Hector Tobar, Jodi Wilgoren, researcher Nona Yates and correspondent Paul Levikow. his agency showed the property to prospective buyers a week ago. "There were computers everywhere," Dyson said. "There were men and women, all had crew cuts, including the women. They were very android-like. They referred to each other as brother and sister." Dyson said no one spoke except the group's leader, who said they were living in the home for free, paying no rent. Cult experts speculated that W.W. Higher Source appeared to be a neo-Gnostic group, meaning that its members believed in a sacred wisdom accessible only to a select few. The Rancho Santa Fe group seemed to be heavily involved in computer programming. They were described as very talented and very quiet, and apparently worked for various businesses. Tom Goodspeed, manager of the San Diego Polo Club, told MS-NBC that the group approached him with a proposal to design a Web page for the club. "I certainly knew six or seven of the members in working relationship. They were some of the most pleasant people I've ever worked with," he told the newscast. A Web site from a design company calling itself Higher Source boasts of a cadre of Internet designers that has worked closely for years, developing "know-how" through "personal discipline and a concerted effort." The Web site also proclaims: "We try to stay positive in any circumstance and put the good of a project above any personal concerns or artistic egos." 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. Los Angeles Times When the group 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 were not bothered. Bill Strong said he never saw the men gardening or playing tennis, but once spotted several of them breakfasting at a local pancake house. "You knew they weren't ordinary working people going to a job at 8 in the morning. They didn't have a regular schedule," 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 haa 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. Other neighbors reported seeing men dressed all in black walking up Encinitas Boulevard, which leads intelligence operative on the fringes of Middle East espionage sparked many theories about assassins and terrorists targeting the entire family. Investigators released few details Wednesday about the group 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. Just this week, five followers of the Order of the Solar Temple died when fire engulfed 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 the Rev. 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. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender and Under-sheriff Jack Drown were in Sacramento when word of the tragedy in Rancho Santa Fe reached them. They were flying back to San Dieg6 as the investigation continued into the night Wednesday. Gov. Pete Wilson also flew to San Diego late in the evening. About 10:30 p.m., half a dozen sheriff's deputies escorted a blond man in his mid-20s toward the house to help identify the bodies. But the man who did not give his name refused to cooperate, and never actually entered the house. He told reporters gathered outside that he runs a nearby car wash and knew several of the residents of the house as religious monks, calling them "very loving" and describing them as "the nicest, sweetest guys you ever met." He said he chatted with some of them just last Sunday and they told him they would soon be leaving. "I spoke to them the other day. They said they may be going away. I said, 'Where are you guys going?' And they said, 'We can't tell you where we're going.' " The man said he thought they were going on a camping trip. After talking for a few minutes to reporters, the man hopped a wooden fence and fled through a nearby field. "I kind of want to get out of here." he said. "It's mayhem." 1

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