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39 men die in mass suicide near San Diego


Bodies found in mansion in upscale neighborhood

March 26, 1997
Web posted at: 11:18 p.m. EST (0418 GMT)

RANCHO SANTA FE, California (CNN) -- The bodies of 39 young men who may have been part of a religious group were found late Wednesday afternoon in a mansion near San Diego, and deputies described the deaths as a mass suicide.

The victims were all reported to be between 18 and 24 years old and were found in various rooms of the home in Rancho Santa Fe, an exclusive community about 20 miles (32 km) north of San Diego.

"They're dressed similarly, all lying in a prone position, hands at their side as if asleep," said Cmdr. Alan Fulmer of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. He said the men were wearing dark pants and tennis shoes, and there were no signs of trauma or blood.

He would not disclose how the men may have died or how long the bodies had been at the house. Authorities were not releasing victims' names, pending the notification of relatives.

The Sheriff's Department received an anonymous phone call at mid-afternoon from someone who said there had been a mass suicide and who provided the address of the mansion.

An attorney for the homeowner, Sam Koutchessahani, said his client rented it in October 1996 to what he described as a religious group.

Fulmer said there were no religious artifacts found near the bodies, and the corpses did not appear to be arranged in any ritual manner.

Little contact with neighbors

The cream-colored, tile-roofed Spanish-style mansion sits on an estate in Rancho Santa Fe, a community that has been described as the Beverly Hills of San Diego.

The estate, which has a swimming pool and tennis court, was for sale and was listed on the market at $1.6 million, according to a report from CNN affiliate KUSI-TV. It would likely have rented for $10,000 to $20,000 a month, the station reported.

A neighbor, Bill Strong, said five to 10 people, including men and women but no children, had been living at the mansion. He said he noticed vans and trucks coming and going from the residence, and one had New Mexico license plates.

Other people who lived nearby reported that the group had little contact with neighbors. KNBC-TV in Los Angeles quoted a real estate agent who had been trying to sell the house as saying that the sale was hindered by the activity of what appeared to be a religious "cult" meeting there.

There was no indication as to whether the deaths were related to Saturday's mass suicide in Quebec of five members of the Order of the Solar Temple. More than 70 members of that group have committed suicide in the last three years.

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