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Deputies find at least 39 young men dead in mass suicide

March 27, 1997

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. (AP) _ The bodies of at least 39 young men in matching dark pants and tennis shoes were found Wednesday after an apparent mass suicide in a million-dollar mansion occupied by a quasi-religious group of computer programmers.

The men, all white and about 18 to 24 years old, were lying on their backs on cots, mattresses and beds with their hands at their sides, said San Diego County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Alan Fulmer. There was no sign of survivors, he said.

Fulmer said the cause of death was not immediately known, and there were no suicide notes found or any indication of a motive in what may be the largest mass suicide on U.S. soil this century.

Real estate agent Scott Warren showed the house last week and was greeted by about 20 people, both men and women, who referred to the computer-filled mansion as ``our temple,″ said his employer, Bob Dyson.

``Everybody was met at each door. Shoes had to be taken off, and they were invited to wear surgical booties or socks,″ said Bob Dyson, whose agency had trouble showing the rented home because of all the activity there.

Several rooms contained computers where members told Warren they were developing World Wide Web pages.

``They kept referring to the temple as very self-sufficient and how proud they were,″ Dyson said, adding the tenants were staying for free. ``It was very clean and neat. A lot of bunk beds, and they referred to each other as brother and sister.″

The owner, Sam Koutchesfahani, also admitted having trouble, according to neighbor Arnie Kapan, who said he joked in late October: ``I can’t sell it. I’m renting to a bunch of monks.″

Two deputies searched the palatial home Wednesday afternoon after an anonymous caller told them to ``check on the welfare of the residents.″ A deputy entered through a side door and encountered at least 10 bodies.

Then, he and another deputy made a cursory search of the mansion, wearing surgical masks against noxious fumes as they counted 39 bodies clustered in various rooms, ``appearing as if they had fallen asleep,″ Fulmer said.

The two deputies were sent to the hospital for blood tests after breathing the pungent order, and no one else reentered the home Wednesday night. Authorities were waiting for a search warrant before proceeding further.

Investigators believe it’s a mass suicide ``due to the number people involved, no signs of struggle, no signs of trauma,″ sheriff’s Lt. Gerald Lipscomb said.

Another neighbor, Bill Strong, said the group had parked four vehicles outside the luxurious estate on Wednesday, including a hotel courtesy van, a Ford Econoline van, another van and a Ryder truck.

The mansion, built in 1983 on 3.11 acres lined with palm trees, has 9 bedrooms, 7 bathrooms, a swimming pool and a tennis court. It was valued at $1.325 million in 1995.

Shelby Strong, who also lives next door, described the tenants as ``very conservative.″ She told the NBC station that she introduced herself to one man when they moved in, and he said he was in a religious group.

``I made some kind of joke. It didn’t go too well, he didn’t seem to have a good sense of humor,″ she said.

There was no indication whether the deaths were related to Saturday’s fiery mass suicide in Quebec of five members of the Order of the Solar Temple, a doomsday cult that believes suicide transports them to a new life on a planet called Sirius. Over the past three years, murder-suicides by Temple followers have resulted in 74 deaths in Europe and Canada.

Koutchesfahani has an unlisted number and his lawyer didn’t immediately return a phone message.

The owner of Tan Trading and Consulting, he pleaded guilty last year to tax evasion and fraud after admitting he took up to $350,000 from Middle Eastern students between 1989 and 1995. He is scheduled to be sentenced later this year.

Prosecutors said Koutchesfahani used the money to bribe college instructors at three San Diego area colleges into illegally enrolling students into the schools and certifying them as California residents.

Rancho Santa Fe is an exclusive community in northern San Diego County noted for its gated estates, polo fields and million-dollar homes. It’s been described as the Beverly Hills of San Diego.

``It sounds pretty damn bizarre,″ said San Diego Padres owner John Moores, a Rancho Santa Fe resident who describes his community as ``incredibly quiet.″

``The reason we bought there is it’s very, very peaceful. I’m unaware of any place like it in anywhere in America. Every once in a while I can hear a neighbor,″ he said.

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