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39 dead in mass suicide

The bodies of at least 39 young men, lying side by side in matching dark pants and tennis shoes, were found scattered throughout a million-dollar mansion Wednesday in an apparent mass suicide.

The men, all between the ages of 18 and 24, were lying with their hands at their sides. There were no sign of survivors, said San Diego County sheriff's Cmdr. Alan Fulmer.

Two deputies searched the palatial home about 3:15 p.m. after an anonymous caller told them to "check on the welfare of the residents." A deputy entered the home through a side door and quickly saw 10 bodies.

Then, he and another deputy made a cursory search of the mansion, counting 39 bodies clustered in various rooms, all of them lying on their back and "appearing as if they had fallen asleep," Fulmer said.

The two deputies then left, and no one else had re-entered the home as of 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.

The cause of death has not been determined, he said. There was a pungent odor, and the two deputies who entered the home were sent to the hospital for blood tests.

Property records show that the nine-bedroom, seven-bathroom home on more than 3 acres was sold in May 1994 to a married couple for $1.325-million. The home was considered owner-occupied, though the buyers _ Sam Koutchesfahani and his wife, Fatt Maghadam Yekta _ maintain a post-office box in Rancho Santa Fe as their address.

Koutchesfahani rented the home in October to people from out of state, said Bill Strong, a next-door neighbor who has seen five to 10 people living there recently.

On Wednesday, the group had parked four vehicles _ a hotel courtesy van, a Ford Econoline van, another van and a Ryder truck _ outside the luxurious estate.

Strong, whose home is about 100 feet away, said he never saw children or pets and never spoke to the tenants.

KNBC-TV reported that a real estate agent said the home had been on the market for quite some time and that they were having trouble selling it. The agent complained that every time they tried to show the house, a religious cult was having a meeting there.

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 call.

A glance inside the rambling, cream-colored mansion with a red-tiled roof showed a full pantry, expensive furniture and a southwestern motif. The estate, lined with palm trees, also has a swimming pool and a tennis court.

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.

_ Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Other recent mass suicides

+ March 22, 1997 In St. Casimir, Quebec, five members of the Order of the Solar Temple die in a fiery mass suicide. Cult devotees believe 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.

+ Nov. 18, 1978 _ In Jonestown, Guyana, authorities found more than 900 dead. The Rev. Jim Jones urged his disciples to drink cyanide-laced grape punch.

Jones, who was among those who died, led the Peoples Temple, which ran a free clinic and a drug rehabilitation program and performed other charitable functions. Jones also emerged as a political force, becoming chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1976.

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