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At least 39 dead in mass suicide

The bodies of 39 young men, all dressed in dark pants and tennis shoes, were found inside a multimillion-dollar mansion Wednesday in what sheriff's deputies called a mass suicide.

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

Deputies were called to the scene of the palatial home about 3:15 p.m. A deputy entered the home through a side door and found the first bodies.

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

The cause of death has not been determined, although deputies noticed a pungent odor, he said. Two deputies were sent to the hospital for blood tests, Lipscomb said.

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 Koutchessahani and his wife, Fatt Maghadam Yekta _ maintain a post-office box in Rancho Santa Fe as their address.

Koutchessahani 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, including 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.

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.

Koutchessahani 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."

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

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