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Mass suicide leaves 39 dead in California

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 about 18 to 24 years old, were lying on their backs with their hands at their sides, said San Diego County sheriff's Cmdr. Alan Fulmer. There was no sign of survivors.

Real estate agents said the home had been occupied for months by members of a quasi-religious group. Police could not confirm that Wednesday night.

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 boss, 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 Dyson.

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."

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 its 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 think it is 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 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 estate.

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

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.

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.

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.

"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.

The late Pete Rozelle, who craved privacy after he retired as commissioner of the National Football League in 1989, found it in Rancho Santa Fe. Other residents have included Joan Kroc, widow of McDonald's founder Ray Kroc, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and John Neal Reagan, former President Ronald Reagan's only brother.

There's no home mail delivery, because most of the lots are so big. There are no street lights, and a covenant allows only two styles of houses _ Spanish Mediterranean and ranch.

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

Other recent mass suicides

+ March 22 Police in Saint Casimir, Quebec, found the charred bodies of three women and two men inside a house owned by a member of the Solar Temple, an international sect that believes death by ritualized suicide leads to rebirth in a place called "Sirius."

+ December 1995 _ 16 Solar Temple members were found dead in a burned house outside Grenoble, in the French Alps. Two French police officers were among the 16 dead.

+ October 1994 _ Police found the burned bodies of 48 Solar Temple members in a farmhouse and three chalets in Switzerland. At the same time in Quebec, five bodies, including that of an infant, were found in a chalet in Morin Heights, north of Montreal.

+ April 19, 1993 _ At least 70 Branch Davidian cult members died after fire and a shoot-out with police and federal agents ended a 51-day siege of the compound near Waco, Texas. David Koresh, leader of the Waco group, died of a gunshot wound to the head sometime during the blaze.

+ December 1991 _ Mexican police blamed a minister's fervent belief in God for his death and that of 29 followers who suffocated when he told them to keep praying and ignore toxic fumes filling their church.

+ November 18, 1978 _ Paranoid U.S. pastor, the Rev. Jim Jones, led 914 followers to their deaths at Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking a cyanide-laced fruit drink. Cult members who refused to swallow the liquid were shot.