On January 8, 1998, Spanish police announced they had
prevented a possible collective suicide attempt by members of a cult based in Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands.
The authorities in Tenerife say the 31 members of the cult, who are mostly German, were planning to commit suicide later today.
Police have detained a German psychologist said to be the leader of the sect.
– Source: Spanish police foil mass suicide, BBC, UK, Jan. 8, 1998
Three days later, German psychologist Heide Fittkau-Garthe was charged with induction to suicide, attempted murder and belonging to an illegal group.
Fittkau-Garthe was arrested on Wednesday [Jan. 8, 1998 – AI] and accused of planning to induce the 31 members of the sect she headed to kill themselves before 8pm (1900 GMT) on Thursday, when they believed the world would end.
On her arrest, the followers, who included five children, told police that they had expected a space ship to pick up their bodies from Teide mountain on the island of Tenerife.
The sect, whose name was not made known, has been linked to the Order of the Solar Temple whose followers have carried out mass suicides in Canada, France and Switzerland.
– Source: Cult leader sent to jail, BBC, UK, Jan. 11, 1998
In the end Dr Fittkau-Garthe was detained in custody for twelve days before being released without charges.
Miss Fittgau-Garthe’s group was called Isis Holistic Centre, or Atma Center. While it was suggested that the group arose from a split in the Order of the Solar Temple, investigation later showed that the group was in no way connected to the Solar Temple suicide cult.
During the January 8 raid, police seized documents they believed to be suicide notes. Titled, Herzenschlüssel (‘Keys to the heart’), the documents show that Fittgau-Garthe’s devotees reportedly considered her to be divine, and expressed their expectation to be united with her by dying. In a January 25, 1998 program broadcast by Germany’s RTL-Spiegel TV, a devotee stated that the notes referred to killing of the ‘ego’ rather than the body.
Hansjorg Hemminger, co-author of a book on sects, Second-Hand Soul, says Fittkau-Garthe referred to herself as “The Source.”
According to Der Spiegel, 4/1998, Ms Fittkau-Garthe said the victims of the Nazi Holocaust owed their deaths to karma, to their own bad actions in past lives. She herself claimed to have been Czar Nicholas II in a former life. A disobedient cult member had supposedly been Lenin, murderer of Fittkau-Garthe’s previous incarnation’s family; who could make up for that only by total obedience to Fittkau-Garthe in this life.
Apparently, Fittkau-Garthe had been the leader of the Hamburg branch of the Brahma Kumaris religious group (founded in the 1930s in India; headquarters at Mt. Abu). She retained its doctrine of an elite of ‘golden souls’, destined to reincarnate to rule the world in a new world era, and its belief in “Shiv Baba” (or “Brahma Baba”) as supreme deity.
Occult tendencies tend to see Tenerife, and especially Mt. Teide, as a remnant of the mythical former continent Atlantis. At least six UFO cults regularly meet on Mt. Teide, according to Der Spiegel, 4/1998.
– Source: Herman de Tollenaere, Spanish police state they prevented mass suicide by Atma (Isis Holistic) Center cult
Excerpts from news reports
One sector of the city of Santa Cruz, capital of the Spanish island of Tenerife, is called el barrio de la Salud, meaning the healthy suburb. The local name proved a misnomer for a large group of visitors to the holiday resort last week, at least in the sense of mental health. Thirty-two Germans and one Spanish woman believed they were about to be lifted from Earth by a spaceship. Failing that, they were to commit group suicide. Their hopes were dashed but their lives saved when police entered a block of apartments in the suburb and detained them until the scheduled arrival of the spacecraft had passed.
The group’s leader, Heide Fittkau-Garthe, 57, a doctor of psychology with an office in Hamburg and a part-time resident of Tenerife for many years, was held for questioning. Her followers were required to remain on the island.
First reports said the group was a branch of the Solar Temple sect, which has arranged group suicides in France, Switzerland and Canada. But experts in both Spain and Germany say the group appears to be independent and based on faith in Fittkau-Garthe.
The Canary Islands delegate for Spain’s central government, Antonio Lopez, said the followers are being regarded as “victims trapped in a process” and do not face charges. They were all maintaining silence last week, their chief concern being for the welfare of Fittkau-Garthe. It was unclear whether she would face charges.
Police had been watching the block of apartments in Santa Cruz for several days after the brother of a Munich-based member of the group alerted police about the planned mass suicide. The Spanish police are believed to have seized bottles of an unidentified liquid.
The Berlin-born psychologist married Bernd Fittkau, a professor of psychology. They had a son, now aged 20. The couple divorced 13 years ago after Heide had been to India in the mid-1980s and became a follower of Brahma Kumari, a group which promotes celibacy, veganism and Raja Yoga. According to Hansjorg Hemminger, co-author of a book on sects, Second-Hand Soul, Fittkau-Garthe set up the group centered on her in 1993, calling herself “The Source.” Her devout followers accepted her creed that the world faced destruction by an “earth-axis leap.” Last week they were waiting in Tenerife to be allowed to return to Germany to contemplate a near-fatal leap in credibility.
– Source: Rod Usher, Near-Death Experience, TIME Magazine, Jan. 19, 1998
The alleged cult leader, Doctor Heide Fittkau-Garthe, was arrested last Wednesday after police raiding her home said they found a cocktail of poisons ready for a mass suicide by 32 followers.
Fittkau-Garthe, 57, a German psychologist who specialised in executive stress relief, has been charged with attempted murder and inducement to suicide.
The sect members reportedly believed the world was going to end last Thursday and wanted to kill themselves before their bodies were picked up by a spaceship.
Fittkau-Garthe’s devotees said in interviews with police psychologists that they were convinced that the sect leader was “touched by the hand of God.”
– Source: Doomsday cult members arrested, BBC, Jan. 13, 1998
This January, 2007 report looks back at the events that took place nine years earlier, and offers a different perspective on what happened:
It is nine years to the week since Tenerife suddenly leapt to international prominence, swept the prime slots on all the 24 hour news services and hogged the front pages of a host of newspapers around the world. Bad news is good news in the media and Tenerife was hot news for all the wrong reasons as far as the tourism authorities were concerned that week in which the island became the focus for an unprecedented feeding frenzy.
The BBC report filed on January 8 1998 put it like this:
“Spanish police say they have prevented a possible suicide attempt by members of a cult based in Tenerife in the Spanish Canary Islands. The authorities in Tenerife say the 31 members of the cult, who are mainly British and German, were planning to commit suicide later today. Police have detained a German psychologist said to be the leader of the sect …”
The garbled accounts of that strange night relied heavily on police reports with a good deal of imaginative hearsay and unconfirmed rumours thrown in for good measure.
The police issued a statement which said the general belief among the cult members was the world would end at 7 pm on January 8. They intended to gather in a pre-arranged spot in Las Cañadas, confident that a space ship would put down to collect them – once they had all committed suicide.
In the nick of time – or so the general public were led to believe – the police were tipped off and, in the early hours, a veritable army of state police in riot gear descended on the streets around an ordinary terraced building in the La Salud district of Santa Cruz. Dozens of people were taken into custody.
Among those detained was a German psychologist, Heidi Fittkau-Garthe, a ‘new-age’ figure believed to be the ringleader of the so-called sect. She was arrested and charged with organizing an alleged attempt of mass suicide.
In the end Dr Fittkau-Garthe was detained in custody for twelve days before being released without charges. Since then she has kept a remarkably low profile, living in rustic simplicity on a finca in Arico, involving herself in esoteric studies, working for the Foundation for World Peace and growing lettuces.
Interviewed by a local daily some time ago, she told her interlocutor:
“The group was no sect and I have never worked in one. I was accused of planning the suicide of a group of friends who had merely come over to spend Christmas in Tenerife …
“What actually happened in 1998 was the result of an act of a daughter’s vengeance on her mother who was one of the group. Six months before they had had an enormous family row and it was the daughter who contacted Interpol and told them her mother and another hundred people were in the mountains of Tenerife intending to commit mass suicide.”
The daughter, she said, had informed the authorities that the group was a destructive sect.
“What happened was terrible. And the worst of it all were the lies that were told concerning children.”
In the meantime there is a slim possibility the name of Heidi Fittkau-Garthe may surface in the media once again in the coming year: she is said to be trying to organize a peace rally to coincide with the Beijing Olympics.
It will be held in the mountains of Mongolia. High places still seem to hold a fatal fascination for the peace guru of Arico.
– Source: Beam them up, Heidi – Remembering the Las Cañadas suicide sect scare, Tenerife News, Jan. 4, 2007
Next page: Heide Fittkau-Garthe – Research Resources