The appalling story of a cult leader accused of ‘sacrificing’ a three-day-old girl by throwing her onto a bonfire shocked the world. On Wednesday, the hunt for Chilean Ramon Castillo, 36, came to an end after he was found hanged in an abandoned house in Peru. But his was not the deadliest of recent times.
Jim Jones, an atheist who posed as a Christian preacher to set up the Peoples Temple, is the deadliest cult leader of all time – after ordering the mass suicide of 909 people.
His victims – including 276 children – drank cyanide-laced grape Flavor Aid after a congressman and four others were shot dead during a visit to his commune in Guyana.
The 1978 Jonestown Massacre resulted in the greatest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the 9/11 attacks.
Jones, 47, who had used his cult in a bid to destroy Christianity by replacing it with communism, moved from the U.S. to South America to ‘escape fascism’.
He designed the Agricultural Project compound in Guyana as a ‘socialist paradise’.
But, for many of the cult’s members, it soon became more like hell.
Adults were punished by being force-fed drugs and children spent nights hanging upside down at the bottom of a well, which was called the ‘torture hole’.
Peoples Temple members, who handed over $65,000 worth of U.S. welfare cheques each month, also regularly suffered fevers on the tropical estate.
Jones, who shot himself after the massacre, had persuaded his followers that they would all die together and then live blissfully after moving to another planet.
Murderous Japanese cult leader Shoko Asahara became infamous for turning his Aum Shinrikyo yoga group into one of the most feared terrorist organisations in the world.
His group is known for poisoning Tokyo’s subway system with sarin gas in 1995, killing 12 commuters and injuring more than 5,000 others.
An inner circle of members are also reponsible for a host of other attacks and assassinations.
Asahara, who is currently on death row, told his followers that he was Christ and predicted a global Armageddon would be triggered by the U.S. in 1997.
The 58-year-old started the Aum Shinrikyo – meaning ‘Supreme Truth’ – in 1984 by recruiting members from yoga classes held in his one-bedroom Tokyo flat.
Followers extorted money from ordinary people and murdered lawyers and anyone else who threatened to expose their activities.
The Tokyo sarin attack – after using the nerve agent to kill eight people in Matsumoto in 1994 – was allegedly designed to distract police and prevent a planned raid.
Yet several compounds were searched and, alongside stockpiles of sarin, investigators found anthrax, the Ebola virus, a cache of guns, gold and a Russian army helicopter.
Marshall Applewhite ordered the suicides of UFO-worshipping Heaven’s Gate cult members – by saying death would allow them to hitch a ride on the comet Hale-Bopp.
He and 38 followers – all wearing black tracksuits and armbands reading ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’ – poisoned themselves in shifts at a U.S. mansion in 1997.
Applewhite, who had suffered from depression and feared he might have cancer, told members that their bodies were mere vessels for their souls, which would be given new extra-terrestrial forms once they could be transported to a space ship.
The 65-year-old, who had jointly run the cult with Bonnie Nettles between 1975 and her death in 1985, believed an alien craft was following the Hale-Bopp comet.
So, at a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, he told members – mostly devotees of at least 20 years – to take sedatives and alcohol and put bags over their heads.
In a video recorded just before his death, Applewhite appeared wild-eyed with excitement as he spoke of the group’s ‘final exit’.
Other members also filmed farewell messages – many praising Applewhite – before killing themselves four at a time over a period of three days.
Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ cult murdered seven wealthy black and white Americans in 1969 in a bid to trigger an apocolyptic race war.
Among their victims was film director Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant when she was stabbed 14 times in a frenzied attack.
The charismatic ex-convict persuaded his mostly female followers – including Patty Krenwinkel, ‘Sexy’ Sadie Atkins, Leslie Van Houten and Linda Kasabian – to kill in order to ‘show blacks how to do it’.
Manson, 78, who later carved a swastika on his forehead while in jail, believed that in a race war, blacks would exterminate whites but be incapable of running the world.
The all-white Manson Family, meanwhile, would hide under the desert and then be on hand to rule when the slaughter was over.
Manson, who said he was inspired by the Beatles White Album – feeling that it spoke to him directly – and named his race war concept after one of its songs, Helter Skelter.
During a 1970 trial, Kasabian was granted immunity after she became the main witness against Manson, Krenwinkel, Atkins, Van Houten, Tex Watson and Steve Grogan.
All, except Grogan, remain in prison after being given life sentences.
In 1993 leader David Koresh and 73 Brand Davidian followers died in an inferno at their ranch in Waco, Texas after a 51-day siege.
Koresh, who was named Vernon Wayne Howell at birth, believed he was the final prophet and claimed humanity faced an immanent apocalypse.
He had several ‘spiritual’ wives, including a 13-year-old, and faced allegations of child abuse.
The 33-year-old is also understood to have fathered at least a dozen children with members.
Yet the siege, which resulted in the deaths of 22 minors, remains controversial due to allegations that federal authorities overstepped their power and engaged in a cover-up.
It started when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms tried to raid the ranch in a bid to seize illegal weapons.
But in the ensuing melee, one agent was killed and another wounded.
The FBI took over and, 51 days later, attempted to storm the building again after it was decided that negotiations had failed.
During the assault on April 19, a fire was started – which an official report claims was ignited by Branch Davidians – and killed the majority of the cult members inside.
Koresh, however, is understood to have been shot dead by his aide, Steve Schneider, who “probably realised he was dealing with a fraud”, according to the FBI.
The siege inspired terrorist Timothy McVeigh to kill 168 people after detonating a bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City exactly two years later.