12 Killed During Mysterious Ritual : Religion: Bodies are found scattered in one room of small house in Tijuana. Asphyxiation or poisoned punch could be the killer.


Twelve people, including three children, were found dead Thursday inside a small house here, apparently poisoned or asphyxiated during what authorities described as a nightlong religious ceremony gone awry.

Five others, including an 8-month-old baby girl, were taken to a clinic, where three were reported in comas and listed in critical condition. The oldest of the dead, according to police, was Fidel Coronel Franco, 77; the youngest was an 11-year-old girl.

Authorities said the victims were all members of a religious sect headed by a charismatic Tijuana resident who was among those in a coma late Thursday. The sect’s leader was identified as Federico Padres Mejia, or Mexia, who lived at the house where the deaths occurred.


Police had not determined a cause of death by late Thursday but said they did not believe it was mass murder or suicide. They speculated that the group either drank a fruit punch that was mistakenly tainted with an industrial solvent or were asphyxiated by a leaking butane tank at the small, two-room house in a poor section of the El Florido barrio known as Mariano Matamoros on the city’s southeastern outskirts.

One of the survivors, who came out of a coma late Thursday, told The Times that he and others in the group were participating in a religious “cleansing” ritual and had no intention of committing suicide. He said the ritual involved a coin and the possibility of “good luck.”

In a semi-coherent bedside interview, Alfredo Osuna Hernandez, 22, said he had hoped to find a job through the ceremony. He said he is a native of the state of Sinaloa and has been in Tijuana for four months.

About 9 p.m. Wednesday, he said, worshipers began to drink the punch. Sometime thereafter, he said, there were shouts of distress.

“They began to scream in pain,” said Osuna, who had attended several previous sessions with the leader he knew as Don Federico. “They screamed in a very ugly way.”

Osuna said he only took a sip of the punch. He doesn’t know what caused his illness, he said.


Also at the session, he said, were his brother, Felipe, 23, and his sister-in-law, Margarita Ramos Saucedo. She was among those listed as dead. Felipe’s condition was unknown.

Autopsies and chemical tests on the food and drink found in the house are scheduled to begin today.

Mexican television showed film of the bodies, which were gathered in the front room of the small house about half a mile from a 100-unit housing development built earlier this year by Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based group affiliated with former President Jimmy Carter.

Police said neighbors told them that the sect began its praying ritual about 6 p.m. Wednesday. Four hours later, Felipe Osuna Hernandez, 24, went to the house to check on his mother, Margarita Ramos Osuna, and his 5-month-old sister, Ana Karin, police said.

“They wouldn’t let him in. They told him Jesus Christ was about to come,” Jose S. Camacho, one of the first policemen on the scene, said.

Sometime early that same evening, Ana Saviola Miranda Juarez, 19, the daughter of the woman who owns the house and who lived with Mejia, went to her mother’s house. She found her mother, Gloria Miranda Juarez, and a group of people inside.


When she returned an hour later, Mejia wouldn’t let her in, she said. Mejia told her that a spiritual ritual had begun and that two men were already in a trance. She left and spent the night in a pickup truck outside the house.

Shortly after midnight, she said, “I heard them praying loudly, and I heard a man scream that the devil was not going to exist anymore. I also heard Federico yelling, ‘Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid!’

“I could hear people crying and baying like dogs. It was terrible.”

The screaming stopped about 3 a.m.

The young woman tried to get into the house about 7 a.m. Thursday, but the doors and windows were locked, she said. A workman her mother had hired came by, and he broke a window and let the young woman in.

“Right away, I smelled a strong odor of gas,” she said. The group appeared to be sleeping, she said, because she heard some of them snoring, and she thought the ritual was still going on. The baby girl was in her mother’s arms, crying, she said.

The young woman and the workman left, but, before they did, they drank from the punch, she said. Her mother was among those who died.

The younger Miranda was held at the police station late Thursday, and police were considering filing charges against her for failing to help the baby.


About 10 a.m., Osuna returned, looking for his mother.

He looked in the window and saw bodies in the front room. His mother was among the dead, and his baby sister was in a coma.

“I opened the door, and they were all thrown about the floor and on chairs,” said Camacho, the police officer. “They looked as if they were drunk. They looked like they were sleeping off a party.”

Another officer who was among the first to arrive, Arturo Luis Torres, said: “Inside the room there was a very strong smell of acid. It was so strong it almost caused me to be nauseated. I had to leave the room.”

Inside the front room of the adobe-colored house, police found a thin rope demarked by knots laid in a circle roughly bordering the circumference of the room. Alfredo Osuna, the survivor who came out of a coma late Thursday, said the participants had been told that it would be “harmful” to leave the rope-delineated circle in the front room.

There was also a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a cardboard box flanked by two candles.

Wednesday, Dec. 12, is Mexico’s Fiesta of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a national religious holiday. Police, however, said they don’t know whether the ritual had any connection to the holiday.


Almost all the victims were inside the circle, but they weren’t holding hands. Some had blood coming out of their noses, and others had traces of vomit. There were no signs of violence, police said. Some of the victims reportedly had a purplish discoloration of the skin.

In the kitchen, the only other room in the house, police found seven glasses with remnants of what authorities believe might be tainted punch. There was also a pot of chicken and salsa, and another pot of rice soup.

No drugs were found in the house, and all the victims were fully clothed, police said. They found a handgun in one woman’s purse.

Police Cmdr. Jaime Sam Fierro said Mejia had lived in the house for several months with Gloria Miranda Juarez.

He said Mejia claimed to be a spiritual leader who could contact the dead and cure the sick. The young Miranda woman said Mejia had been conducting rituals at the house daily for about a month.

The rituals, she said, usually lasted two to three hours.

She said Mejia spoke English well and claimed to have a temple in Los Angeles, where he also performed spiritual rituals. He also said he had a home in Sun City, she said.


One neighbor, Noeimi Gomez, 19, who lives across the road from the house, said she was awakened at about 2 a.m. Thursday morning by sect members knocking hard on the walls of the home.

“He (the sect leader) and the others never bothered anybody,” Gomez said. “He sometimes said some odd things, but that seemed to be his way.”

Rumors about the deaths swept the border city, fanning fears that foodstuffs citywide might be

poisoned. Police went out of their way to assure residents that tortillas were not poisoned.

“We want everybody to know that these deaths were not caused by tortillas,” said officer Carlos Garcia Rodriguez, who commands a police substation in the area of the house.

The city has been nervous about contaminated food since a major outbreak of food poisoning two weeks ago, which was traced to spoiled chicken.


The deaths brought to mind the mass suicide in 1978 of more than 900 people who died in a rite at the Jonestown compound in Guyana after consuming a grape drink laced with potassium cyanide.

Times staff writer Armando Acuna in San Diego contributed to this report.