…Roch extracted eight teeth from the mouth of a commune member to punish her for low pastry sales. She fled after this event, but returned to the group a few days later.
1. The Early Years
Roch Thériault was born on May 16, 1947 in the Saguenay Valley of Quebec to Hyacinthe and Pierrette Thériault, the second of seven children in the working-class, Roman Catholic family. Roch was six when his family moved to Thetford Mines. The town’s local school only continued to the seventh grade at which grade Roch’s formal education would stop despite the bright youngster’s evident love of learning.
In adulthood, Roch claimed his parents were abusive. Hyacinthe, Roch’s father, strongly denied it.
Hyacinthe belonged to a Roman Catholic organization called the “White Berets.” Hyacinthe often distributed White Beret literature door-to-door. Roch came to loathe the White Berets in particular and Roman Catholicism more generally.
Roch wed Francine Grenier on November 11, 1967. The couple moved to Montreal. Francine bore two sons: Roch Jr. and Francois. Ulcers soon troubled Roch, leading him to become frequently irritable and quarrelsome. The ulcers required surgeries, one of which led to complications and a protracted recovery. As a result of these travails, Roch became obsessively interested in medicine and anatomy.
The family moved back to Thetford Mines where Roch began developing woodworking skills. He joined Le Club Aramis, the French version of the Shriners, where he soon alienated fellow members, most of whom were Roman Catholic, with his anti-Catholic diatribes.
Roch told Francine he had to travel to Quebec City to sell his woodworks. He actually went there for trysts. Gisèle was one such woman and the two became very close.
Roch’s financial situation deteriorated. His home was repossessed and Francine divorced him.
2. A New Messiah
Impoverished and depressed, Roch sought comfort by joining a Seventh Day Adventist Church. He relinquished meat and alcohol per Adventist strictures. Roch began leading Adventist quit-smoking workshops and excelled at this work.
Through these activities, Roch assembled a small coterie of people, all of them in their late teens to mid-twenties and most of them female. Paul Kaihla and Ross Laver write in Savage Messiah, “All of these people, plus Roch, began hanging around at Gisèle’s apartment. Though most of the girls were still living with their parents, the whole group would often spend the weekend crashing at Gisèle’s.” Roch and his group attended an Adventist retreat in 1977 where he met two more young women who joined his coterie. The entire group became active in Roch’s Adventist quit-smoking workshops.
It was at this 1977 Adventist retreat that Roch experienced his first vision. He claimed that while hiking alone, he suddenly saw whiteness lighting up the sky and heard God’s voice saying that the area on which he stood was holy.
Many years later, Roch recalled how the anti-smoking workshops led to the start of a commune. He observed, “The fact that colleagues came to live and work with me led to some serious organizational problems. They had all left paid jobs to devote their time to this new work. Since my courses had no set fee and participants paid what they could at the end of each session, it was impossible for me to pay my helpers. This is what prompted us to create a commune.”
Roch and eight live-in followers moved south of Quebec City where they opened the “Healthy Living Clinic” that sold health literature and organic foods. At Roch’s insistence, all wore ankle-length tunics. The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function, a publication of the Canadian government, states that the group adopted “what they believed to be a pure existence, sheltered from temptation and sin.”
Savage Messiah continues, “Several of the Clinic’s patrons volunteered time or financial donations.” One sold his possessions to help fund the Clinic. Together with his wife and child, that benefactor moved into Roch’s commune. Soon four others were also living there. With the exception of one woman who was only in the group because of her husband’s insistence that they live there, all of the adult females competed for Roch’s attention.
3. Risky Teachings
A jealous Gisèle remonstrated with Roch. Believing a legal tie would strengthen her position with Roch, Gisèle proposed marriage to Roch. He accepted and they wed on January 8, 1978.
Roch became acquainted with a man whose wife, Geraldine Auclair, 38, was being treated for leukemia in a hospital. Roch convinced Mr. Auclair to check Geraldine out of the hospital and into the Healthy Living Clinic. Roch put Geraldine on a grape juice and organic foods regimen. She died. Although charges were not brought, this death led to increased police attention to the group.
The parents of a young woman who had multiple sclerosis placed her in the Healthy Living Clinic. The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function reports that Roch’s group provided her “with care and comfort.”Many in the Seventh Day Adventist Church strongly objected to the eccentric paths Roch was taking and to which he led others. The Seventh Day Adventist Church expelled Roch in April 1978.
Roch was unfazed by this expulsion and took it as a sign that he should flex his muscles of influence even more strongly with his followers. Thus, Roch ordered a man and a woman with no previous interest in each other to “marry.” He gave similar orders to a second pair who only became a couple under his commandments. Neither “couple” legally wed but both went through Roch’s faux marriage ceremonies at which he emphasized women’s subservience to men.
Pregnant and jealous of the attention Roch showed other women, Gisèle demanded Roch break up the commune or she would leave. Infuriated, Roch punched her and forbade her to leave a room for two days.
The Healthy Living Clinic sank into debt, partly because Roch’s expulsion from the Seventh Day Adventist Church cut off literature and health items previously supplied through the church. Roch was increasingly irritated by police attention. He decided the group must move. In July 1978, Roch prophesied the world would end on February 17, 1979. His band of chosen and holy people would survive the apocalypse in a rural area near the Saint-Jogues village. The group’s home would be built beside a hill Roch nicknamed “Eternal Mountain.” They put up tents and then built a cabin. Roch rationed food. Anyone complaining had rations decreased.
A woman left as did a family consisting of a husband, wife, and child.
Roch began claiming he was the reincarnation of Moses. He demanded followers call him “Moses” or “Papa.” They should call Gisèle “Mama.” He had a revelation that he should become a polygynist and “marry” commune women. He declared the previous marriages he had performed to be annulled and “wed” all adult females except the woman who was there only because her husband insisted on it.
After the Jonestown Massacre on November 18, 1978, alarmed families of commune members asked for police intervention. Roch willingly underwent psychological evaluation. Appearing calm, friendly, and seemingly open, he denied he was the leader of the commune. He claimed it was a democracy in which the majority decision held sway, regardless of his personal preferences. He told interviewers the commune lived “in peace and without any promiscuity.” Having no proof of abuses, authorities released him.
5. Iron Fist
When Roch returned to the commune, he made changes. He abandoned the vegetarianism he had undertaken in the Adventist Church and began regularly eating meat. He also abandoned his more general health food principles for the joys of junk food. Much more sinisterly, Roch prostituted the woman disabled by multiple sclerosis to a grocer for milk, meat, and cheese. He began drinking heavily and, in defiance of the democratic principles he claimed ran the commune, became ever more dictatorial and demanding of his followers. If someone fell asleep during his sermons, he hit that person with a club. Once a woman ate more pancakes than Roch had rationed for her. He hit her so hard two ribs broke.
A “wrongdoer” was often ordered to stand naked in snow for hours. Most commune members felt they could not question Roch’s actions, as they genuinely believed he was the second Moses and God’s emissary on this earth. However, at least one male follower left during this time. The woman who was there because of her husband’s insistence became even more upset as Roch became ever more violent. She begged her husband to leave the commune. Roch ordered the husband to cut off one of her toes as punishment. When the man balked at the order to mutilate his wife, Roch yelled, “If you want to be a man, you have to learn how to teach your woman a lesson.” The man burst into tears. Roch grabbed an axe, saying he would cut off all her toes unless the husband cut off one. The tearful husband cut off one of his wife’s little toes.
When February 17 came and went without the world ending, Roch explained it was difficult to understand exact dates from God.
The commune member who had multiple sclerosis went into a coma and died. An autopsy disclosed no foul play.
6. The Death Toll Rises
Guy Veer, a man with a history of hospitalization for depression, joined Roch’s commune in November 1980. He was assigned to care for the children who were not Roch’s: two 2-year-old boys and one 4-year-old girl. Roch had three children at the commune, one by Gisèle, and two by different other women, but thought Veer unworthy of caring for his kids.
In March 1980, Roch’s two sons from his marriage to Francine Grenier, Roch Jr., 12, and Francois, 10, came to the commune. A tragedy occurred March 23. Roch, Veer, and most commune members say one of the 2-year-olds for whom Veer cared, a baby named Samuel, cried and an impatient Veer punched Samuel. The next day, Roch placed the bruised Samuel in the care of one of Roch’s multiple “wives.” Samuel died.
In Savage Messiah authors Paul Kaihla and Ross Laver report that Gisèle told them a far different story. Gisèle says Samuel had a bruised face on March 24 but was otherwise healthy. She claims Roch injected rubbing alcohol into Samuel’s stomach and excised part of his foreskin and that the baby died after Roch’s crude operation.
7. Hideous Consequences
In September 1980, Roch decided Veer must be castrated for Samuel’s death. Veer wrote and signed a letter consenting to castration. Roch castrated Veer. One of the women at the commune treated him with salt-water compresses and the eunuch recovered.
However, Roch later beat and tormented Veer who escaped and told police a baby at the commune had died after a horse kicked him. The police raided the compound.
Roch, and several of his followers, including the castrated Veer, faced criminal charges in connection with little Samuel’s death. Roch and one of his “wives” were charged with bodily harm with intent to mutilate Veer.
Commune members who had not been charged with crimes traveled to New Carlisle where the trial was held.
8. Trial, Freedom, and More Deaths
The accused pleaded not guilty to all charges. All were convicted. Most received light sentences. Roch was sentenced to two years incarceration and three years probation. Veer was found mentally incompetent and placed, as he had previously been before his association with Roch’s group, in a mental hospital.
Roch was released February 1984. His followers reassembled and constructed a cabin near Burnt River, Ontario. Roch nicknamed them the “Ant Hill Kids” for their work together. In Savage Messiah the authors write, “Sometimes he would beat or whip his followers; sometimes he would strike them with the broad side of an axe, or with a hammer. They were forbidden to go to the hospital. Sometimes he would urinate on them, or force them to perform analingus on one another or smear themselves with each other’s feces.”
Roch took an irrational dislike to a baby he had sired with a member. He ordered the mother to place the baby boy in a wheelbarrow in snow. The baby died. The county coroner declared that the child had died of SIDS.
The woman who had reluctantly accompanied her husband into the commune but remained even after her husband cut off one of her little toes and who was the mother of the deceased Samuel, had finally had enough. She left with two of her surviving children. The eldest daughter, nearing puberty, stayed because Roch wanted her for a wife.
After re-adjusting to the larger world, that woman sought custody of the daughter in the commune. She informed Canada’s Children’s Aid Society (CAS) about commune conditions. CAS pulled all children out. The children informed CAS of abuses such as babies being held over fires while Roch threatened their mothers that they would be killed.
The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function reports, “The groups raised money for its basic needs by making and selling bread and pastries door-to-door.”
On November 5, 1988, Roch extracted eight teeth from the mouth of commune member Gabrielle Lavalle to punish her for low pastry sales. Gabrielle fled after this event, but returned to the group a few days later.
In 1988, a commune member suffered stomach pains. Roch “operated” on her with a knife, saying, “You’re going to be all right.” He ordered a follower to sew shut the wound.
On May 23, 1989, Gabrielle visited her brother.
The Cult Phenomenon: How Groups Function states that she told her brother “she was scared of Moses but could not live without him.”
On July 26, 1989, Roch told Gabrielle to lay her hand on the table. She did and he stabbed through it with a knife. After leaving her pinned for forty-five minutes, he came back to see her arm was blue. He viciously chopped her arm off.
The next day, the severely wounded and now one-armed Gabrielle escaped to a women’s shelter. A male commune member contacted her and, incredibly, was able to persuade her to return despite her mutilation by Roch. She escaped again on August 16, 1989 and was treated at a hospital.
Police appeared at the cabin on August 19 with a warrant for Roch’s arrest – and found the cabin deserted.
Roch was captured a month later.
Gisèle told police about the death of the woman Roch had operated on after she complained that her stomach hurt.
Roch and three others pled guilty to charges related to Gabrielle’s amputation. Rock was sentenced to ten years in prison.
Roch pled guilty to second-degree murder for the woman he killed when he “operated” on her for her stomach pains. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on January 18, 1993. During his imprisonment, three females associated with his group visited him. Four babies were delivered as a result of their conjugal visits.
At a 2002 parole hearing, Roch said he did not want to leave prison because of fears for his safety.
Gabrielle, then 52, told reporters, “The population, myself included, will be able to have a long night’s sleep tonight. Sitting behind him [at the hearing] brought back all the memories of the time when I weighed 80 pounds and had to help the authorities to capture him.”
On February 26, 2011, fellow prisoner Mathew Gerrard MacDonald, already serving life for murder, went into Roch’s cell and stabbed Roch to death. MacDonald received a second, and in practical terms rather meaningless, life sentence.