from the Telegraph
Juliano Verbard, who was serving a 15-year term for rapes and sex assaults on children, and two of his jailed followers were hauled on board a chopper hijacked by three accomplices, a senior official, Jean-Francois Moniotte, said.
“All our search procedures have been put into action to find them,” said Mr Moniotte.
The helicopter landed on waste ground a few hundred yards away and the gang escaped in a van that had been waiting for them, he said. The two crew members were unhurt and were assisting police.
Earlier, the hijackers had boarded the chopper pretending to be tourists, before seizing control and directing the pilots to Domenjod prison, where it landed in the exercise yard and took on the escapees.
“One of them put a gun to my temple while another threatened to set fire to a bottle of petrol he had in his hand with a cigarette lighter,” the pilot told local broadcaster, Antenne Reunion.
Verbard, 27, was the guru of the self-styled “Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary”, a cult with no connection to mainstream Catholic institutions, on the island of Reunion, a French territory in the Indian Ocean.
He escaped along with two followers, the father and son duo Alexin Jismy and Fabrice Michel, who were jailed for their part in a kidnap.
He was jailed in February 2008 for attacks on children aged nine and 13, whose mother was the sect’s treasurer. He is also under investigation in two other cases, another alleged sex attack and the kidnap of a 12-year-old.
At the time of his trial, psychiatrist Gerard Toulfayan described him as “an extremely powerful manipulator with great intelligence.”
Verbard launched his cult in 2002 after convincing scores of followers that the Virgin Mary appeared to him every month. Adepts paid 20 euros each for the honour of taking part in an appearance ceremony.
Spectacular helicopter escapes have become a regular embarrassment for French penal authorities and, unlike Reunion’s Domenjod, jails in mainland France now often have protective nets over their exercise yards.
Since 1986, there have been 10 escapes from French jails in helicopters, most recently in July 2007 when gangster and murderer Pascal Payet managed to get out of Grasse prison in a hijacked chopper.
It was Payet’s second successful helicopter jailbreak, and he was convicted or organising a third which rescued some of his accomplices.