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Jailed Chilean cult leader Schaefer dies at 89

German citizen Paul Schaefer, a fugitive religious sect leader, is led under custody to be transferred from a police station to a prison located in the Buenos Aires province city of Mercedes, late March 10, 2005. REUTERS/STR New

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Former Nazi Paul Schaefer, who founded a secretive German cult in Southern Chile in the 1960s and was later convicted of sexually abusing children, died of heart failure in a prison hospital on Saturday, officials said.

Local media initially said he was 88 at the time of his death, but a death certificate released later by doctors listed his age as 89.

Chile’s courts began investigating Schaefer on sex abuse charges in 1997. He fled to Argentina where he hid until he was found in 2005. He was returned to Chile and sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing 25 children.

Courts also investigated Schaefer for keeping a huge cache of illegal weapons and helping former right-wing dictator Augusto Pinochet’s secret police kidnap and torture political prisoners.

For decades, the residents of Villa Baviera, initially called Colonia Dignidad, submitted to the authoritarian whims of Schaefer, who banned almost all contact with the outside world at the commune 210 miles south of Santiago, the capital.

Under his rules, men and women lived separately, intimate contact was controlled and children were split from their parents.

In 2006, former members of the cult issued a public apology and asked for forgiveness for 40 years of sex and human rights abuses in their community, saying they were brainwashed by Schaefer, who many viewed as God.

Reporting by Erik Lopez and Fabian Cambero, Writing by Terry Wade, Editing by Stacey Joyce