They were found with their bags packed. Most were neatly laid out on beds, covered with purple shrouds. They wore running shoes and matching uniforms with “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patches. Each had a $5 bill and quarters in his or her pockets.
The Heaven’s Gate group believed that once free of their earthly bodies, they would be whisked by spaceship to a celestial paradise and a “level beyond human.” They associated the Hale-Bopp comet, which could be seen in the sky that winter, with the spacecraft they awaited. They thought it was traveling behind the comet.
The Heaven’s Gate cult had existed for more than two decades. Its recruiting drives were followed by periods spent in near hiding. In its final years, its message was spread through the Internet. Here is a timeline of the group’s history.
1972: Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, a nurse, meet at a Houston hospital. They set out on a spiritual quest and open a metaphysical bookstore.
January 1973: Applewhite and Nettles close their bookstore and set out to find their spiritual mission.
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February 1973-August 1974: Applewhite and Nettles travel around the country, camping in parks and skipping out on motel-room bills.
Aug. 27, 1974: Applewhite and Nettles are arrested in Harlingen, Texas, on charges of credit-card fraud and auto theft. The charges against Nettles are dropped, but Applewhite is extradited to St. Louis and spends six months in jail.
March 1975: Applewhite and Nettles go to Ojai. Two of their recruits are a mother and her adult daughter.
April 1975: About 80 people meet at a Hollywood Hills home to hear Applewhite and Nettles. Twenty-four people from that meeting agree to meet in Gold Beach, Ore., with Applewhite and Nettles two weeks later.
May 5, 1975: The followers meet Applewhite and Nettles in Gold Beach. The leaders now call themselves Bo and Peep.
June 1975: Applewhite and Nettles abandon several followers in Sedona, Ariz.
Aug. 24, 1975: Applewhite and Nettles make a public appearance at Can~ada College in Redwood City.
Sept. 14, 1975: The group meets in Waldport, Ore., expecting a spaceship to land. No spaceship shows up, but more than 30 people agree to join the group. The cult gets its first negative publicity over the fiasco.
Fall 1975: The group camps at the Colorado National Monument, waiting for a spaceship to pick up the members.
April 21, 1976: Nettles announces that the group no longer will hold public meetings. Many people leave the group during the next year. Its numbers drop from about 100 to two dozen. Nettles now calls herself Ti, while Applewhite goes by the name of Do.
June 19, 1985: Nettles dies of liver cancer.
May 27, 1993: The cult places a one-third-page ad in USA Today and once again begins recruiting members, this time using the Internet to spread its message.
June-October 1995: Heaven’s Gate members spend several months living in a compound in a remote New Mexico town.
October 1996: After living in several north San Diego County homes the year before, the cult moves into a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe.
March 26, 1997: The bodies of 39 cult members are discovered in the mansion.
May 1997: The husband of one of the dead cult members kills himself at an Encinitas motel. A member for 20 years, he had left the group in 1994. He had expressed regret that he was not with them when they died. A second former cult member who attempted death with him is revived.
February 1998: The second former cult member’s body is found in a tent in the Arizona desert, nine months after he survived the earlier suicide attempt.
Nov. 22, 1999: A county auction of Heaven’s Gate belongings raises $32,707. Some of the money pays for the auction; the rest goes to family members to help cover burial costs. Two former members who had tied up the estate in probate court eventually reach a settlement with the county and pay $2,000 for items of most significance to the cult.