“The marker we’ve been … waiting for”
The incredible sage of how a charismatic former music teacher and 38 androgynous followers killed themselves in order to hook up with a UFO
Apr. 7, 1997
“PLANET EARTH ABOUT TO BE RECYCLED. YOUR ONLY CHANCE TO SURVIVE–LEAVE WITH US.” –DO, LEADER OF HEAVEN’S GATE
If a group of people are going to choose to die together, it is best to have a master plan: proper burial outfits, packed suitcases, lists, farewell videotapes, even recipes for death. The ghastly jumble of bodies piled upon bodies discovered in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 may have provided a stark lesson in how not to do it. That mass suicide was a disorderly, ungracious way to meet your maker, a study not in serenity but in chaos.
So last week, in that spacious Rancho Santa Fe mansion, with the bougainvillaea in full bloom outside, 39 bodies were laid out on their backs on bunk beds and mattresses, looking like so many laboratory specimens pinned neatly to a board. Each was dressed in black pants, flowing black shirt, spanking-new black Nikes. Their faces were hidden by purple cloths, shrouds the purple of Christian penance. Those who wore glasses had them neatly folded next to their body, and all, helpfully, had identification papers for the authorities to find. The house, more than one awed witness noted, was immaculate, tidier even than before the victims had moved in. It was as if, in preparing for their death, the members of what the world now knows as the Heaven’s Gate cult were heeding the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.”
But though the victims may have believed their bodies were merely irrelevant “containers,” to be left behind when they were whisked away by extraterrestrials, to the sheriff’s deputies who first encountered them, the corpses were most certainly the real thing. The 21 women and 18 men, ranging in age from 26 to 72, were in varying stages of decomposition; the smell permeating the house was so putrid that two sickened officers went to the hospital to be sure they had not inhaled poisonous fumes. As the San Diego medical examiner reported, the cultists died in three groups: a first round of 15, then the next 15, then seven, all apparently by ingesting phenobarbital mixed with a bit of applesauce or pudding, kicked by a shot of vodka, then helped along by the asphyxiating effect of a plastic bag over the head. The final two men–the ultimate angels of death–had only bags, no shrouds. Alone in the master bedroom, his order in the march of death still unknown, was the master himself: 65-year-old Marshall Herff Applewhite.
It was a remarkably well-choreographed departure, made more astonishing by the rich trail of video and Internet information the victims left behind. But the largest mass suicide in U.S. history has blasted the doors wide open onto a considerably less tidy world–a dense and jumbled universe of UFOs and extraterrestrials careening smack into unusual astronomical happenings, apocalyptic Christian heresies and end-is-nigh paranoia. Do and Ti, or Bo and Peep, or the Two, as Applewhite and his former partner Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles were known, plucked bits of this and pieces of that doctrine like birds building a nest, intertwining New Age symbols and ancient belief systems. And for scores of spiritual seekers, it worked. Some of Do and Ti’s followers had been with them as long as 20 years; they were rich and poor, black, white and Latino–people who shared little more than a willingness, or a need, to suspend disbelief, and in the end to participate in a common death.
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Students of the millennium and historians of the bizarre have long been predicting such a catastrophic event in the twilight years of the 20th century, duly noting the rise in the number of obscure cults and the increasingly fevered pitch of their rantings. And it is not just that time of the century; it is that time of year too, with Holy Week, the vernal equinox and a partial lunar eclipse converging, all heated up by the extraordinary Hale-Bopp comet lighting the night skies. For those who go in for cosmological conjunctions, it was a perfect week for an apocalypse. For those who seek more human motives, there was the intriguing report on abc’s Nightline that Applewhite had intimated to a friend that he was dying of cancer.
In one of those odd confluences that keep cults and conspiracy theorists percolating, the day after the bodies were found Charles Manson was up for and denied parole for the ninth time at Corcoran State Prison. “These monks that just took their heads in San Diego,” Manson noted at his hearing, “they’re way behind the times.” But cult experts disagree. What happened in San Diego, they say, was unprecedented. James Tabor, who teaches religion at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and was involved in the last desperate attempts to communicate with David Koresh by radio broadcast, says, “This group is completely different. These people rather calmly followed suicide as their exit, in a very positive way, to a higher level of existence. They define death not as the enemy of life but as life itself.” United Methodist minister J. Gordon Melton, editor of the authoritative Encyclopedia of American Religions, agrees. “In this case they had a positive motive, a great place to go to,” he says. “So why hang around here?”
“THE TRUE MEANING OF ‘SUICIDE’ IS TO TURN AGAINST THE NEXT LEVEL WHEN IT IS BEING OFFERED.”
The Heaven’s Gate victims did more than leave suicide notes; they left suicide press kits. One of the first to receive the materials was a former cult member using the name Rio D’Angelo (police say he is really Richard Ford), who got a Federal Express package containing two videotapes, a letter and two computer discs. He took the tape home last Tuesday night and watched it. On Wednesday he came to work at the Interact Entertainment Group in Beverly Hills, California, which had employed Higher Source, the cult’s Web-page design service. Rio told his boss, Nick Matzorkis, that he was convinced his former associates were all dead. Rio and Matzorkis drove to the house, and Rio went inside. When he came out, says Matzorkis, he was “white as a sheet.” They notified the San Diego sheriff’s office, whose deputies came in expecting a minor emergency at most and found themselves removing 39 corpses in what was about to become a media circus.
When Matzorkis and Rio finally watched the video together with the sheriff’s deputies in the middle of the night, they were stunned by what they saw. The cult members were not just unthreatening in life, they were mild in death. Says Matzorkis: “They were sharing their joy and glee. The excitement really showed.” When Matzorkis scanned the computer discs on Saturday evening, TIME learned, he found that they contained messages from cult members intended to be posted on the group’s Website-in effect, suicide notes. One, from a woman who signed herself “Goldenody,” seemed to support the notion that their leader was terminally ill. “Once He is gone,” she wrote, “there is nothing left here on the face of the earth for me.” (In the meantime, Matzorkis has tied up the rights to a TV movie of the week.)
The farewell tape looks like a garden party of the apocalypse, with the California sun shining and the trees in the mansion’s backyard blowing in a gentle breeze. The speakers talked as if they were looking forward to a holiday, not a vodka-phenobarb cocktail. Said one woman: “We couldn’t be happier about what we’re about to do.” Said a man in his 40s: “I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.” Said a woman, laughing slightly: “People in the world who thought I’d completely lost my marbles–they’re not right. I couldn’t have made a better choice.”
One of the confusing things about this tape was actually telling the victims apart: all with close-cropped hair and unlined skin, it was easy to see why sheriffs originally thought all the dead were young men. But shedding any signs of sexuality was integral to the cult, and six of the men, including Applewhite, went so far as to get castrated years ago, which may help explain the odd passivity or gentleness the victims exhibited. “In order to be a member of that Kingdom, one had to overcome his humanness, which included his sexuality,” said a former cult member, Michael.
The victims’ kin, though, had little trouble recognizing their long-lost, but suddenly gone, relatives. Mary Ann Craig, whose husband John, 62, left her and their six children in Durango, Colorado, in 1975 to join the cult, says she had been waiting for the news of his death for 22 years. “How can you explain something like this?” she asks. On Friday, Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek, went on CNN’s Larry King Live to discuss the death of her brother Thomas Nichols. Nichelle said that her brother “made his choices, and we respect those choices.”
The presence among the dead of the brother of a Trekkie demigoddess was only the most startling intersection of reality and science fiction. The cult’s work space in Rancho Santa Fe was decorated with posters of alien beings from The X-Files and E.T. On the farewell tape, a cultist even brings up Nichols’ oeuvre in explaining his decision to leave behind his human “container”: “We watch a lot of Star Trek, a lot of Star Wars, it’s just, to us, it’s just like going on a holodeck. We’ve been training on a holodeck…[and] now it’s time to stop. The game’s over. It’s time to put into practice what we’ve learned. We take off the virtual-reality helmet…go back out of the holodeck to reality to be with, you know, the other members on the craft in the heavens.”
Most surviving families, however, felt differently, not quite able to see the new dimension their relatives had vanished into. “We are going through a tough time,” said a relative of Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, a 39-year-old Cincinnati woman who left her five children (the youngest of whom were infant twins) to join the cult last August. “It’s not the closure we wanted,” said Alice Maeder, whose daughter Gail, 28, started following the cult in 1994 after her Santa Cruz, California, T-shirt shop failed, “but now we know where she is.” Added Gail’s father Robert: “She’s finally coming home.”
At least one woman who died in Rancho Santa Fe offers a hint in the farewell videotape that all these people may not have been quite as happy as they seemed: “I don’t have any choice but to go for it, because I’ve been on this planet for 31 years, and there’s nothing here for me.”
“ALL OF US AT THIS TIME ARE FINDING OURSELVES ALIGNING WITH OTHERS OF COMMON MIND.”
About the most exciting event in Rancho Santa Fe is when Victor Mature, 82, the movie actor famed for playing Samson decades ago, putt-putts in his golf cart to the post office each day. The area 30 miles north of San Diego is a historic landmark, California’s oldest planned community and a place so beautiful a writer in the 1940s described it as “the pocket where the Creator keeps all his treasures. Anything will grow there.” Live and let live, in fact. In the gated community of 2,500 million-dollar homes, the cult members rented the 9,200-sq.-ft. mansion at 18421 Colina Norte, complete with pool and tennis court, from Sam Koutchesfahani, paying him $7,000 a month in cash. And although many locals knew their new neighbors were involved in some sort of religious activity, no one was concerned enough to investigate any further.
The house was for sale, and prospective buyers, who were asked to remove their shoes and put on sterile surgical slippers before traipsing through, described seeing a lot of androgynous people hunched over computers. The tenants were odd but not dangerous. “They were very bright, unique certainly, but very nice. Standoffish but not rude,” says Bill Grivas, who was considering buying the house with his girlfriend. “I had been told they were serious about their religion. You could only see the house at certain times because the monks were using it as a monastery. You knew right away: they were dressed in black pajamas like Viet Cong.”
Their landlord may have been one of the last to see the victims alive. Koutchesfahani stopped by the house on Sunday, March 23, and was given a gift for one of his children–a computer. Only later did Koutchesfahani realize it was a farewell present. “They were polite people who shared Sam’s problems and told him that things would be all right–that God would work things out,” says Koutchesfahani’s lawyer Milt Silverman. Koutchesfahani had a checkered past, having pleaded guilty to fraud and tax evasion. “There was nothing goofy about them. There was nothing wacky about a spaceship following a comet. They were Christians. I guess they kept their true beliefs hidden from the world.” Well, not entirely. Silverman says one of them mentioned they had come to Earth “as angels in human cartons.”
Other acquaintances were aware of some of the group’s odder beliefs. A man who worked with Higher Source for more than six years on several computer projects discussed the imminent coming of the Hale-Bopp comet with them. “They didn’t know, but they felt it could be something other than a comet–that maybe it was a spaceship coming to collect them,” the acquaintance says. He says he even joked with them about Jonestown once, but got little reaction. This man last heard from the group just a few weeks ago; they wanted help setting up some new domain names on the Internet. “They talked about the future a lot,” he says. “That’s what’s confusing.” He, too, received a postmortem videotape.
“WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?”
If their acquaintances had checked out the Heaven’s Gate Website, they might have been somewhat less nonchalant. Through the teachings of their charismatic leaders, Applewhite and Nettles, who claimed to be extraterrestrial representatives of the “Kingdom Level Above Human,” the cult members believed their bodies were mere vessels. By renouncing sex, drugs, alcohol, their birth names and all relationships with family and friends, disciples could become ready to ascend to space, shedding their “containers,” or bodies, and entering God’s Kingdom. “If you cling to this life, will you not lose it?” Do asks in the Heaven’s Gate manifesto.
With a mixture of paranoia and passion, the teachings rail against Judaism and Christianity and complain of oppression by nonbelievers, evil “Luciferians,” whom they say will be “plowed under” in the apocalypse. Only those vessels prepared to receive the word will be fortunate enough to ascend when the time comes. Indeed, while the group may have given outsiders an impression of Christianity, their version of Jesus was most certainly heterodox. Two thousand years ago, the Kingdom Level Above Human appointed a representative to preach the Kingdom of God to earthlings. This being inhabited the container called Jesus (also known as “the captain”), who was killed by forces that eventually turned his legacy into “watered-down Country Club religion.” Ti and Do, however, were then appointed as the Kingdom Level’s successor representatives to Jesus, in fact, the “two witnesses” prophesied in Revelation, who would appear at the time the world was coming to an end, to prepare the way for the Kingdom.
And the time of the end, apparently, was last week. A recently posted “Red Alert” announcement on the group’s Website hailed the Hale-Bopp comet as the “marker” the members were waiting for. In this belief, at least, Heaven’s Gate cultists were not alone. According to a popular theory circulating on the Internet, a spaceship is hidden behind the comet–whether inhabited by benign or evil aliens is unclear. Astronomers say the image behind the comet in some photographs is a mere star.
The cult represents more than an X-Files-meets-Revelation stew, however. The group plainly tailored its message in an attempt to be palatable to the broadest group of people possible. “Our dilemma was multifaceted: How do we present the information in a credible fashion, when to most, our Truth is definitely stranger than any fiction?” one Website posting wondered. “How do we avoid being seen as religious, in order not to ‘turn off’ those who rightfully despise the hypocrisy of what religions have become? At the same time, how do we acknowledge our past associations with this civilization which are primarily recorded in your Bible, so as to offer those who are waiting for prophecy to be fulfilled enough clues to put it together?” The mixture of philosophies, the author concludes, is like “speaking in tongues.”
“WELCOME TO KNOW WHERE.”
In the 1970s Montana sociologist Robert Balch infiltrated the group and traveled with them through California and Arizona for two months. During the 1970s, the cult suffered from a dramatic attrition rate, until Applewhite instituted what Balch describes as an “intense regimentation.” Do had recruits follow detailed schedules–waking for prayer at precise times, taking vitamins at, say, 7:22 p.m., consuming yeast rolls and liquid protein–and had them do drills, mental and physical, to prepare the flock for outer space. According to a man named Michael, who was with the cult from 1975 to 1988, recruits experimented with their sleeping patterns and their diets, trying to break down their bodies so they would be “under control.” The discipline, he said, was “shame based,” and when Michael wanted to leave, he was told he was free to go. As TIME reported in August 1979, the group encamped in the Wyoming Rockies, moving to a ranch in northern Texas when it snowed. Paul Groll, who was a member, scoffed at comparisons with Jonestown, telling TIME in 1979, “Anyone can walk away. We just have to turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly, and then we’ll be ready to leave.”
For a time, at least, the regimen worked wonders on the dropout rate and also enhanced the group’s isolation and secrecy. Balch kept tabs on the group until 1982; in 1994 nine cultists walked through his office door in Missoula, Montana, to tell him the 200 or so members that he knew existed in the 1970s had become a band of 24. Nettles, he learned, had died of cancer in 1985. They had also grown dramatically more apocalyptic in their beliefs.
Since then, casually dressed members of the group, identified only by their first names, have been traveling the country proselytizing, informing curious listeners that they were not seeking money, only recruits. Michael Upledger, a reporter for a Tampa, Florida, weekly newspaper, interviewed five cult members in 1994. “Their one vice was science fiction,” he recalls. “They loved The X-Files, and they loved Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was the only time they really brightened up and came alive. They just lit up. We had a long conversation about which Star Trek was better, the old one or the new.” As recently as 1994, members went on a recruiting drive in New Hampshire, warning audience members that the earth was going to be “recycled.”
They also established their presence on the Internet, through both their glossy Heaven’s Gate Website and energetic postings to various newsgroups. A disciple, Sister Francis Michael, recently chimed in to alt.religion.scientology, giving “a round of applause” to the Church of Scientology for its “courageous action against the Cult Awareness Network.” During its most recent upsurge, according to one of the cult’s Internet sites, membership “doubled,” although from what to what remains unknown. People who have studied the cult estimate that at its peak, there were between 200 and 1,000 followers. And one person friendly with many of the victims insists there are more Heaven’s Gaters still alive.
“WE TRY TO STAY POSITIVE IN EVERY CIRCUMSTANCE.”
People who came into contact with the group agree: the members seemed happy. “They were very loyal,” says Matzorkis, who paid the Higher Source employees a total of $10,000 to $15,000 to design Websites. “I’m glad we worked with them.” Mike Afshin, who owned Comp-X, a Del Mar computer shop where victim David Geoffrey Moore worked, says when he heard Moore was one of the dead, “it was sad. My wife started crying. He was physically and mentally strong and happy. I never saw him complaining about life. [Moore and co-worker and fellow cultist Real Steele] never tried to advertise for their religion. Both of them were strong, so I don’t see how anyone could brainwash them or make them do something like that.”
Nancie Brown lost her son David Moore to the cult when he was 19. “My friends said, ‘He’ll be back in a couple of months,’ but 21 years later he hadn’t come back,” she says. He came home only twice during that time, and she sought solace with other cultists’ families, even publishing a newsletter for a while. But Brown grew almost accepting of her son’s choice, realizing that the group had become her son’s community. “About two dozen of those who died had been in the group for two decades. They had a simple life together. They had formed a close family.” So close, she says, that they were unable to see beyond their restricted world view, one that permitted them to consider suicide as a viable option.
Cult experts warn that the public should not be taken in by the cheerful departures, nor by the notion that it was a small number of people exercising their own free will. “I don’t consider it suicide. I consider it murder,” says Janja Lalich, a cult expert who has been monitoring Heaven’s Gate since 1994, when several distraught parents contacted her with their worries about their missing children. “[Applewhite] controlled it, he called the shots. These people were pawns in his personal fantasy.” But Marshall Herff Applewhite has died with his followers. And they seemed so happy to have gone with him. The evidence, such as it is, is on tape.
–Reported by Cathy Booth and James Willwerth/Rancho Santa Fe, Nancy Harbert/Albuquerque, Rachele Kanigal/Oakland and Richard N. Ostling and Noah Robischon/New York