Seven years ago Friday, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were found dead in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion after a mass suicide.
Cult leader Marshall Applewhite, known simply as Do to his followers, taught a belief that combined elements of Christianity with metaphysical and UFO subcultures.
The cult believed that the coming of the Hale-Bopp comet signaled a time to shed their “earthly containers” — their bodies — and that a heaven-bound spaceship hiding in the comet’s tail would come to pick them up once they were dead.
The cult members died in shifts, with some members helping others take a lethal cocktail of vodka and phenobarbital. After taking the concoction, the cult members laid on their beds with plastic bags over their heads until they passed out.
The bodies were covered by purple shrouds, and all were dressed identically in black long-sleeved shirts and black sweat pants, with new black-and-white Nike tennis shoes.
At first, investigators believed all the corpses were male because they were dressed alike and had their hair cropped short. It turned out the victims were 21 women and 18 men, all white, ranging in age from 26 to 72.
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San Diego sheriff’s deputies found videotapes of cult members speaking to people they left behind about how excited they were to board the heaven-bound spaceship. They stressed they died of their own free will.
The story made national headlines for several months as the media uncovered details about the group.
Seven of the cult’s members, including Applewhite, had undergone voluntary castration in the months leading to the mass suicide. The group practiced celibacy, abstained from drugs and alcohol and had limited contact with the outside world. They changed their names, cut their hair short and disposed of many of their possession in acts symbolic of the abandonment of worldly
In May 1997, two more members attempted suicide in an Encinitas motel room. Wayne Cooke died, while Chuck Humphrey was hospitalized and survived. In February 1998, Humphrey tried again, using carbon monoxide and a sealed tent. This time, he succeeded.