39 in Cult Left Recipes of Death : Believed Alien Ship Would Take Them to Heaven : Officials Describe Careful, Ritualistic Suicide. The Dead, Ages 20 to 72, Included 21 Women.


The 39 men and women who died in an apparent mass suicide here left behind mystical computer postings and matter-of-fact videos explaining that they were eager to graduate from their human shells and ascend into heaven on an alien spaceship--and to speed their way, they planned to whip up puddings tainted with coma-inducing sedatives.

Authorities investigating the case said Thursday that the victims, who ranged in age from 20 to 72, meticulously planned their deaths.

They wrote out recipes for lethal drug overdoses to be swallowed with pudding or applesauce and washed down with a swig of vodka, though the group preached abstinence from alcohol. They also donned matching black outfits of pants, oversized shirts and brand-new Nikes. And they delegated two colleagues to remain alive long enough to clean up after everyone else.


Packed flight bags or suitcases stood at the foot of every mattress, and many of the victims carried $5 bills and rolls of quarters. The bodies were discovered Wednesday afternoon in various states of decomposition; the house reeked of rotting flesh, officials said.

A 15-member team from the San Diego County medical examiner’s office worked through Wednesday night and Thursday morning removing the bodies in white body bags and hauling them away in refrigerated trucks.

Later, sheriff’s officials released an eerie video of the bodies before they were removed. In the oddly antiseptic home, where the most personal touches were a box of tissues and a vase of flowers, the bodies were found lying on white or yellow comforters, some with eyeglasses folded neatly on the pillows. An abandoned wheelchair stood beside one bed; one of the bodies was tucked into a green and blue plaid blanket.

The deceased belonged to a group called Heaven’s Gate, which appears to be the successor to a 1970s cult known as the Overcomers or the Human Individual Metamorphosis that flickered in and out of vogue over the last two decades, preaching a philosophy that blends biblical teachings about Jesus with dire warnings about satanic angels taking over Earth.

One former member who left Heaven’s Gate just six weeks ago, and who identifies himself as Rio D’Angelo, said he believes that the group was totally wiped out in the mass suicide, said D’Angelo’s employer, Beverly Hills businessman Nick Matzorkis.

Matzorkis said D’Angelo now believes that he was chosen to survive to pass on the group’s message--a message that members were so eager to spread that they even wrote a script for a movie about their beliefs and urged Matzorkis to help produce it.


Three Waves of Suicides

Based on evidence recovered from the spotless two-story mansion--where the dead bodies lay on bunk beds and mattresses--San Diego County Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne said he believed that the cult split up into three groups to commit suicide.

The first group may have died as much as three days ago. Preliminary autopsy results indicated that alcohol and phenobarbital were involved--a combination that would match the recipes that investigators discovered torn up in garbage cans or folded in the pockets of the deceased.

Blackbourne said deputies also found plastic bags tied with elastic bands in the garbage behind the house, which could have been used to suffocate the victims and speed death. Blackbourne speculated that the group members tapped to die in the second or third suicide waves may have removed the plastic bags from the heads of their deceased colleagues, tidied the house and then covered the bodies with silky purple cloths.

The final two to die, he said, were not shrouded in the purple cloths. They had plastic bags over their heads.

Blackbourne would not comment on whether the Heaven’s Gate members could have pulled the bags on their heads themselves after swallowing the drugs, or whether someone had to have helped them. But Sheriff’s Cmdr. Alan Fulmer said there was no indication that anyone had left the home alive after the suicides.

“It seemed to be a group decision,” Blackbourne said. “It was very planned, sort of immaculately carried out.”


Phenobarbital, a prescription drug used for seizure disorders, is a long-acting barbiturate with hypnotic or sedative properties. The drug usually kicks in within an hour, and its effects can last up to 16 hours.

Overdoses typically trigger a progression of symptoms beginning with difficulty breathing and followed by lowered body temperature, fever, fluid in the lungs and coma.

Alcohol accelerates the drug’s actions--as described in the best-selling book “Final Exit,” which lays out a suicide method strikingly similar to the one Heaven’s Gate apparently chose.

“Because this is a long-acting barbiturate, it takes a long time to die from it,” said Dr. Greg Thompson, director of the Drug Information Center at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Even given the alcohol, he said, “this would have been a sleepy death, but a long one.”

Because the victims all wore baggy clothes and had severely cropped hair, Fulmer said his deputies had initially mistaken them all for young men. In truth, there were 21 women and 18 men in the group.

Most were in their 40s, though two men were in their 20s and one woman was 72. Fulmer said the deceased included two African Americans and a couple of Latinos. The rest were white.


Most of the bodies had identification folded neatly in the pocket of the baggy black shirt: driver’s licenses, birth certificates or even passports. The largest contingents came from New Mexico and Texas, but Blackbourne also identified victims from Utah, Minnesota, Arizona and Ohio as well as four from Southern California. One person had a birth certificate from Canada.

Posthumous Statements

As news of the tragedy spread around the world--with foreign correspondents from several countries staked out in front of the house--families with missing relatives flooded the San Diego County coroner’s office with anxious calls. Blackbourne would not release the names of the deceased cult members until relatives had been notified.

Even as the grim business of conducting autopsies and notifying relatives continued, several of the Heaven’s Gate members were speaking out posthumously--through a lengthy letter and brief video and through various Internet postings.

One white-haired member of the group appeared on a video addressed to the news media to explain that his senior leader had determined that it was time to move onto the “next level.”

A female member cast the suicide in a slightly less mystical tone, saying on the tape: “Maybe they’re crazy, for all I know. But 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.” The group’s pending suicide appealed to her, she said, because “if that’s what it takes, that’s better than being around here with absolutely nothing to do.”

The Heaven’s Gate group left a similar video--this one bearing farewell messages from 38 of the 39 victims--on a table in a conference room in the sparsely furnished house, Fulmer said.


In snippets of the video aired on ABC’s “Nightline,” several cult members talked of their excitement about abandoning 9-to-5 work and traveling to the “next level.” As one woman put it: “Everyone in this class wanted something more than this world had to offer.”

Praising their leaders, the cult members emphasized that they were not being coerced into suicide. “I am doing this of my own free will. . . . It is not something someone brainwashed me into or convinced me of or did a con job on,” one man said. “If anybody feels bad about that, that’s just their problem.”

In addition to leaving the farewell video for police to find, the Heaven’s Gate members went to some effort to disseminate their ideas through videos and letters.

Portents in Videos

In what now appears to have been a portent of their suicide, the group last fall sent a video and letter about their plans to depart Earth for a “Kingdom of Heaven” to J. Gordon Melton, a nationally prominent authority on alternative religious groups, in Santa Barbara. Melton said he received the material in October--the same month the nomadic Heaven’s Gate moved into Rancho Santa Fe--but did not have time to review it in detail.

More recently, the group sent a video to the Rev. Rick Strawcutter, pastor of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ in Adrian, Mich. A church spokesman said Strawcutter had no idea what the package contained and didn’t open it until Thursday.

“It was just a freak thing that they sent it to him,” said a church staffer. “Why him?”

Sheriff’s officials in rural Lenawee County, Mich., near the Ohio border, described Strawcutter as an anti-government “zealot” who has fought state and local laws requiring vehicle license plates and challenged the sheriff’s authority to issue speeding tickets.


Closer to home, the Heaven’s Gate members sent a package to former member D’Angelo in Los Angeles this week. D’Angelo, who is in his early 40s, said that in the video, group members spoke with excitement about “moving forward to the next stage,” Matzorkis said.

According to Matzorkis, the letter stated: “By the time this letter is being read, we will all have shed our containers”--the term Heaven’s Gate members used for their bodies.

After reviewing the material, D’Angelo marched into Matzorkis’ office Wednesday morning, told him that he believed that a mass suicide had occurred and asked for the day off. Within minutes, the two jumped into Matzorkis’ car and sped south to see for themselves.

When they arrived at the Heaven’s Gate house, Matzorkis waited outside while D’Angelo went inside for 10 minutes. “He looked as white as a sheet,” Matzorkis recalled. “He said, ‘They did it. They committed suicide,’ ” Matzorkis said. “He told me that every existing member committed suicide.”

The two then called the Beverly Hills Police Department and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, tipping off authorities.

Matzorkis said he had met and become friendly with up to 15 members of the cult long before hiring D’Angelo to design World Wide Web pages for his company, InterAct Entertainment Group. Through his informal chats with them, he said, he came to know them as quirky but competent programmers, who had shaved heads and usually wore dark pants and tennis shoes. They told him they liked to meditate, observed celibacy and avidly followed the television series “Star Trek.” “They were ‘Star Trek’ junkies,” he said.


Heaven’s Gate members would often prod outsiders to join their cause, he said. They especially pushed him, telling him that their friendship could have a “greater purpose” than merely designing snazzy Web pages. In one e-mail message Matzorkis received from the group in September, they sought to enlist him to help them spread the word about Heaven’s Gate.

The e-mail read: “We are at an extremely critical crossroads--considering going significantly more public than we ever have in our history.” Then the group asked Matzorkis to come to one of their meetings, adding: “We suspect you will not find the meeting boring or routine.”

A real estate agent who had met members of the group said they arose at 4 a.m. every day to gaze at a star in the northeastern sky that they considered their home.

The various communiques from Heaven’s Gate do not mention that practice. But they do spell out the group’s philosophy in rambling detail.

Though they lived in a seven-bedroom mansion complete with putting green, sauna and elevator, the Heaven’s Gate members loaded their Internet messages with disdainful comments about society’s obsession with material goods.

They wrote that the satanic “space aliens” who run the modern world use a materialistic credo to try to blind human beings to the truth. And they warned people not to be duped by societal conventions such as marriages, mortgages and credit cards.


Despite this ascetic philosophy, however, Heaven’s Gate maintained an impressively well-stocked pantry. Members did seek out--and snag--lucrative contracts for computer programming through their company, called Higher Source.

Others familiar with the group, however, said members always offered low bids on their computer work and did not seem to be focusing on finances in recent weeks. Rather, they said that Heaven’s Gate members, who referred to one another as “brother” and “sister,” indicated that they would be taking a journey or immersing themselves in a religious ritual around Easter.

The most dedicated Heaven’s Gate members apparently saw suicide as a way to “graduate” from their confinement on Earth into the Kingdom of Heaven.

They acknowledged in various Internet communications that shaking off all earthly ties might be difficult. “The dilemma,” they wrote, “is we are here, and most humans are thoroughly ‘hooked’ to humanity.” But they insisted that committing suicide would be worthwhile because after death, their souls would ascend to a higher level of development.

The group did caution that not everyone could reach the Kingdom of Heaven by committing suicide. Only disciples of the kingdom’s “representative” on Earth could achieve this nirvana, they wrote. And studying required sacrifice: leaving behind “family, sensuality, selfish desires, your human mind and even your human body if it be required of you.”

Higher Source’s Internet communiques indicated that members saw themselves as fighting an apocalyptic battle against society. They accurately predicted that they would be tarred as “cultists” or “radicals”--but that they preferred to think of themselves as candidates to enter a glorious new world.


The Heaven’s Gate followers left behind hundreds of pages explaining the story that drew them to suicide. But authorities warned that outsiders may never be able to understand the cult’s reasoning.

“We may never know the question that so many people are asking--that is, why did they do this?” San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolander said. “Who or what would make 39 people take their lives in this manner?”

Or, as Gov. Pete Wilson put it: “To call it bizarre is, I think, to understate it.”

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* DANA PARSONS: How odd and ironic to be so close to heaven and not see it, as group members were in Rancho Santa Fe. A16

Additional stories, photos, and graphics: A14-17