As Families Grieve, a Portrait Emerges of Cult’s Final Days
Grieving families around the nation began Friday to plan funerals for relatives they had long ago lost to the Heaven’s Gate cult, which promised disciples they could evolve into extraterrestrials by severing all links to modern society and human desires.
As authorites identified the cult members who committed mass suicide, friends and relatives said some had cast away well-paying jobs, cut off spouses or abandoned children to join Heaven’s Gate in a vagabond lifestyle that demanded communal living, periodic fasting and a disdain for mainstream culture.
Medical examiners working around the clock confirmed that the 39 cult members died after ingesting the anti-seizure drug phenobarbital and drinking alcohol. But at least a few of the victims did not have lethal levels of phenobarbital in their blood; these may have died from suffocation, as they had apparently placed plastic bags over their heads, authorities said.
Several of the male cult members had been castrated long before the suicides--in keeping with their belief that in order to ascend to the next level, they needed not only to remain celibate but to prove they had no need for reproductive organs.
As autopsies continued, investigators emphasized that they saw no indication of murder--and no hint that any cult members survived the mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe.
The 39 victims seemed to be the only active members of the Heaven’s Gate cult. The group had no other chapters despite grand dreams of expanding overseas, said San Diego County Sheriff’s Lt. Jerry Lipscomb.
“We cannot tie this group to any other one in the world,” Lipscomb said.
Founded more than two decades ago by nurse Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, who died several years ago, and former music teacher Marshall Applewhite, who died in the mass suicide, the group attracted all types of members, of all ages and races.
A career postal worker abandoned five children to join the cult after catching word of it on the Internet. A troubled teenager ran away from home to sign up after hearing members lecture in a neighborhood park. The members included the daughter of a retired federal judge and the son of a major telecommunications executive.
The brother of “Star Trek” star Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, joined too, immersing himself in a mystical theology that offered believers the chance to cast off their clunky earth-bodies and transform into extraterrestrial angels ascending into a “Kingdom of Heaven.”
About two dozen of the cult members appeared to have joined the group in the mid-1970s and stuck with it until its final act.
A Final Meal, Together
Though they isolated themselves from friends and family, the cult members were far from hermits. They watched “Star Trek,” breakfasted on strawberry crepes at a local pancake house and boldly knocked on the doors of some of San Diego’s toniest businesses looking for work designing World Wide Web sites.
And a week ago Friday--just a day or so before enacting their meticulously planned suicides--the cult went out for a last supper together at the Marie Callender’s restaurant in Carlsbad, dining on turkey pot pies and squeezing extra lemons into their iced teas .
But they indulged in these activities only with the fellow cult members they called “brothers” and “sisters.” Meanwhile, their true relatives fretted and feared, baffled by the ideology that had snatched them from mainstream society. “He just dropped out,” Steven Stevens, the manager for actress Nichols, said of cult member Thomas Nichols.
Those outside Heaven’s Gate had no way of reaching their loved ones on the inside. And those in the cult made little effort to reassure them.
Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, for example, made just one 10-second phone call to her mother after joining the cult last summer. A postal supervisor in Cincinnati, McCurdy-Hill abandoned her family shortly after she gave birth to twin girls. She also had three sons, said the Rev. H.L. Harvey, a family friend and pastor at the New Friendship Baptist Church.
“Her brothers and family were concerned about where she was and what she was doing,” Harvey said. “She was a whiz on the computer, but then she started acting strange and studying this religion.”
Another member, David Geoffrey Moore, visited his mother just twice in the 21 years since he linked up with the cult near San Jose.
Moore’s most recent employer, Mike Afshin, described him as a skilled computer consultant, a man so honest and friendly that he once fixed a client’s plumbing for free because he felt guilty about charging her $79 for a service job that took just 10 minutes to complete. But Moore’s mother, Nancie Brown, had no such memories to cling to as she grieved. She had not been in regular contact with her son since he was in high school.
Similarly, Applewhite’s sister, Louise Winant, said she had not heard from him in more than 20 years--and added that he did not even know he had grandchildren.
Joining Applewhite’s group meant adopting a nomadic life. The group moved often, from state to state. Until June, they had lived in New Mexico, occupying a 40-acre compound in the Manzano Mountains about 50 miles southeast of Albuquerque.
Last summer, the group moved to San Diego County, renting a low-slung modern home on Camino de Estrellas, or Street of Stars, just east of Rancho Santa Fe.
A neighbor, Anthony Demopoulos, recalled the Heaven’s Gate members as “so spacey, when you talked to them, it was like talking to a wall or something.” The group stayed there just a few months before moving into the million-dollar mansion in Rancho Santa Fe where they died.
New Names, Masked Movements
To go with their nomadic lifestyle, the cult members adopted new names, all with three letters. And they systematically masked their movements, registering their Web sites and driver’s licenses under bogus addresses and aliases.
Many of those with New Mexico licenses listed addresses that turned out to be churches or businesses--or outright fictions.
“It’s as if a lot of these people wanted to wash their identities,” said Rob Perry, an official with the New Mexico State Police.
Despite the difficulties, San Diego authorities managed to track down relatives of at least 35 of the victims. Calvin Vine, who supervised the notification process for the medical examiner’s office, said most of the relatives started sobbing upon hearing the news--even though some had long predicted that the cult would end up carrying out a mass suicide.
“Most of the families are breaking down when we talk to them,” Vine said.
A few of the families learned of the deaths from watching television broadcasts of the cult’s farewell tape.
Local investigators have asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the state attorney general’s office for help in searching the cult’s computers and tracking down hard-to-find relatives.
“There’s some t’s to cross and some i’s to dot,” Lt. Lipscomb said. “But at this point, we feel that this is what it appears to be: death by overdose and suffocation, self-inflicted. Thirty-nine suicides.”
San Diego County Undersheriff Jack Drown said his team still hopes to find out how and where the cult obtained so much phenobarbital. A prescription drug available in generic as well as brand-name medications, it is commonly prescribed for seizure disorders.
Investigators found several syringes in the room where the last two cult members committed suicide. They also found a cup with a liquid thought to be phenobarbital. But they have not determined whether the cult members took the drug in liquid or powder form, and the bodies were too badly decayed to detect any signs of injections.
The autopsies did reveal the castrations, which San Diego County Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne said had been performed so long ago that all the scars had healed. Applewhite, the group’s leader, was among those castrated, apparently in conformance with his ideology.
The Heaven’s Gate teachings instruct followers to neuter their “vehicles,” or bodies, if they hope to transform into extraterrestrial bodies and hitch a UFO ride into the astral bliss he called the Kingdom of Heaven. One of the group’s Internet communiques said: “It seems you could not inherit one of those [more advanced] bodies until you no longer have any use for activities involving the reproductive organs.”
The cult had decorated its Rancho Santa Fe mansion with several pictures of the type of higher-level beings they hoped to become. One wore a black hat decorated with the same figure to his death bed. “It was just like you see on the ‘X-Files,’ ” Blackbourne said.
In addition to the castrations, the group affected an androgynous look. Both women and men kept their hair cropped close, and all members routinely wore baggy oversized shirts, which they did not tuck in.
Their appearance drew the attention of Chris Turner, the general manager of the Marie Callender’s restaurant in Carlsbad, about 15 miles from Rancho Santa Fe. He said all 39 members of the group came in about 2 p.m. March 21, a day or so before authorities think the first suicides took place.
‘Odd,’ but ‘Very Nice’
Each member wore a different colored, long-sleeve, button-down shirt and pants. And they insisted that one particular table be served first. “We thought it was odd. . . . But they were very nice. They didn’t act weird. We just assumed they were from the same religious group,” said 21-year-old waitress Alisa Bunnell, who served the group.
Turner said the group stayed at the restaurant for less than 45 minutes and payed the $350 bill in cash. “I thought they were all cancer victims,” he said. “I thought it was kind of a sad scene.”
Heaven’s Gate members had apparently been planning their suicide for some time. One recently gave a medallion with a picture of an alien to a friend at a local car wash, and told him he would be going away on a trip.
Three members who worked as computer consultants for the Arrowhead Group insurance company in San Diego left their jobs last month, though they were offered additional work, because they said they had to prepare for a trip. Among their preparations: getting glasses fixed and boxing up belongings.
“They were happy and excited about what they were about to do,” said Arrowhead manager Steve Winings.
As the medical examiner’s staff scrambled to finish the autopsies, two sheriff’s deputies came forward at a news conference Friday to talk about the shock and horror of finding the 39 bodies decomposing under purple shrouds.
Deputy Robert Brunk said he knew something was horribly wrong when he approached an open side door to the house in response to two calls tipping authorities to a mass suicide.
“I noticed an odor that in my past experience has been associated with death,” Brunk said. “Once you get that smell . . . it doesn’t ever leave your head.”
Brunk called for backup and Deputy Laura Gacek drove up a few minutes later. “She walked up to the door, smelled the same odor and confirmed what I had been thinking deep down inside--that yeah, this is for real,” Brunk said.
Afraid of poison gas, the two deputies retreated and sent out a bulletin on their scanner indicating they had come across at least 10 corpses in an apparent mass suicide.
Indeed, the worldwide media attention has been so intense that astronomer Alan Hale, a co-discoverer of the comet that Heaven’s Gate members thought was shielding the UFO that would take them to their home star, felt compelled to hold a news conference Friday afternoon.
“Almost from day one, I have heard claims that Hale-Bopp is an alien mother ship or is under intelligent control or some such. . . . And now, this has been carried to an extreme. Thirty-nine people have now lost their lives as a result of this ignorance and superstition,” said Hale, an astronomer with the Southwest Institute for Space Research.
“Tonight . . . forget about the world for a minute, go outside, look up in the northwest and take a look at this comet. It’s a beautiful object. It’s lovely. It’s one of the most magnificent celestial objects you will ever see. But for all its beauty, its magnificence, its splendor, all it is is a dirty snowball that’s orbiting the sun,” Hale said. “Nothing more.”