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Returning to Earth From Heaven’s Gate

ASSOCIATED PRESS

After three years of regimented life within the Heaven’s Gate cult, Rio DiAngelo walked away in 1997 because of a “disturbing” feeling that he needed to escape.

One month later, he received a message from Heaven’s Gate members that drew him back to the group’s rented hilltop mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. On March 26, 1997, DiAngelo uncovered the worst mass suicide on U.S. soil.

Five years later, DiAngelo is keeping the faith he shared with 39 men and women who believed they were shedding their earthly “containers” to catch a ride on a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet.

“I’m really the only one left,” said DiAngelo, 48, of Los Angeles.

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The group’s possessions have been auctioned off. The 9,000-square-foot mansion in one of San Diego’s northern neighborhoods was sold for a fraction of its value and the street where it stands has been renamed. But five years later, DiAngelo, or “Neody” as he was known in the group, still sees himself as its messenger.

Interviews with news organizations five years ago left DiAngelo angry at the media, but he reluctantly agreed to a phone interview recently.

Now a freelance designer who makes ergonomic items, DiAngelo is applying all he learned from Heaven’s Gate to his earthly life and, at the same time, cashing in on it. DiAngelo is auctioning off the cult’s van on eBay to mark the anniversary of the mass-suicide.

The androgynous-looking men and women of Heaven’s Gate downed a lethal concoction of pudding or applesauce spiked with vodka and barbiturates. They sealed their fate by placing plastic bags over their heads.

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Clad in black outfits with “Away Team” patches and Nike tennis shoes with their trademark comet-like swoosh, each packed a small bag and carried identification, $5 and money for their journey toward what they believed was a “level beyond human.”

Two other cultists later followed with similar suicides.

“They weren’t trying to kill themselves because of a crazy idea, although some people saw it as a crazy idea,” he said. “It really is an advanced level of being.”

Cult leader Marshall Applewhite reportedly checked into a mental hospital in the 1970s and asked to be cured of his homosexuality. But DiAngelo says the leader, known as “Do” in the group, answered the questions he spent years asking. He says Applewhite truly was from another planet and taught DiAngelo to be more aware, honest and sensitive to the world around him: in short, a better person.

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“What I’ve gained from this group is phenomenal,” he said. “If he is just a gay music teacher from Texas, how he could teach all these advanced ways of being that really work?”

At the same time, DiAngelo is not sentimental about the past. The former cult member has spent the last five years relearning the way of the world “like a born-again virgin.” And now he’s cashing in.

DiAngelo is asking a minimum of $39,000 for a 1992 Ford van, with 185,000 miles on the odometer, that members of Heaven’s Gate once used for road trips to SeaWorld and Las Vegas.

“It’s just a piece of machinery,” he said.

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His life today is far from his days in Heaven’s Gate, where members watched selected TV programs in assigned seats and wrote the “individual needs department” when they ran out of deodorant.

He earns his living working for various companies in the nation’s second-biggest city, slogging his way through daily traffic jams.

“Here I am a slave to commerce like everybody else,” he said.

He no longer refers to his body in the third-person as “my vehicle” or “this vessel,” as he did five years ago. He has reestablished contact with his 19-year-old son, a college student living in Orange County, and the two now have regular contact, DiAngelo said.

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And in an example of his newfound wisdom, DiAngelo said a tabloid offered him $1 million for exclusive rights to his story five years ago, but he refused, preferring to preserve the dignity of his departed friends. Today, he says, he’d take the money.


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