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Year in Review: 1997

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Re-rank the list of top news stories of 1997

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Princess Diana's death stuns the world

Weld steps out -
Cellucci steps forward

Mother Teresa is laid
to rest at age 87

Chinese rule returns
to Hong Kong

Supreme Court strikes
down 'Net decency act

UPS strike disrupts thousands of firms

Heaven's Gate cult commits mass suicide

Mars Pathfinder explores Red Planet

Ellen comes out, marking a first in TV

For the first time, a mammal is cloned


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Group tried living in central New Mexico

By Judith Gaines, Globe Staff, 3/10/97

Before moving to their posh mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, members of the Heaven's Gate cult lived in a rural compound on a desert hilltop in central New Mexico, near the tiny community of Manzano.

But their 40-acre compound was so remote that the sophisticated telephone lines necessary for the group's computer work could not reach it. Ill-prepared for rural living, they left Manzano and headed to California in November 1995, after just a six-month stay, "because they were afraid they'd get snowed in," said Larry Gustin, who lived in the neighboring town of Mountainair and came to know several cult members well.

In this respect, the cult's experience was typical of many alternative groups drawn to New Mexico, said Lois Rudnick, director of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, who has written extensively about countercultural movements in the state.

"Most of the hippies who went there didn't have a clue about how to live in a place like that," she said. "That's why they didn't last so long."

In order to operate their computer business, the group rented three offices in a complex Gustin owned in Mountainair, population about 1,500, a ranching town somewhat less remote than Manzano.

"They were really nice, friendly people. We enjoyed them," said Gustin, who ran Gustin's Hardware store in the same complex. "You would go in and sit down and they'd show you what they were doing with the computers."

Cult members never discussed their organizational philosophy, but they all had short haircuts and wore black silk pants, white shirts, and black windbreaker jackets, Gustin said. "We thought they were kind of a religious group or something."

Historian David Witt, who visited the compound, described it as an old youth camp surrounded by Ponderosa pines, at the end of a dirt road and "a long ways from anywhere."

"If you wanted to get away and be isolated, it would have been a great place," he said.

The compound had a large, warehouse-like building with a big kitchen, mess hall, showers and bathrooms, as well as three rustic cabins, a small saw mill, a basketball court and a baseball diamond, said Steve Fox, project administrator for the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities, who has written about countercultural groups in the American West.

Over the basketball court, they began construction of a five-story "earth ship" made of tires rammed with earth. A high wall made of tires also surrounded the compound.

They believed they had to be secretive, Fox said.

He said that, more than 25 years earlier, Marshall Applewhite, who founded the Heaven's Gate group, had been the leader of a similar cult in Oregon. He persuaded its members to move inland to link up with a UFO, which he believed would take them to a higher plane.

But authorities got wind of the group's activity and Applewhite decided to go underground, Fox said.

Applewhite surfaced in 1970, when he bought a restaurant in Taos, New Mexico. The restaurant, known as the Sunshine Company, was located on the old plaza. It served mainly salads and sandwiches and became "a hippie hangout for kids who were kind of lost," said Tom McCarthy, who owns a bed-and-breakfast business on the plaza.

Dennis Robbins worked at the Sunshine Company as bar manager for "Herff" Applewhite, as he was known. He remembered his employer as "a smooth operator, very charismatic, very charming."

But he said Applewhite also had "a nasty side" and often acted in manipulative ways.

Robbins remembered that at one party he attended Herff -- who was gay -- created a scene involving an old lover and a new lover. "He really made the old lover feel bad about feeling bad," Robbins said.

He added people always seemed to be drawn to Herff. "He was a former opera singer who moved in high society, and people were impressed by this," said Robbins, who now owns Outback Pizza in Taos.

The Sunshine Company was a success, but Robbins said Herff left Taos in 1971 when his romance with his lover-partner ended.

"He told everyone he was going off to form his own religion," Fox said.



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