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Group sought to leave Earth for
By Lynda Gorov and Steve Fainaru, Globe Staff, 3/28/97
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The members of Heaven's Gate, a little-known cult filled with computer specialists, videotaped their farewells and left little to clean up except their bodies in the $1.3 million estate they called home, putting out the trash and packing their suitcases for those who were left behind.
All told, 21 women and 18 men -- ages 20 to 72 -- killed themselves after scrawling what authorities called a suicide "recipe for what they were going to do." It was unknown whether the leader of the cult was among the dead, who were carted off in trucks before dawn yesterday, the stench of their decomposing bodies trailing behind.
Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the San Diego County medical examiner, described the death recipe as "take a little package of pudding or applesauce, two or three teaspoons. Stir. Eat quickly. Drink the vodka mixture. Take a break, then lay back and rest quickly."
President Clinton said of the mass suicide: "It's heartbreaking, sickening. It's shocking."
Blackbourne said the suicides were staggered over at least three days. Two deputies who were first on the scene Wednesday afternoon were treated for what originally was feared to be toxic poisoning. But San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender yesterday said, "The deputies appear to have fallen ill from the smell of the decayed bodies in the home."
Network television news reports last night identified Marshall Applewhite as the leader of the tightly organized group, who guided his followers toward what he called "a higher level." The Washington Post said Applewhite formed the cult some 20 years ago and described him as a former college music professor who once sang with the Houston Grand Opera.
Today's New York Times reported that Applewhite's body was among the suicide victims found at the house on Wednesday. That could not be confirmed early today.
Applewhite reportedly formed the group with Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles, but it had virtually gone underground in recent years. The two referred to themselves as Bo and Peep, or even Tiddly and Wink. In recent years, Applewhite had taken to calling himself Do. Nettle, one cult specialist said yesterday, died sometime in the mid-1980s.
On a videotape made just days before the suicides, Applewhite spoke of rising from the dead.
"You can follow us but you cannot stay here and follow us," said Applewhite, called Do on the tape. "The planet Earth is about to be recycled. Your only chance to survive or evacuate is to leave with us."
Members of the group apparently believed that, after taking their lives, they would be taken to heaven aboard a spacecraft traveling in the wake of the comet Hale-Bopp.
The group was unfamiliar to many experienced cult watchers. People who came in contact with its members -- either through Higher Source, the organization's Web site business, or through seldom-allowed visits to the compound -- said the celibate members neither drank nor took drugs, and wore crew cuts and collarless shirts.
At a news conference yesterday, officials played a videotape showing room after room of bodies in the rented mansion. The deceased lay on their backs, as if they were sleeping, purple shrouds draped over their faces and upper torsos.
Wednesday night, officials said the victims all appeared to be white males, ages 18 to 24. But yesterday officials said poor lighting in the mansion, the uniformly close-cropped hair of the victims and their black masculine uniforms caused them to misidentify 21 women and to misjudge the ages of many of the dead, most of whom were in their 40s.
Next to the bodies were computer terminals the organization used to design Web sites, a business they operated out of the sprawling estate that sits in San Diego County's most fashionable neighborhood. Rancho Santa Fe is home to such celebrities as the singer Janet Jackson. Former football commissioner Pete Rozelle and Bing Crosby lived there.
Kolender, the sheriff, said authorities "may never really know the answer to the question that is on everyone's mind: Why did they do this?"
But members of the group outlined their reasoning in a videotaped farewell made shortly before the suicides, authorities said. While they declined to release that tape, a page maintained by the group on the World Wide Web indicated that members believed that they were shedding their human "containers," or bodies, for "the Evolutionary Level Above Human."
Members of the group were just as orderly in death as they were in life. Most of the deceased carried identification such as a driver's license or passport, Blackbourne said. Many of the IDs were tucked into the pockets of the matching black shirts they wore, along with black pants and black sneakers with spotless soles.
"It seemed to me a group decision," Blackbourne said. "It seemed to me very well-planned."
The victims were divided up into three groups, he said. The first two groups had 15 people, the third 9. Each victim had a packed suitcase and, for unexplained reasons, carried a $5 bill and change. After killing themselves, the victims were attended by their fellow members, who draped the shrouds over them, authorities said.
The bodies were discovered after a former member, known only by his cult name, Rio DiAngelo, told police that all members of the cult were dead. DiAngelo received a letter and two videotaped messages from the cultists by Federal Express on Tuesday evening.
"We have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly task," the letter said.
DiAngelo told businessman Nick Matzorkis about the letter, and the two then drove from Beverly Hills to San Diego on Wednesday, informing police after discovering the bodies.
As of yesterday afternoon, the family of only one victim had been notified and authorities declined to release any of their names. None of the victims were from Massachusetts, authorities said.
The victims included two blacks and perhaps a few Hispanics, although Blackbourne said the majority were white. Most were from western states, authorities said.
Autopsies on the bodies are expected to continue through the weekend. Blackbourne said that preliminary toxicology reports on two of the victims showed the presence of alcohol and phenobarbitol.
The last two people to die had plastic bags over their heads, and dozens more of the bags and plastic ties were found in a garbage can behind the house -- leading Blackbourne to speculate that suffocation may have contributed to some or all of the victims' deaths. The final two victims were also the only ones whose faces and upper torsos were not covered with purple cloth.
"The drug itself won't cause sudden death," Blackbourne said. "The plastic bag could speed up or guarantee success."
The killings horrified residents in this exclusive enclave, tucked in the dry hills north of San Diego. In the quaint downtown, lined with real estate offices and pricey boutiques, the suicides dominated lunchtime conversation. Some people seemed unsurprised by what went on behind closed doors, saying that privacy is the primary reason to move to this area dotted with horse farms and country estates.
"You really don't even know your neighbors," said Rod Perry, an interior designer from Atlanta who has worked on many of the mansions and lives in Rancho Santa Fe part-time. "The obvious reason to live out here is for the security and the quiet. You don't ever have to see your neighbors."
Well-heeled gawkers flooded the scene yesterday. "It's such a tragic event for 39 people to almost simultaneously take their lives . . ." said Joseph McHugh, of nearby Rancho Bernardo. "We just had to come over."
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