- Thirteen years ago, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide inside a Rancho Santa Fe mansion. First responders are still haunted by the gruesome discovery. "We didn't know what to expect going in there," said sheriff's Deputy Robert Brunk, who returned to the site of the now-razed Rancho Santa Fe house last week. He was the first to arrive in 1997. Thirteen years ago one of the strangest events in the county history exploded into the public's consciousness. For several days, it was the biggest news story in the world.
Rio DiAngelo, whose real name was Richard Ford, drove with his boss from Los Angeles to the mansion. After looking inside, he placed an anonymous phone call to 911 that dispatchers initially found inconceivable. "I don't think anybody really believed what the person was saying," said Robert Brunk, a sheriff's deputy who had just started his shift at the Encinitas station. "It was an anonymous call to the communications center stating that 40 people had committed suicide and they were cult members. It came out as a 'welfare check,' and they had held the call for a while because it was busy."
Brunk went to the address, 18241 Colina Norte, which turned out to be a 9,000-square-foot, two-story home up a 200-foot driveway. "As I'm driving, I'm thinking to myself, 'How am I going to explain to the people that live there the purpose for my visit?'" But when he arrived, things seemed odd. All the windows were closed and the curtains drawn. Two vans parked in the driveway were rented, a dispatcher confirmed. Brunk found an unlocked door on the side of the house. When he opened it, the stench nearly knocked him over. He shouted that he was with the Sheriff's Department, then backed out and waited for Deputy Laura Gacek, who arrived in a separate patrol car. "We didn't know what to expect going in there," Brunk said. "You start thinking of cults and all sorts of things start playing in your mind animal and human sacrifice, that kind of thing."
"As we entered the house, we started seeing bodies that were covered up. ... Every room that you went into, we found more. Some were in bunk beds. They were all in their running suits with their 'Heaven's Gate Away Team' patch on the sleeve. There was a computer flashing 'Red Alert,' sort of like 'Star Trek.' There was still a load of laundry in the machine. It was surreal."
Purple shrouds covered all but two bodies. Brunk remembers lifting the shroud off only one person, among the youngest. He also remembers shaking a foot of every body to check for rigor mortis. All were wearing black Nike running shoes with the white swoosh on the side. "The Nike symbol triggers my memory more than any one thing," said Brunk, a 17-year veteran. "I remember their shoes, all 39 pairs."
Later, Brunk and Gacek gave their supervisors a complete account of what they had found. "It was kind of like a Kodak moment as we watched their jaws drop," Brunk said. The two deputies were taken to a hospital to be examined in case they had been exposed to anything toxic. On the trip there, the driver asked what was happening. "After I told him, he looked at me as if thinking, 'Maybe we're taking you to the wrong type of hospital,' " Brunk said.
Hanging on the walls of Capt. Don Crist's office at the San Marcos sheriff's station are two large, framed photographs. One is a panoramic shot of the largest news conference ever conducted by the Sheriff's Department. It took place in an auditorium on the Del Mar Fairgrounds the day after the bodies were discovered. The other picture is of Hale-Bopp in a desert sky.
Janja Lalich, a sociology professor at California State University Chico and an expert on cults, said the appeal of cults is still strong. "I think there are plenty of groups still around," Lalich said. "This is just a part of life. Many people are looking for answers in a fast-paced world, Lalich said. Some get what they need in mainstream religions, while others find the framework they are seeking in an alternative religious movement. At some level, it helps people to latch on to something. People are looking for a quick fix. A lot of groups will offer that panacea. The growth of the Internet has expanded people's capacity to find groups they otherwise might not have been aware of. The Internet also has enabled detractors to better provide warnings about cults. It is good to have more information available to those thinking of joining. If only people put as much thought into joining a cult as they did in buying a car," she added.
Crist and the late Ron Reina headed the sheriff's media office. The media storm began to hit about 5 p.m. the day the bodies were found, after word of the suicides leaked. It was unlike anything that had come before for the department and would be rivaled only by the Santana High School shootings four years later. The local media arrived, followed in the next two hours by hundreds of reporters and photographers who raced to The Ranch from Los Angeles. The Academy Awards had been held two nights earlier, and many national and international news crews were still in town.
Crist remembers driving to the mansion. It was dark out, but there was a glow visible from miles away, as if a stadium had been floodlit for a sporting event. It was the lights from the TV satellite trucks. "I came over the hill and every person in the world was there. People were running up to me, asking what I knew. Local media, Korean, Japanese, German. ... I had never experienced anything like that."
The next day, the Sheriff's Department made a bold, and within the department, controversial decision to release a 90-second videotape shot the night before inside the mansion. The news conference was attended by hundreds, but as the tape began playing, you could hear a pin drop, Crist said. Showing the video clip had the unintended effect of denying DiAngelo a big payday. The former cult member also had videotaped the scene in the mansion, in hopes of selling the tapes to news outlets. The news conference made his footage worthless. The story was front-page news in virtually every newspaper in the world. Television networks ran specials. The cover of Time magazine featured a close-up photo of a wild-eyed Applewhite and the words, Inside the Web of Death. The cult was parodied on 'Saturday Night Live.'
Detective Rick Scully -- In the homicide unit, where they usually play things close to the vest, the decision to release so much information at the news conference made investigators uncomfortable. But within a few hours of examining the scene in the mansion, Rick Scully said, investigators were confident about what they were dealing with.
Mark Malamatos, a medical examiner's investigator, caught his breath while helping unload bodies at the Medical Examiner's Office in Kearny Mesa in 1997. Scully, a veteran homicide detective considered among the best, was the lead investigator for Heaven's Gate. So many bodies was a challenge, but as a whodunit, it was easy. After obtaining a search warrant, and after a hazardous-materials team had determined the air in the house was safe, Scully and others went inside. "It was like being in the Twilight Zone. We were wandering from room to room to room, and every room we went into we were finding bodies. You're thinking: 'When is this going to end? How many bodies are going to be in here? How many rooms are there to this place?' Because every room we went in had bodies stacked up like cordwood." He remembers thinking, 'How could people do this to each other. What kind of person led them to do this?' "Then we got to the final room. Marshall Applewhite, aka Do. It was the upstairs master bedroom, a huge room, and he had the bedroom to himself. Great big bed. He's all propped up with pillows around him. As soon as you walked in, you knew this guy was the head chief. He was the leader."
The cult and its leader -- From a follow-up report written by Scully: "The members of Heaven's Gate adhered to a strict doctrine. Members led a regimented lifestyle. Particular attention was paid to: punctuality, cleanliness, orderliness, personal possessions, how to dress, what to eat, how to phrase a question, and most importantly desires. Each member was assigned a partner to watch over him or her in order that they could constantly fight their 'human desires.'
Autopsies showed the 39 suicide victims at the Rancho Santa Fe house - 21 women and 18 men - died by eating pudding and applesauce laced with drugs. "Their beliefs were a hybrid of science fantasy (UFOs and aliens) and Christian beliefs. Essentially they believed that God and the Kingdom of God were extraterrestrial. They believed that they descended from this extraterrestrial kingdom and took occupancy in human bodies some 20 years or so ago. They believed that they had learned all there was to learn of the human condition and that it was time to return to the kingdom from where they came."
The cult was renting the mansion, which was razed a few years later. The name of the street also was changed. Some of the Heaven's Gate members earned income for the group by providing computer services and Web site design through their company, Higher Source. Before coming to San Diego County, Applewhite and his followers had lived a nomadic existence, trying to stay ahead of cultists' families. Most who died had joined during the 1970s, but eight had come to the group in the 1990s. Members ranged in age from 26 to 72. More than half were in their 40s. Many of those who joined had been searching for answers and goals, family members said. Applewhite offered a simpler, more focused way of life that also isolated group members from the outside world and fostered a shared belief system. Some left behind children and spouses to join the group.
"The investigation revealed that (the decedents) were ardent followers of Do, Marshall Applewhite. ... Members wrote that their only purpose was to make Do happy," a Sheriff's Department report concluded. Together they ate their final meal March 21 at Marie Callender's in Carlsbad. Their orders were identical: salad and chicken pot pies, with cheesecake for dessert. The next day, working in shifts, they made their exit.
Six weeks later, two male cult members who had not been at the mansion attempted suicide at an Encinitas motel, using phenobarbital and wearing Nikes. One died; the other was found barely alive but survived. Nine months later, his body was found in a tent in the Arizona desert, a suicide. Russell Pryor and Michael Ellano, both forensic autopsy assistants, had the job of processing and unloading the bodies from refrigerated trucks, as dozens of photographers recorded the scene. A photo of the two of them, on a break and looking exhausted, was printed in newspapers across the country.
Christina Stanley, now the chief deputy medical examiner, was in her last year as a fellow in training. Stanley conducted 11 Heaven's Gate autopsies over several days. All were easy because all died from poisoning, she said. But the first male body Stanley examined caused her to worry about her skills. She couldn't find the man's testicles. "As a fellow, I thought, 'Boy, am I just bad at finding these?' I remember (another doctor) was there, and he said he couldn't find any testes on these people either. So I thought, 'OK, this is real.' Applewhite and six members of the cult had been castrated in Mexico a few months earlier another way to deal with unwanted desires.
- Heaven's Gate was the name of a UFO religion co-led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. The cult's end coincided with the appearance of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997. Applewhite convinced 39 followers to commit suicide so that their souls could take a ride on a spaceship that they believed was hiding behind the comet carrying Jesus; such beliefs have led some observers to characterize the group as a type of "UFO religion."
They were a secretive New Age religion. The group held meetings in a hotel on the Oregon coast prior to its move to California. Knowledge of their practices is limited. Upon joining the group, members often sold their possessions in order to break their attachments with earthly existence. For many years the group lived in isolation in the western United States. Members often traveled in pairs and met with other members for meetings or presentations they gave to recruit new members. For a time, group members lived in a darkened house in which they would simulate the experience they expected to have during their long journey in outer space. One of the group's publications, How To Build A U.F.O., purported to describe an interplanetary spacecraft built out of materials such as old tires. Much of what is known about the group comes from the research of Robert Balch and David Taylor, who infiltrated the group in the 1970s.
The members of the cult added "-ody" to the first names they adopted in lieu of their original given names, which defines "children of the Next Level". This is mentioned in Applewhite's final video, "Do's Final Exit", that was filmed on March 19, 1997, just days prior to the suicides.
For a few months prior to their deaths, three members, Thurston-ody, Sylvie-ody, and Elaine-ody, worked for Advanced Development Group (ADG), Inc. (now ManTech Advanced Development Group), a small San Diego-based company that developed computer-based instruction for the U. S. Army. Although they were polite and friendly in a reserved way, they tended to keep to themselves. When they quit working for ADG, they told their supervisor that they had completed their mission. A few weeks later, they were dead.
One member, Thomas Nichols, was the brother of Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols. Prior to the group's suicide, he and other members solicited her assistance in publicizing the cult's message.
The structure of Heaven's Gate resembled that of a medieval monastic order. Group members gave up their material possessions and lived a highly ascetic lifestyle devoid of many indulgences. The group was tightly knit and everything was shared communally. Six of the male members of the cult voluntarily underwent castration as an extreme means of maintaining the ascetic lifestyle. The cult funded itself by offering professional website development for paying clients.
Thirty-eight cult members, plus Applewhite, the cult's leader, were found dead in a rented mansion in the upscale San Diego community of Rancho Santa Fe, California, on March 26, 1997. The mass death of the Heaven's Gate group is one of the most widely-known examples of cult suicide. In preparing to kill themselves, members of the cult drank citrus juices to ritually cleanse their bodies of impurities. Their suicide, conducted in shifts, was accomplished by ingestion of phenobarbital mixed with vodka, along with plastic bags secured around their heads to induce asphyxiation. Each member carried five dollars in quarters, reportedly for use on the spaceship (which was to have vending machines and an arcade) to which they would be transported upon their death. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, along with brand new black-and-white Nike tennis shoes and armband patches reading "Heaven's gate away team".
Although not widely known to the mainstream media, Heaven's Gate were not unknown in UFOlogical circles; as well as a series of academic studies by Robert Balch, they also received coverage in Jacques Vallee's Messengers of Deception, in which Vallee described an unusual public meeting organized by the group. Vallee frequently expressed concerns within the book about contactee groups' authoritarian political and religious outlooks, and Heaven's Gate did not escape criticism.
BBC 2 documentary maker Louis Theroux contacted the Heaven's Gate cult while making a program for his Weird Weekends series in early March of 1997. In response to his e-mail, Theroux was told that Heaven's Gate could not take part in the documentary as "at the present time a project like this would be an interference with what we must focus on."
After the Church of Scientology shut down the Cult Awareness Network, Heaven's Gate member lah, later identified as Sister Francis Michael, made a post in "Thanks for Actions Against CAN" to the usenet newsgroup alt.religion.scientology, in December 1996.
The vast media coverage of the Heaven's Gate incident brought about a huge public awareness of the cult, and of cults in general. In a sense, it was also an early Internet phenomenon, since the web was in its early years and the notion of being able to view web pages featuring and created by persons who had recently died was very much a novelty. This wide coverage would eventually spill over into the entertainment industry, especially among television shows that were inspired by a cult (not always necessarily Heaven's Gate) to create stories that parodied, or otherwise explored, this particular subject.
Heaven's Gate Google Video (1 hour 57 minutes)
Heaven's Gate YouTube with Music (4 minutes)
The above information was taken from two different sources if it seems to repeat itself. Each has a bit more information than the other.