March 26, 1997: 39 Die in the Heaven's Gate Cult


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


Lead by resident nutball Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, Heaven's Gate was a UFO/religious cult in San Diego, California, founded in 1974. On March 26, 1977, members of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department found the bodies of 39 members in a home, having committed mass suicide in order to reach an extraterrestrial spacecraft.


The spacecraft was supposed to be following Comet Hale-Bopp. Right before the mass suicide, Heaven's Gate's website was updated to say: "Hale-Bopp brings closure to Heaven's Gate... Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion - 'graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave 'this world' and go with Ti's crew."

THE CULT, BEFORE EVERYONE DIED


Marshall Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian minister and became interested in biblical prophecy in the early 1970s. He worked at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, before he was fired for having a relationship with a male student. After that, he met 44-year-old Bonnie Nettles. She was a nurse with an interest in theosophy and biblical prophecy. They met in 1972 when he was visiting a sick friend in the hospital she worked in. He said that he felt like he had met her in a past life, and she said that their meeting had been foretold to her by extraterrestrials. (These 2 people probably should not have met.)


Together, they did super common activities like pondering the lice of St. Francis of Assissi, studied passages in the bible related to Christology, asceticism and eschatology, and decided that they were chosen to fulfill biblical profits with their higher-level minds. As a rule of thumb, anyone who believes their minds are at a higher level than the normal person is probably bound to become a cult leader.


Anyway, the continued with their very normal activities, creating a pamphlet about Jesus' reincarnation as a Texan who looked like Applewhite, and visited churches to speak about their identities after they concluded they were the 2 witnesses described in the Book of Revelation. They had cute nicknames for each other like "The UFO Two", and believed that they would be killed, restored to life, and transported on a spaceship. A very hilarious line from the Wikipedia page: "To their dismay, these ideas were poorly received by existing religious communities."


But they didn't let the fact that most religious people thought they were out of their minds stop them, and they set out to find like-minded followers. They published advertisements for meetings and recruited what they called "the crew".


At their events, they claimed that they were representing beings from other planets (the Next Level) and they were looking for willing participants for an experiment, saying those who agreed to do so would be brought to a "higher evolutionary level". At a 1975 meeting with 80 PEOPLE (I'm sorry, I had a tough time recruiting 80 people for writing and fitness and non-profit groups in college and they were able to recruit 80 people in the same general location to join their UFO cult. Anyway), they shared their big news that they were the 2 witnesses from the Bible's story of the end time.


Later that year, the cult assembled at a hotel in Oregon. They had sold their possessions and said goodbye to loved ones. Though CBS aired a report that night saying that the group had disappeared or been taken, in reality, Applewhite and Nettles had arranged some underground lodging. Now going by "Do and Ti", the 2 lead nearly 100 people across the country, sleeping in tents, begging in the streets, and evading authorities and media.


During their recruitment period, the group's name changed a lot, eventually landing on Heaven's Gate. The crew recruited during their journey across the US, sharing their teachings such as high level metamorphosis, the deceit of humans by false-god spirits and the envelopment with sunlight for medatation. And the divinity of Do and Ti, Bo and Peep, the UFO Two (or Applewhite and Nettles.) Also during this time, Applewhite came to believe that he was directly related to Jesus. Because why not.


Membership continued to grow throughout the late 70s and 80s, as their bizarre beliefs continued to evolve. Many of the new followers were from diverse religious backgrounds, or "spiritual hippies" who were looking to find themselves. But not all of his followers seemed like the typical drifting soul searcher who joins a cult to find themselves spiritually: John Craig, respected Republican running for the Colorado House of Representatives, joined in 1975. There were many others with similar, seemingly normal backgrounds who found a home in the cult.


Things went from weird to worse when Nettles died in 1985, and Applewhite kind of went off the rails. The group became reclusive and built a website to recruit followers. A rumor began that the upcoming Comet Hale-Bopp held a secret to their salvation, and their ascendance to heaven.

A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HEAVEN'S GATE - WANT TO JOIN?


Before jumping into the mass suicide wherein 39 people decided (or were persuaded to, really up to you) end their lives, let's learn a little bit more about the cult, and about what they believe. Who knows, maybe you would have done the same.


  • Heaven's Gate members believed the Earth would be wiped clean, renewed, refurbished and then rejuvenated before 2027, and for their soul to survive, they would have to leave their bodies at a certain time.

  • They had initially believed that their bodies would go on the spacecraft from heaven to Earth, but when Nettles died of cancer, Applewhite had to update his doctrine when her body stayed behind instead of being taken to outer space, so they refined it to say their bodies would stay but their consciousness would go. Convenient.

  • "Suicide" was frowned upon, but "suicide" in Heaven's Gate meant ignoring a calling to go to the Next Level when offered. So in reality, suicide was promoted because they had to do it to get to the next level.

  • People's bodies were referred to as "vehicles" for their consciousness, which honestly isn't that wrong but more troubling when combined with everything else

  • Group members were given new first names that all had "-ody" at the end of them

  • Members had to give up everything that would be considered an "attachment to the planet" including family, friends, sexuality, jobs, money, possessions

  • Once they made it to the Next Level, they believed they would live in pure bliss and nourish themselves with exclusively sunlight, with no sex, food or death

  • False representations of God on Earth were the doings of evil space aliens called "Luciferians" who were advanced humanoids with spacecrafts, time travel and telepathy abilities, and the ability to use holograms to fake miracles. These Luciferians were responsible for corrupting all existing religions.

  • They believed in "walk-ins", or that entities could occupy their bodies, and that they were experiencing "extraterrestrial walk-ins", and Applewhite and Nettles used walk-ins to explain that they were no longer the people they were when they started Heaven's Gate, they had been occupied.

  • They believed in 4 ways to "graduate" to the Next Level, including a physical pickup from a spacecraft, where their literal human bodies would be picked up by a spacecraft, accidental death, outside persecution that lead to deaths (added after the deaths of Branch Davidians in Waco, where Applewhite believed the government would murder his cult), and willful exit from their bodies in a "dignified manner".

  • You could only join if you were over the age of 18 and had no possessions or indulgences. 8 male members, including Applewhite, were voluntarily castrated to remain safe from desires (Castrations were attempted to be performed by a nurse member, but it nearly lead to the death of a member, and one member left because of it, so they were done in Mexican hospitals)


Sound like a fun, reasonable group to join? No? Okay, well, a lot of people did and because of that, a lot of people died.

THE MASS SUICIDE


In October of 1996, members of the cult rented a large house they called "The Monastery". It was a giant mansion in a gated community in Rancho Santa Fe, California, costing $7,000 in cash per month. They also purchased alien abduction insurance (???) covering up to 50 members, for a pay out of $1 million per person in the event of abduction, impregnation or death by aliens.


On March 19th and 20th, Applewhite recorded Do's Final Exit and spoke about how mass suicide was the only way to evacuate the Earth. He said that a spacecraft would be following behind Comet Hale-Bopp, and he convinced 38 of his followers to prepare for a ritual suicide so that their souls could board the spaceship. He believed that their deaths were required for a UFO to take their souls to the next level of existence. Each member he persuaded to commit suicide had to videotape a farewell message.


The suicide was done by taking phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce or pudding, and washed down with vodka, and then they secured plastic bags around their heads to asphyxiate. All of them were dressed identically: black shirts, sweat pants, and brand new black-and-white Nike tennis shoes, and an armband reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team". Each person had a 5 dollar bill and 3 quarters in their pocket. After they died, a living member would remove the plastic bag and neatly lay the body on their bed, covering their faces and torsos with a purple cloth.


All in all, 39 people were persuaded to take their own lives. There were 21 women and 18 men, ages ranging from 26 to 72. They were believed to have died in 3 groups over 3 days in groups of 15, 15, and 9. Applewhite was the 2nd to last to die. The 2 people who died after him were found with the bags still over their heads, and no purple cloth covering them.


Before the suicides, sets of FedEx packages were sent to current or former Heaven's Gate affiliates, a media outlet, and the BBC department responsible for a segment that Heaven's Gate had declined participation in. The packages included the VHS tape of Do's Final Exit and the farewell messages from the doomed followers, and a letter that explained that they were entering a new vehicle to the life beyond.


One of the packages went to Rio DiAngelo, a former member who had discovered and joined the cult after reading an article about them years before. He told his boss what he had found, and he took him to the mansion where they found the back door unlocked. He used his video camera to document what he found. He called the authorities to let them know, and he left a later-identified anonymous call to the Sheriff's department to do a welfare check on the residents.


A single deputy responded originally and say 10 bodies immediately, already decomposing in the hot California weather. He called for backup and they found no one alive. All 39 bodies were cremated.

THE VICTIMS (2)


In a People article published this morning, the names of all of the victims are provided, along with information about them, mostly coming from family members and friends who were mourning the losses before they had even died. Here is some of that information.


Marshall Applewhite, 65 // Music teacher, cult leader, not really a victim but okay

Cheryl Butcher, 42 // Computer expert, "the perfect daughter", had a difficult time making friends until joining the cult


David Van Sinderson, 48 // Environmentalist, close with his sister, said he had to join the cult "for me"


Alan Bowers, 45 // Spent 8 years with the cult, left, but after a divorce and the death of his brother, found his way back


Margaret Bull, 54 // Extremely smart, a former farm girl, "open" intellectually


Alphonzo Foster, 44 // A bus driver who seemed full of promise, but was a "free spirit" unable to hold a job, always wanted to go beyond


David Moore, 40 // Left home after stumbling into a meeting at 19 and disappeared for 21 years, his mother trying to track him down


Julie LaMontagne, 45 // A nurse who "collapsed" after her best friend drowned her father died of cancer


Darwin Johnson, 42 // A believer in UFOs and aliens, was "removed" from the cult in the 70s and found a home as the guitarist for a band, but upon seeing another ad for the cult, he was gone


Robert Arancio, 45 // Studied architecture in 2 colleges, but left when he met Applewhite and Nettles, feeling the cult gave him a purpose and community


Gary St. Louis, 43 // Interested in the "big questions" as a child, his girlfriend said of him, "these people were so smart they thought the world must be more complicated"


Ladonna Brugato, 40 // A single mother to a young daughter, she sold all of her belongings and left for what she called "a religious hiatus" in 1994 and never came back


Joel McCormick, 28 // Star-Trek obsessed, he graduated high school and moved to Seattle to figure out what direction he wanted to go. His mother was "beside herself" when he wrote that he made the decision to join the cult


Gail Maeder, 27 // A boutique owner described by her mother as "bohemian", she was not street smart, according to family, and got sucked in and couldn't get out. Her farewell video said that her choice was nothing to think negatively about, which did not soothe her family at all


Thomas Nichols, 58 // He confided in his older sister that he was awaiting a meet up with a comet. His sister, Nichelle Nichols, played Uhura in the original Star Trek series. As of 1992, she had not heard from her brother in 20 years


John Craig, 62 // A husband and father of 6, when they were out of the house, he left a note and took off to meet the cult. His wife divorced him and never saw him again


Margaret Richter, 46 // Successful musician in school, successful at everything, but a failed marriage shattered her and the cult came at the time she was losing interest in life


Susan Paup, 53 // "Everyone loved her", her brother said. After 2 divorces and the inability to have children, though, she became interested in and eventually joined the cult


Michael Sandoe, 25 // Son of an evangelical minister, had served in Desert Storm in 1991, a popular kid in high school. His family did not know he was in the cult until he died


Norma Jeanne Nelson, 59 // An artist estranged from her ex-husband and 3 children


Suzanne Cooke, 54 // Neighbors remember her as kind, gentle, quiet, with a fascination with space. She and her husband, Nick, gave their 10-year-old a cassette tape explaining why they left her. Nick eventually left the cult


Jacqueline Leonard, 72 // She was one of the few members who stayed in touch with her relatives, but her deep sense of spirituality caused her to leave them behind


Susan Strom, 44 // Her father considered it a cult, but knew his daughter was happy and could leave if she wanted. They received several letters from their daughter, an aspiring botanist and camp counselor


Judith Rowland, 50 // She left her husband of 9 years and 2 children to "walk with the Lord". She joined with her mother, but they could not speak to "break through the humanness". Her mother left after 5 years


Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, 38 // She and her husband called their families together to explain they would be leaving their newborn twins and other 3 children to join the cult. They were separated once they joined, and her husband Steven left, but always tried to get Yvonne back


Denise J. Thruman, 44 // Once a vivacious cheerleader, she dropped out of college and became something of a hippie before joining the cult


Lindley Pease, 41 // Joined the cult in 1978 but left, and rejoined after a divorce and the death of his parents. His sister, who he lost touch with, said she did not know he had rejoined until she heard he was dead


Jefferey Lewis, 41 // Spent a decade in the cult after a stint in the Navy, left, and came back, despite friends' warnings that giving up friends and family is the sign of a bad group, but the group gave him meaning


Erika Ernst // A traveler, Erika and her boyfriend Frank joined after meeting Applewhite and Nettles on a camping trip. They sold their belongings and left, but Frank left in 199

3

Lucy Pesho, 63 // The last time her sister heard from her, she said "I'm alive, and I'm happy"


Joyce Skalla, 58 // She was an on-air talent for a local TV station with a husband and twin daughters, but up and left 2 days after attending a seminar for the cult


The remaining victims were not listed.

AFTERMATH (1)


Obviously, following the mass suicide of 39 people at the behest of a religious lunatic, the event was widely publicized and criticized. The co-discoverer of the Comet, Alan Hale's, phone was ringing off the hook in the following days. He did a press conference where he "lambasted the combination of scientific illiteracy, willful delusions, a radio talk show's deception about an imaginary spacecraft following the comet, and a cult's bizarre yearnings for ascending to another level". He also claimed that he had told a colleague well before Heaven's Gate that the Comet may result in suicides.


The news of the death sparked a copycat suicide from a 58-year-old man in Marysville, California, leaving a note that said he was also going to join the spaceship that was tailing the Hale-Bopp. He did not have any connection with the cult before news of the suicides broke. Additionally, at least 3 former members died by suicide in the month's after the mass suicide. Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys attempted suicide in a hotel in the same manner as the mass suicide. Humphreys survived, but ultimately killed himself in 1998. Former member James Pirkey Jr. killed himself by gunshot in May of the same year of the mass suicide.


In less deadly aftermath news, 2 surviving members of the cult who still maintain the website threatened to sue rapper Lil Uzi Vert with copyright infringement for using a reworked Heaven's Gate logo on his 2018 album. He was using an image of Applewhite as his Instagram profile picture at the time. Additionally, the Nike shoes that the cult died in are resold for up to $6,660 dollars because of the suicides.


Learning and reading about cults has always been so very interesting to me. I always have an extremely difficult time understanding how someone could believe things that sound so bizarre, and go so far as to kill themselves, or others, because of it. But cult leaders are smart and they are manipulative and they know how to recruit the right people, and unfortunately, sad, often lonely people looking for a place to belong get sucked right in, and can lose their lives because of it.


On April 14, 1977, People did a full issue about the magazine titled: Personal stories from Heaven's Gate: How 39 ordinary people left families behind for a journey to death", and that is exactly what it seems like to us: 39 people packed up and left so they could listen to a lunatic and die to enter a spaceship to the beyond. But it is more than that, and certainly, their individual lives and stories and pasts were heavy motivations in the string of decisions they made that lead to their deaths.

REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heaven%27s_Gate_(religious_group)

2. https://people.com/crime/heavens-gate-22-years-later-remembering-lives-lost/


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