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In March 1997, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide inside a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, near San Diego, California. Police discovered their bodies on March 26. It was the largest mass-suicide in U.S. history.
Heaven’s Gate, an unidentified flying object (UFO) cult, ended in a mass suicide in California in 1997. The cult was founded in the early 1970s by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, who formed a number of UFO groups under various names, including Total Overcomers Anonymous, the UFO Society, the Christian Arts Center, and the Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM) before deciding on the name Heaven’s Gate. Even after the death of Nettles from cancer in 1985, Applewhite continued to recruit members to his cult. After a series of bad experiences with the media over a failed prophecy in 1975, Applewhite avoided publicity until 1993. He launched a public relations campaign featuring videos, but soon afterward discovered the Internet was a better way to contact potential converts. Membership in the Heaven’s Gate was always small—never exceeding 200 at any one time—but the active members were always devoted to Applewhite and his mission.
The theology of the Heaven’s Gate was based on Applewhite’s and Nettles’s interpretation of the scriptures with a belief in UFOs thrown into the mix. They believed they themselves were the witnesses referred to in the Bible’s Book of Revelations. These witnesses had the task to select the 144,000 to be saved in the final judgment. As such, they were representatives of “the Level Above Human” to take believers to heaven on a UFO when one appeared. After Nettles’s death in 1985, members venerated her as an intermediary in this process. To make themselves worthy of salvation, Applewhite insisted that the members of the cult give up drinking, drugs, and sex. Some of the male members, including Applewhite, had themselves castrated.
Applewhite moved Heaven’s Gate from New Mexico to California in 1996. Their former headquarters was located on a forty-acre compound in Manzano, New Mexico. After deciding that this site was too remote, the leadership of Heaven’s Gate sold the compound for $60,000. Applewhite decided that San Diego, California, was the preferred new site for the cult. Members rented a $1.3 million mansion in Rancho Santa Fe and relocated. To pay the monthly rent of $6,792, the cult started a business, Higher Source Contract Enterprises, to design Web sites for local businesses. Enough computer expertise existed in the cult to make this business modestly successful. Profits from this business and individual paychecks from other jobs went into a communal pot shared by all.
Applewhite became convinced that the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet masked a spacecraft that would enable the members of Heaven’s Gate to ascend to heaven. He was able to convince the other members of the cult that this was the opportunity for them to shed their human bodies for the journey. At the time, Heaven’s Gate had thirty-nine members living at the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. Beginning on March 22, 1997, members packed suitcases, put on new Nike clothes, and prepared for the trip. Over a period of several days, three shifts mixed phenobarbital sleeping pills, in applesauce or pudding, with a shot of vodka, lay down on their bunk beds, and placed plastic bags over their heads. Members of later shifts cleaned up the area around the bodies and placed shrouds over the bodies. Only the last two helpers were not shrouded and still had plastic bags around their heads. In the front of their tunics, each member had a birth certificate, passport, or driver’s license for identification; a $5 bill; and a handful of quarters. Applewhite left a videotaped message from the cult explaining that the suicides were timed to the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet and the arrival of Easter. Of the thirty-nine bodies found by the authorities, twenty-one were women and eighteen were men. Among the dead was the estranged brother of television and movie actress Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek fame. A medical examiner found that six of the men, including Applewhite, had undergone castration operations. On May 6, 1997, two more members of the cult attempted suicide in the Encinitas Holiday Inn Express not far from Rancho Santa Fe. One member died, but the other survived.
- Source: Stephen E. Atkins, Encyclopedia of Modern American Extremists and Extremist Groups. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT. 2002. Page 127-128
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