Dateline Rancho Santa Fe. March 26, 1997. A 911 call came into the San Diego Sheriff’s Communications Center.
It was treated as a prank call at first. From what turned out to be a nearby payphone, the caller said something so preposterous that dispatchers took their time in relaying the information to central command.
“This is regarding a mass suicide. I can give you the address,” the caller said, adding that dozens of people had committed suicide at a Mediterranean-style villa in the gilded San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe.
Two hours later, San Diego Sheriff’s Deputy Robert Brunk arrived at the rented 9,200-square-foot mansion, located near 18341 Colina Norte (later changed to Paseo Victoria) in a gated community of upscale homes.
What Brunk found was shocking to say the least. All wearing the same black Nike shoes, covered in purple blankets with no noticeable signs of trauma, 21 men and 18 women, ranging in age from 26 to 72, lay dead in peaceful repose.
This was the largest mass suicide in American history. Each had taken a lethal cocktail of phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and vodka.
As they went in they kept finding more bodies and more bodies, retired San Diego County homicide detective Chuck Curtis told San Diego NBC 7 this week about the suicide scene. Curtis was the first officer there.
“It was an astonishing thing to them that they thought, ‘Is this ever going to end?’” Curtis said, adding, “I’ve never seen anything like it, and haven’t seen anything like it since.”
Many of the Heaven’s Gate 39 adherents who were found dead in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion had been with the group for most of their adult lives. Their leader was Marshall Applewhite. Just before the suicide, he posted an alarming video saying of group members, “They’re about to leave and they’re excited to leave,”
They were ready to go — somewhere. Deputies found them with their bags packed. Most were neatly laid out on beds, covered with purple shrouds. They wore running shoes and matching uniforms with “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patches. Each had a $5 bill and three quarters in his or her pockets.
The Heaven’s Gate group believed that once free of their earthly bodies, they would be whisked by spaceship to a celestial paradise and a “level beyond human.” They associated the Hale-Bopp comet, which could be seen in the sky that winter, with the spacecraft they awaited. They thought it was traveling behind the comet.
They left video manifestos explaining that disciples were “exiting their human vessels” and beaming up to an extraterrestrial-piloted spaceship zipping along in the blue ion tale of the comet Hale-Bopp, a bright light in the night sky for more than a year.
They didn’t refer to it as suicide. They called it graduation. Those who stayed behind were the ones killing themselves, they said.
Applewhite was the group’s leader. Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles was second in command.
A preacher’s son from West Texas, Applewhite started on the straight and narrow. He served in the US Army, married, had two children and taught music for a while at the University of Alabama. In 1970, he was fired from his job as a music professor at the University of St. Thomas in Houston for “health problems of an emotional nature” after school administrators learned he had an affair with a male student.
Friends and former members of Applewhite’s group said their leader met nurse Nettles in 1972 at the psychiatric hospital where he hoped to find a cure for his desires.
Known as “Bo” and “Peep” — and later “Do” and “Ti” — Applewhite and Nettles spread their teachings as the way to a “next level” of existence, to be found in outer space. Applewhite insisted that his relationship with Nettles, who died in 1985, was nonsexual.
The group’s recruiting drives were followed by periods spent in near hiding. In its final years, its message was spread through the Internet. As many as 200 followers willing to conform to stern prohibitions against sex, alcohol and smoking joined the group over the years.
They believed in androgyny. Men and women wore cropped hairdos and were cocooned in baggy clothing. Applewhite and at least five male adherents proved their fidelity to the cause by undergoing castration.
The early 1990s proved very good for the group, especially as members achieved a certain proficiency in web site design. The first well-known American cult of the Internet era, according to Rolling Stone magazine, they used the new technology to share their beliefs with a wider audience and also to make a living. They derived a large portion of their income from designing web pages.
The turning point occurred in 1995 as a rocky hunk of ice known as the Hale-Bopp comet put on a celestial show for those on spaceship Earth as it hurtled through the Milky Way. For 18 months, the world was abuzz with tales of the Hale-Bopp journey.
Applewhite made a cosmic connection. He told his star-crossed adherents that this was their ride to the next life planet. In October 1996, Applewhite rented that Rancho Santa Fe mansion from none other than Sam Koutchesfahani, who bought the home in 1994 for $1.3 million. Koutchesfahani lost the mansion to foreclosure, and was later convicted of (unrelated) fraud and conspiracy.
Hale-Bopp knocked on Heaven’s Gate’s door beginning on March 21, 1997 as its rooster-tail glowed above on the night of its closest approach. Last supper consisted of 39 identical meals at the nearby Rancho Santa Fe Village’s Marie Callender’s: turkey pot pie, blueberry cheesecake, iced tea.
Starting March 24, group members began their ghastly descent into sedative phenobarbital (dissolved in apple juice) and a vodka chaser, with Applewhite and two female followers stage-managing the tableau of death. Fifteen members died that night.
Fifteen more died the next day, followed by nine on March 26. Investigators said the leader was the seventh to die on the third day, followed shortly by the two women. Many of the dead had been tethered to Applewhite’s long leash since the early days of wandering in 1975.
As the deaths became known, and turned The Ranch into an unwelcome target of media frenzy, Applewhite’s final video testament was sent out into the world.
The tapes, including 90 minutes of Applewhite’s New Age babble and pitiful farewells from disciples trying to justify irrationality, have had 2 million views on YouTube, according to the New York Daily News. (Former disciples who missed the spaceship maintain the group’s website, frozen in time from March 1997).
“We’re about to return to whence we came,” Applewhite intoned to the camera. “I can lead you into that kingdom level above human. That can’t happen unless you leave the human world that you’re in and come and follow me. Time is short. Last chance.”
A year after the suicides, former members got into a legal fight with San Diego County officials, who wanted to auction the cult’s belongings to reimburse the families of the deceased for funeral expenses, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Mark and Sarah King said they had done video and audio work for Heaven’s Gate and that the group wanted them to safeguard its property, especially the religious teachings. They negotiated an agreement to buy the writings, artwork and other items for $2,000, and they agreed not to profit from the sale of any of it.
The bunks and shrouds discovered at the mansion are now on display at the Museum Of Death in Hollywood, California. Mannequins wear the actual clothes taken from some of the bodies.
The website for the cult is also still working and looks just like it did decades ago.
Oddly enough, the group brought down the mansion’s value. Atlas Obscura reports that it was priced for nearly half its worth a little while back. Later, the house was destroyed, a new house was built from scratch and even the street name was changed.
Today, only a few Heaven’s Gate believers remain. Two of them sit on the other end of the website’s sole contact email address, and will promptly respond to your inquiries. Which seems odd for a group whose members are all widely believed to be dead.
The people who respond to HeavensGate.com queries refer to themselves simply as “Telah” and “we.” They’ll answer questions if you ask—that’s part of the gig—but they’ve wearied of the rubberneckers that have passed through ever since their fellow active members committed suicide in 1997. Which is perhaps to be expected when you’re the only official contact point for one of the largest, most bizarre mass suicides in human history
Starting 10 days ago on the comment section of The Escondido Grapevine, Sawyer, the survivor interviewed by Inside Edition and Glaive, a commenter, engaged in a lively discussion of the group and its aftermath. That can be found here.
The Los Angeles Times earlier this month spoke with sociologists and religious studies scholars to add some context to the event for “Heaven’s Gate remains in orbit. They continue to evaluate and write about the group’s foundations, arguing whether it was fundamentally Christian or New Age, trying to put it in context with America’s long history of spiritual yearning. They debate whether members were brainwashed into joining and staying. They discuss the timing of the suicides.”
And they ponder a provocative question: Are the forces that helped shape Heaven’s Gate still in play in American society?
Or, to put it another way: Could it happen again?
Gallows humor has long been a way for people to deal with tragedies, to give themselves some distance and relief from the horror. But with Heaven’s Gate, there may have been something else at work, Benjamin Zeller said. He is an associate professor of religion at Lake Forest College near Chicago and the author of a 2014 book about the cult.
“In some ways, I think it was too close for comfort,” Zeller said.
Too close because many of the beliefs that group members held are similar to those found in more mainstream religions. Belief in a heavenly father. Belief in the importance of the soul over the body. Belief that they were engaged in the eternal fight of good versus evil. Belief in salvation, in an afterlife somewhere up there. Belief in end times.
“It’s too easy to just dismiss them as nuts,” Zeller said.
Of course, they differed in significant ways from established theology, according to the experts interview by the Times, primarily the belief that heaven is a literal place, and that you get there on a spaceship — but that fits, too, into the broader American counterculture movement that emerged from the 1960s and spawned all kinds of new religious thinking.
“We saw the mainstreaming of angels, crystals, shamans, ascended beings — all that otherworldly stuff,” said Janja Lalich, a Chico State University sociologist who also has written a book about Heaven’s Gate. “You saw it with TV shows like ‘Touched by an Angel.’ Cults that built themselves around this kind of a belief system had an easier time because it didn’t seem so strange.”