Today is the 10th anniversary of the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult. The San Diego Union-Tribune has an excellent article on the suicide, including a detailed timeline of events through 1999.
Heaven's Gate was one of those thoroughly weird religious events that happen every now and then. There have been a number of other mass suicides among cults (e.g., The People's Temple/Jonestown, The Order of the Solar Temple, and The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God), but Heaven's Gate ranks up there for being very unusual. Some quotations from the article:
It began unfolding the afternoon of Wednesday, March 26, 1997, during a period when the Hale-Bopp comet could be seen in the night sky.
Inside a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult lay dead. Convinced that a spaceship was traveling behind the comet and that they would be transported to the vessel to begin a new life “beyond human,” they had poisoned themselves. Twenty-one women and 18 men died by eating pudding and applesauce laced with phenobarbital and other drugs – the largest mass suicide on U.S. soil.
All went willingly under the guidance of their leader, Marshall Applewhite, also known as “Do.”
“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.
“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.”
“It was like being in the Twilight Zone,” he [Homicide Detective Rick Scully] said. “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 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.'
“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.”
Many of those who joined had been searching for answers and goals, family members said. Applewhite offe red 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.
But the first male body [Coroner Christina] 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?'” she said.
“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.
Comet Hale-Bopp; photograph taken March 16, 1997.