39 'containers' at Heaven's Gate

  Gale Holland; Jonathan T. Lovitt ; Richard Price


  USA Today


  Page 04A

  (Copyright 1997)




  The preparations were meticulous, the departures orderly. ``Immaculately

  executed,'' is how San Diego County Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne put



  They bid farewell on videotape. They packed suitcases. They slipped their

  driver's licenses and passports in their shirt pockets along with $5 bills and a few



  Then they mixed the recipe written on little slips of paper -- applesauce or

  pudding loaded with phenobarbital, an anti-seizure medicine -- and washed it

  down with vodka.


  Finally, they pulled plastic trash bags over their heads and lay back to die.


  Not a drop of blood was spilled, and the deaths were painless, authorities said.

  But their description Thursday of the peaceful precision with which 39 people

  took their lives in a rented $1.6 million mansion was more chilling in some ways

  than a massacre.


  At a distance, those who died seemed like people who had everything to live for.

  They ran a successful business called Higher Source, which designed Web sites.

  They lived and worked out of their rented estate on a glorious hillside in a

  southern California paradise.


  Townspeople who had met them said they were likable, intelligent, sober and

  clean-living. Authorities said they had never received a call complaining about

  group members.


  But something lured them away from life, and authorities were at a loss to

  explain exactly how. ``We may never really know the question that's on

  everybody's minds, which is: Why did they do this?'' Sheriff Bill Kolender said at

  a news conference Thursday.


  But as authorities gradually pieced together evidence found at the scene with

  information furnished by people acquainted with the group, they concluded that

  the dead all belonged to a cult known as Heaven's Gate. The cult believed that

  human beings evolve from one level to the next and that their bodies simply are

  ``containers'' or ``vehicles'' that carry an eternal spirit.


  According to the group's Web site, the cult believed that the comet Hale-Bopp

  was a ``marker . . . for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human

  to take us home.'' In recent weeks, the cult issued invitations over the Internet for

  others to join in an impending journey. ``Find your boarding pass to leave with

  us during this brief window,'' a member wrote on the Web site.


  So 39 took the journey. The group numbered 40, but one of them wasn't there for

  reasons that aren't yet clear. Robert Zakari, a Beverly Hills businessman who

  runs an entertainment firm, said the missing man works for him.


  Identifying him only as ``Rio,'' Zakari said the group sent Rio two videotapes and

  a farewell letter. On one tape, 38 of the 39 dead appeared before the camera in

  pairs to say goodbye and explain why they were going. Members believed it was

  time to ``exit their vehicles,'' Zakari said.


  The other tape featured an address by the group's leader, whom Zakari identified

  as a man named ``Do.'' That tape shows triple images of a bald, elderly man in a

  black, collarless shirt who apparently is beckoning followers to leave the Earth.


  Various reports Thursday said the man's identity could be Marshall H.

  Applewhite, the group's founder.


  The videotapes arrived by Federal Express on Tuesday. Group members

  instructed Rio to tell people about the mission. ``They knew what kind of

  brouhaha this was going to cause,'' Zakari said.


  Rio then discussed the tapes with Nick Matsorkis, Zakari's partner, on

  Wednesday. ``A lot of it was real and not very scripted. It was very self-evident

  that they were winging it,'' Matzorkis said.


  Matzorkis said he and Rio drove to the Rancho Santa Fe mansion and Rio

  walked in to discover the bodies. They called police immediately, Matzorkis



  Nothing in the videotapes or any of the cult members' possessions offered

  authorities a clue as to the identity of their families. By late Thursday, only one

  family calling to inquire about a missing relative had been matched to a victim.

  Authorities set up a toll-free number for families to call (1-800-600-0646).


  Authorities said cult members left behind a letter, but its contents or intended

  recipient were not disclosed. Labels had been scraped off prescription medicine



  Only one weapon was found in the house. It was a 9mm pistol in a suitcase.


  Individuality was not valued. All of the dead had close-cropped hair. All were

  dressed in long-sleeved black shirts worn outside black trousers. All wore new

  black sneakers, mostly Nikes.


  When authorities found them, all were lying on their sides or backs, scattered

  throughout the two-story house with seven bedrooms, 71/2 baths, an elevator and



  As the world watched in fascination and horror, authorities furnished a stunning,

  three-minute video of the scene inside.


  They died in shifts. Blackbourne estimated that at least three groups died over

  the course of about three days. After each group succumbed, comrades

  apparently cleaned up. They removed the plastic trash bags and threw them

  away. Then they covered each body in a purple shroud about three feet square

  that was to make a triangle.


  Two bodies were found with the bags still over their heads and no purple shrouds

  covering them. Blackbourne theorized they were the last to go.


  One, a 66-year-old man, was found in the master bedroom alone. Authorities

  theorized he might be the leader.


  There have been conflicting reports about a leader's identity ever since the bodies

  were discovered. One early report identified him as a Father John. A network

  report Thursday identified the leader as Applewhite.


  Realtor Marvin Caldwell said that when he visited the group last September

  while members were holding a garage sale at their previous residence in the area,

  the person who appeared to be in charge went by the name Brother Logan.


  Caldwell said he was in his 50s or 60s and ``very intelligent but in a state of

  delusion. He was seriously deranged as . . . though he was a member of a group

  from another planet.''


  According to Logan's account, Caldwell said, the cult members had lived

  outdoors in rough conditions for periods as long as several years and had spent

  considerable time in Arizona and New Mexico. Part of their mission was to

  recruit addicts and help them recover.


  A drawing of an alien sat above the mantle in the living room, Caldwell said. A

  caption beneath it read, ``A member of the next level.''


  Everyone wore buzz cuts, he said, and tended to dress in similar fashion: jeans

  and long shirts. A few were in wheelchairs. All referred to their home as ``the

  ship,'' and Brother Logan made constant remarks about going ``somewhere else.''


  The outside of their Spanish-style estate was luxurious, with tennis courts, a pool

  and a miniature golf course. But inside, accommodations were Spartan, with

  sheet-metal bunkbeds and plastic lawn chairs.


  The house was loaded with computer equipment. That was their stock in trade.


  ``They all kind of dressed like computer nerds,'' said Joe Strickland, field

  manager for the San Diego Polo Club. The cult's business, Higher Source,

  designed a Web page for the club. As part of the deal, cult members were

  allowed to use club facilities and attend Sunday matches.


  ``They were nice guys,'' Strickland said. ``Very productive.''


  Medical examiner Blackbourne and his team had conducted the first four

  autopsies by early afternoon. Toxicology reports disclosed alcohol and

  phenobarbital in the blood of the victims. But Blackbourne had not yet

  determined whether that or asphyxiation caused the deaths.


  He said a staff of 15 will work through the weekend completing the autopsies.


  Authorities cautioned that they had not conclusively ruled the deaths a suicide,

  but said the evidence supporting that theory was overwhelming.


  ``We have not had the time to pursue the philosophy lived by these people or . . .

  even the `why' about these deaths,'' said San Diego Sheriff's Cmdr. Alan Fulmer,

  who's heading the investigation.






  A preliminary police list of the 39 bodies found in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., is

  made up of 21 women, ages 28 to 72, and 18 men, ages 29 to 66. Two were

  black; the others were white. Some could have been Hispanic.


  One had a Canadian birth certificate; the others had U.S. birth certificates or U.S.



  The dead:


  Female, 35, Colorado


  Male, 66, state unknown


  Male, 46, Texas


  Male, 45, Florida


  Female, 40, Colorado


  Female, 53, New Mexico


  Female, 43, Texas


  Male, 48, Texas


  Female, 54, New Mexico


  Female, 64, Texas


  Female, 40, Washington state


  Male, 44, Minnesota


  Male, 47, California


  Male, 42, Utah


  Female, 50, Texas


  Male, 63, New Mexico


  Female, 45, New Mexico


  Female, 72, Colorado


  Male, 41, Texas


  Female, 28, Utah


  Male, 41, New Mexico


  Male, 29, Utah


  Female, 39, Ohio


  Male, 41, California


  Female, 45, Arizona


  Female, 55, Texas


  Male, 59, Arizona


  Female, 54, New Mexico


  Female, 41, state unknown


  Female, 63, New Mexico


  Female 46, California


  Male, 26, Colorado


  Male, 40, New Mexico


  Female, 58, New Mexico


  Male, 44, New Mexico


  Female, 44, Texas


  Female, 44, Texas


  Male, 48, California


  Male, 52, Arizona


  Source: Reuters, AP

  GRAPHIC,b/w,Gary Visgaitis, USA TODAY (Map); PHOTO,b/w,Mark J.

  Terrill,AP; PHOTO,b/w,San Diego Sheriff's Department; PHOTO,b/w,Lenny