39 'containers' at Heaven's Gate
Gale Holland; Jonathan T. Lovitt ; Richard Price
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
Townspeople who had met them said they were likable, intelligent, sober and
clean-living. Authorities said they had never received a call complaining about
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
that aren't yet clear. Robert Zakari, a
runs an entertainment firm, said the missing man works for him.
Identifying him only
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
brouhaha this was going to cause,'' Zakari said.
Wednesday. ``A lot of it was real and not very scripted. It was very self-evident
that they were winging it,'' Matzorkis said.
said he and
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.
delusion. He was seriously deranged as . . . though he was a member of a group
from another planet.''
outdoors in rough conditions for periods as long as several years and had spent
recruit addicts and help them recover.
A drawing of an
alien sat above the mantle in the living room,
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.
TEXT OF INFO BOX BEGINS HERE:
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
Male, 66, state unknown
Female, 41, state unknown
Source: Reuters, AP
Terrill,AP; PHOTO,b/w,San Diego Sheriff's Department; PHOTO,b/w,Lenny