Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Heaven's Gate Cult

Celestial Gurus

Marshall Herff Applewhite was the overachieving son of a Presbyterian minister. He was always a classic leader who could easily persuade people to accept his ideas and follow. He had attended seminary, been a choir director, and had numerous roles in the Houston Grand Opera, but was dismissed from his teaching position at the University of Alabama School of Music over an affair he had with a male student. His wife left him, taking their two young sons, so he got another job and once again got entangled with a student, this time a young woman. In 1972, he admitted himself into a psychiatric hospital, according to some accounts, to cure his obsessions with sexuality. In his early forties, he viewed himself as being seriously ill.

Bonnie Lu Trousdale (AP/Wide World)
Bonnie Lu Trousdale
(AP/Wide World)

There he met a nurse, Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles, a member of the Theosophical Society who was four years older than him. At the time, her own marriage was falling apart and she persuaded Applewhite that he could have a major role in her work and her life. He listened and was soon involved in her activities.

These two discovered a mutual fascination with UFOs, astrology, and science fiction. Nettles urged Applewhite to read The Secret Doctrine by Madame Blavatsky, and they opened a center in Houston for the study of metaphysics. They came to believe that they were the earthly incarnations of aliens millions of years old: they were the two witnesses mentioned in Chapter 11 of the book of Revelation, placed on this earth to "harvest souls," i.e., to help save as many people as they could. Nettles persuaded Applewhite that as "The Two" they should embark on an evangelical mission to bring the truth to others. Nine months after they met, they severed ties with family and friends (she left her four children) and drove out of Houston together to spread their message.

What they told people was similar to what many other end-times cult leaders preached: that they would be persecuted and put to death by their enemies, their bodies would lie in the open for three and a half days, and they would prove their deity by rising from the dead and disappearing into a cloud. From there they would ascend to a higher level to be with God. Their interpretation of the biblical "cloud" was that it was actually a spaceship, and they expected to be welcomed aboard. Indeed, this was their only means of salvation from the "Luciferians," who were evil aliens that enslaved humans through worldly concerns like jobs, sex, and families. Those who believed in the message could join The Two and be saved as well.

Before they could get much of a start, their invitation to the media for a press conference got them into real trouble. In Brownsville, Texas, Applewhite told a reporter that if he came to the press conference, they would give him the most significant story of his career. Believing it was about drugs, he brought the authorities. When The Two spotted the police, they left, which aroused suspicions. Officers looked up the license plate number of their rental car, discovered that it had been reported stolen, and arrested them.

They were charged with credit card fraud (charges were dropped) and car theft. Applewhite served six months in jail awaiting trial, and was convicted and sentenced to four more months. The judge ordered a psychiatric exam, which Applewhite passed but which he later admitted made him doubt his sanity.

Humiliated and even more paranoid when he left jail in 1975, he and Nettles went to southern California to start spreading the word. They called their group HIM, for Human Individual Metamorphosis, and picked up 25 disciples. Then they started their formal campaign in earnest.

The first official public meeting was scheduled in the seaside town of Waldport, Oregon in 1975. For months beforehand, they had posted fliers on telephone poles urging people to attend the meeting to discover the truth about reality. Two hundred people arrived at the Bayshore Inn to find out what the fliers were about.

The Two insisted that to be saved, spiritual-minded individuals must recognize that the appearance that most humans have souls is merely an illusion. Only those who truly had souls and were ready to be harvested by God would recognize the truth of the message. Once they did, they would give up their worldly clutter at once and follow a strict regimen. Using biblical notions about sexless angels and the praise Christ gave to those who sacrificed family life to follow him, they insisted that spiritual perfection came only at a price. One had to first see the truth about the evils around them and want desperately to free oneself.

Applewhite and Nettles didn't convince as many people as they had hoped, yet their strong belief in what they said, along with their intensity in delivering the message, proved compelling.

"They were a team act," said one former member about these gurus. "They played off each other."

"They were everyone's mom and dad," said another. "They made people feel protected and reassured."

The Two gave several televised interviews about their beliefs and the miracles they would perform, which brought them nationwide attention.

"We're going to stage, so that it can be witnessed," said Applewhite on a news broadcast, "that when a human has overcome his human-level activities, a chemical change takes place and he goes through a metamorphosis just exactly as a caterpillar does when he quits being a caterpillar and he goes off into a crysalis and becomes a butterfly."

That did not mean they would leave their bodies behind in graves, he insisted.

"We're going to be murdered and when we are, after three and a half days, we're going to walk up, just get right up, and you're going to watch us."

Twenty people from Oregon joined them. Some came home from the meetings believing they would soon acquire the kingdom of heaven and they made dramatic changes right away. One man and his wife actually left their 10-year-old daughter, certain she would get whatever she needed.

Once the believers were gathered together, they were told to get ready. Heaven awaited. The time was approaching. The world would soon see that it was foolish to ignore the message of The Two.


We're Following
Slender Man stabbing, Waukesha, Wisconsin
Gilberto Valle 'Cannibal Cop'