Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Heaven's Gate Cult

Death Mansion

On Friday night, March 21, 1997, the members of Heaven's Gate went to a chain restaurant called Marie Callender's, where they ordered 39 identical meals of salad and pot pies, and finished off with cheesecake.  This was to be their final earthly meal, because the next day, the comet would be in its closest proximity to Earth.  It was time to begin their departure.

On Saturday, they started the process.  Everyone dressed identically in black long-sleeved shirts and black sweat pants, with new black-and-white Nike tennis shoes.  On their left shirtsleeves were armband patches on which the words "Heaven's Gate Away Team" were stitched—possibly a reference to the television program Star Trek: The Next Generation on which a small crew called the "away team" went off on planetary ventures.  The members of Heaven's Gate each packed a small overnight bag with clothing, lip balm, and spiral notebooks, and they placed these bags at the foot end of their beds.  They also put three quarters and a five-dollar bill into their shirt pockets—a habit they had developed whenever they went out so they would always have cab fare or change for the phone. The Nike slogan at the time was "just do it," which could explain why they all wore Nike shoes.

They worked in three teams.  The first team of 15 received the barbiturate phenobarbital mixed into pudding or applesauce.  They then drank vodka to wash it down. A lethal dose was some 50 to 100 pills.  It's surmised that after consuming this toxic mix, they lay on their beds with plastic bags over their heads until they passed out.  Those who still lived removed the bags and covered their bodies with purple shrouds.  The following day, Sunday, the next team of fifteen followed.  Finally there were seven on Monday, and then only two.

The final two people, both women, were not shrouded but they had placed plastic bags over their heads to assist them in dying.

Two videotapes were sent by federal express to former members, who realized what had occurred and alerted police. 

Victims in Jonestown, Guyana (AP)
Victims in Jonestown, Guyana (AP)

Deputy Sheriff Robert Bunk went over to the mansion on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 26.  An overpowering stench indicated the presence of corpses, so he called for back-up.  Together, the two officers entered the home.  Now they knew for sure there were bodies and remembering Jonestown, they wondered about some kind of mass murder.  Yet they soon realized that the deaths there had been peaceful, voluntary, and surprisingly uniform.

Cult member corpses in the house (AP)
Cult member corpses in the house

There were 39 bodies lying on ordinary cots or bunks.  Because they were all dressed alike with their hair cropped short, the investigators assumed they were all male and reported that to headquarters.  The news media spread this as well.  However, it turned out that among the victims were 21 women and 18 men, all white, from ages 26 to 72.  Most had joined during the seventies, but eight had joined more recently during the nineties.  It was the largest mass suicide to date to occur within the United States. 

The place was eerily quiet as the San Diego County coroner went from one room to another, videotaping the scene.  Twenty white plastic trash bags were found piled in the trash, along with elastic straps.  On computer screens throughout the mansion were images of alien-human hybrids, along with one screen flashing a "Red Alert" from the Heaven's Gate Web site.  Hundreds of videotapes found there featured cult members speaking to people they had left behind about how excited they were to be joining Ti on a higher plane.  Clearly, each person had died of his or her own free will and had wanted very badly to do so.

Medical Examiner Brian Blackborne (AP)
Medical Examiner
Brian Blackborne

Then San Diego County medical examiner Brian Blackborne announced another shocking find: seven members of the cult had been castrated, including Applewhite.  Former cult members admitted to reporters that, yes, Do had done that and others had followed his example.  It was all part of crew-mindedness and the battle against the Luciferian influence.

Professor Strozier at John Jay College said that Applewhite clearly had issues with sexuality, and other members who strongly identified with him would feel that they had to do whatever he did.  It was all part of losing their individual identities.

The bodies were finally released to grieving and perplexed next-of-kin.  Some openly said that their relative had done what seemed best, while others thought the cult member had been brainwashed and would never otherwise have committed such an act.

Then there was yet another shock.  On Easter Sunday, March 30, writer Lee Shargel told David Brinkley on a television talk show that Applewhite had cancer.  People who heard this wondered if he had led 38 other people into taking their lives simply because he had nothing to lose and didn't want to go alone.  Yet autopsy reports showed no sign of cancer in his body.  Shargel was a fiction writer.  Had he just made that up?  No one knew.

Wayne Cooke, 56, a former cult member known as Justin, appeared on 60 Minutes with Lesley Stahl to talk about his experience with Heaven's Gate and his feelings about missing the "graduation." There were tears in his eyes as he described what the departure meant and how much he wished he'd gone, too.  In fact, his wife had been one of the thirty-nine. 

Five weeks later on May 6, he and another former member, Chuck Humphrey, 55, both dressed in dark clothes, packed a bag, pocketed five dollars and three quarters, and used the same drugs to take their lives in a hotel room in Encinitas.  Cooke succeeded, but Humphrey survived.  In a videotape, Cooke told his surviving daughter he had to follow his wife.  "I'm just really happy," he said.

Humphrey decided that he'd been held back to continue to proselytize, so he created a Web page to dispense Heaven's Gate theology.  He did as much as he thought he could to get the word out, and then in February 1998, he ended his life in the Arizona desert.  He placed a plastic bag over his head and used his car's exhaust to fill it with carbon monoxide.  Dressed in black with the requisite "fare," he left a purple shroud on the seat next to him with a note that said, "Do not revive."  He called his suicide "an opportunity for me to demonstrate my loyalty, commitment, love, trust and faith in Ti and Do and the Next Level."

It's unlikely that the full story will ever be known and the mystery of the 39 suicides will become a permanent part of weird Americana.  Yet one thing about Heaven's Gate does stand out.  Unlike many cults who are criticized for warping young minds, no one who "graduated" to the "next level" took children along for this ride.  Only adults, they believed, could make such a decision.  They did not leave to escape persecution or hardship, and in fact had a luxurious home and a thriving business.  It seems they simply wanted to catch a ride while they still could and move on to another truth. 

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