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On This Day: Bodies of Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Discovered After Mass Suicide

Last updated: August 8, 2023

On March 26, 1997, police found the bodies of 39 Heaven’s Gate members who had committed suicide believing that the Hale-Bopp comet was a sign they should leave Earth.

On This Day: Bodies of Heaven’s Gate Cult Members Discovered After Mass Suicide

Heaven’s Gate Suicide Shocks Country

Heaven’s Gate was started in the 1970s as “Human Individual Metomorpheses” by Marshall Herf Applewhite, a mentally disturbed former music teacher, and Bonnie Nettles, a nurse who treated him in a mental hospital. Calling themselves The Two, Bo and Peep, or Do and Ti, Applewhite and Nettles recruited people from various West Coast cities to join their movement. Applewhite would continue the movement himself after Nettles died in 1985 of liver cancer.

Applewhite preached that he and Nettles were human incarnations of aliens and that he was an incarnation of Christ. Furthermore, he said that one day Heaven’s Gate members would shed their human bodies and move on to a higher level.

Applewhite ordered that group members cut themselves off from their friends and family, and live communally with the group. Life inside the cult was highly structured: members ate the same food, had identical clothing and haircuts, and were forbidden to engage in sexual contact. Applewhite had himself castrated, as did five of the members who would commit suicide.

The group moved to a mansion in the San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe in the fall of 1996. It was here that Applewhite decided that the group was destined to be carried away to the next level in a spacecraft traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet, which would be visible to them in March 1997.

On March 19, Applewhite produced a videotape explaining why it was necessary to leave Earth. Days later, Applewhite and his 38 followers—21 women and 17 men ranging in age from 26 to 72—began committing mass suicide in shifts, a process that took three days.

All 39 dressed identically in long-sleeved black shirts—with an arm patch reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”—and black sweat pants with new black-and-white Nike tennis shoes. They each packed an overnight bag and put five dollars and change in their pockets. They ate pudding or applesauce laced with toxic Phenobarbital and vodka, and then lay face up on their beds and covered themselves with a purple shroud or plastic bag.

On March 25, 1997, Heaven’s Gate member Rio DiAngelo, who had taken leave from the cult, received a FedEx package containing Applewhite’s tape and a letter saying “by the time you read this, we will have exited our vehicles.” The next day, he discovered the decomposing bodies in the mansion and called the police.

It was like being in the Twilight Zone,” recalls detective Rick Scully, one of the first men on the scene. “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.”

Sources in this Story

Why Did They Do It?

The members of Heaven’s Gate all appeared to commit suicide willingly. Months later, two former members, Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys, tried to commit suicide together in the same fashion; Humphreys survived, but killed himself the following year.

The willingness of all the members to kill themselves baffled many people. Psychiatrist Dr. Jay Lifton explained their reasoning in an interview with PBS NewsHour: “Well, the first thing to say is they’re not dead. They achieved eternal life. That’s the way they saw it. They were achieving a higher state. They were transcending the human condition.”

Andrew Ross wrote in Salon that the cult members were motivated to commit suicide by their disillusionment with their lives on Earth. He quotes one member who said; “Maybe they’re crazy for all I know, but I don’t have any choice but to go for it because I’ve been on this planet for 31 years and there’s nothing here for me.”

The convictions of the cult members is apparent on the group’s Web site, which remains online. It explains how their decision to leave Earth is not suicide and includes final testimonials from three members justifying their decisions.

The role of the Web site in recruiting and indoctrinating members raised concerns about the power of the Internet, which was still a relatively new phenomenon. One religion professor surmised in a 1997 issue of the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, “Freedom from the physical body and the free reign given to the imagination in cyberspace … could have contributed to the cult members’ decision to go the next, if illogical step. … It’s within the realm of possibility that Applewhite’s ministry plus cyberculture was a toxic mix.”

Other Infamous Cults

The People’s Temple and Jonestown
In the 1970s, Jim Jones, the leader of the California-based Peoples Temple cult, established a community in Guyana called Jonestown to create a communist utopia. In 1978, after Rep. Leo Ryan of California was killed on his investigation of the town, a mass suicide ensued in which over 900 people died from drinking cyanide.

Branch Davidians and the Waco Tragedy
In 1993, federal agents killed the majority of followers of David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians, an apocalyptic sect of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The ATF killed six Davidians in a botched raid on the Branch compound in Waco, Texas, on Feb. 28. After a 51-day standoff, the FBI and ATF inadvertently started a fire at the compound while trying to force out the members inside; seventy-five people, including Koresh and 21 children, were killed.

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