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Heaven's Gate (Part 6)

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 Things to beware of in 1997:
 Earth, wind, and fire.  Or, more preciesely, earthquakes, tornados,
 and volcanos (new ones).  The weather, it is a-changin.
  Friday, March 28, 1997
  Rendezvous with a comet
  Cultists planned to grab UFO
  trailing Hale-Bopp
 RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. - The  39 members of the Heaven's Gate
 cult who poisoned themselves in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion
 apparently believed they were going to hitch a ride to a
 better life aboard a space ship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
 They had systematically planned their deaths for months, even
 years. And they took great care not to leave a mess behind as
 they executed their scheme, leaving their belongings packed
 neatly alongside their bodies and their identification in
 their shirt pockets.
 "We know whatever happens to us after we leave our bodies is a
 step forward," a pale, balding man believed to be the group's
 65-year-old leader, Marshall Applegate, said on a videotape
 distributed before the mass suicide.
 He added ominously, "Your only chance to evacuate is to leave
 with us."
 As authorities worked around the clock Thursday to uncover
 the details of one of the nation's worst mass suicides:
 Solemn medical examiner's  personnel removed the bodies
 and began conducting autopsies.
 Authorities said the poison was alcohol and phenobarbitol - a barbiturate,
 anti-seizure and tranquilizing drug.
 It was determined that 21 of the dead were women, and that the ages of the
 dead ranged from 26 to 72. They died in separate groups: 15 the first day,
 15 the second and nine the third day.
 Details about the cult emerged from World Wide Web pages, cult watchers,
 clients and acquaintances.
 And hundreds called a toll-free number set up for those who fear their
 relatives are among the dead.
 In Sacramento, Gov. Pete Wilson called the mass suicide "terribly sad" and
 offered state aid for the investigation. In Washington, President Clinton
 called the deaths "heartbreaking, sickening, shocking."
 The group's members left behind two videotapes explaining their beliefs and
 a trail of propaganda on the World Wide Web.
 Authorities found a letter in the Colina Norte house explaining the group's
 philosophies, but didn't disclose details.
 There also was a computer, left on, with a digital image of the Hale-Bopp
 comet. "We haven't had the ability or time to process whatever information
 is on that computer," said sheriff's Cmdr. Alan Fulmer, who had 50 homicide
 detectives and evidence technicians on the case.
 All 39 bodies were loaded into three refrigerated trucks and delivered to
 the San Diego County Medical Examiner's office. The last bodies left at
 9:45 a.m.
 The names of the dead were not released because their relatives were still
 being notified. Autopsies and toxicology tests were expected to continue
 through the weekend, with assistance from Los Angeles County coroners.
 Authorities seemed impressed by the group's neatness and thorough planning.
 Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne described the house as "immaculate," and
 noted that the identification documents the dead left behind were a "great
 help" in identifying the bodies.
 The group's members took had packed their clothing in black suitcases,
 donned brand-new matching black Nike sneakers, dark shirts and black pants,
 neatly laid their eyeglasses beside them, and followed a printed recipe.
 According to Blackbourne, the recipe read, "Take this package of pudding or
 applesauce, put the medicine in it and stir, eat it quickly, drink the
 vodka mixture and lay back and rest quietly."
 The living covered the faces of the dead with purple shrouds and disposed
 of plastic bags that may have been used to hasten death.
 The bodies of two members were found with plastic bags over their heads.
 Investigators believe they drank their poison last, lingering to place the
 soft fabric over the corpses of the others. Copies of the recipe were found
 near some bodies.
 Sheriff's deputies initially concluded that all of the dead were men
 because they all wore buzz haircuts.
 Officials offered no theories as to why the cult members took their own
 lives, but said the members appeared happy about their decision on the
 "What I saw (on the tape) was an individual who was very upbeat, very
 outgoing, who did not appear to be upset or frightened with what they were
 talking about doing," Fulmer said.
 The group was apparently founded back in the 1970s by Applewhite and his
 partner, Bonnie Lu Nettles. The couple, called "Bo" and "Peep," believed
 that death could be overcome with help from humans traveling in a space
 That cult disbanded, but it apparently reformed under a new name. A man
 called Do pleaded for people to join him and his followers on a videotape
 called "Last chance to evacuate earth before it's recycled."
 He said, "This planet is about to be recycled, refurbished, started over.
 ... The purpose of this tape is to warn you that this is about to happen,
 and that it's going to happen very soon."
 The group came to San Diego County in the fall.
 Members rented two other houses in North County before moving in October
 into the multi-million Rancho Santa Fe estate,which was reportedly rented
 for $7,000 a month.
 The 9,200-square-foot house is a modernized Spanish design, with a plain
 tan stucco exterior and oversized picture windows beneath a red-tile roof.
 It sits atop a hill covered with carefully tended gardens that are filled
 with palms, red Japanese maples, red-and-white roses and stands of
 flowering birds of paradise.
 Cult members called it their "temple."
 Sleeping in bunk beds, they quietly produced Web pages for such clients as
 a polo club, a company selling British cars and car accessories, and a firm
 selling compact disks.
 As they produced cyber advertisements, the group's members were planning
 their deaths, or "ascension to a higher level," as they call it.
 Last July, someone from the group posted apocalyptic messages on hundreds
 of specialized Internet bulletin boards. The five-line message, terse and
 elliptical, reads: "How and When the door to the Physical/Kingdom Level
 Above Human May be Entered/Organized Religions are Killers of Souls/UFL's
 and Space Aliens - Sorting Good from Bad/Final Warning for Possible
 The group's leader posted a much longer message on a religious newsgroup
 that concludes, "The human kingdom was never meant to be anything but a
 steppingstone - a realized hell that must be evacuated with the help of a
 representative from the next evolutionary level - the kingdom of heaven."
 They hadn't talk much to neighbors since moving into the house. But members
 of the group were seen as polite, meticulous and, despite their odd
 behavior, quite intelligent by those who may have encountered the cult the
 most in the past few months: the real estate agents trying to sell the
 14-year-old house.
 Marvin Caldwell showed the home at least twice to prospective buyers. He
 said the living room appeared to have been turned into a meeting room with
 a large television.
 "They were bright mentally," Caldwell said. "They would be candidates for
 Mensa (a group for geniuses). I didn't see them as oddballs."
 When real estate agent Scott Warren showed the house last week, most of the
 residents were dressed casually, in jeans and T-shirts. "No one spoke, they
 were very quiet," he said. "They seemed quite religious."
 Five members of the group visited agent Kim Sanford's office last fall.
 "Their skin didn't look like it had any protein," she said. "It was
 Several real estate brokers believed they met the group's leader. Warren
 said a tall, thin man who called himself "Father John" escorted him and his
 client through the house. He described him as intimidating but nice.
 "He was very cordial, ... very calm," he said.

Next: Heaven's Gate (Part 7)