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Heaven's Gate (Part 9)

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 Things to beware of in 1997:
 Charlatan prophets, fakir diviners, cults of personality, and the
 general insanity of the approaching millenial madness!
 March 28, 1997
 'Task Completed': Cult Members
 Hoped for Cosmic Rendezvous
 Associated Press Writer
 RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. (AP) -- The New Age cult leader who died
 with 38 followers in a mass suicide was a former music teacher
 who was preaching a bizarre mix of Scripture and UFOs as far back Leader
 as the '70s.
 Marshall Applewhite, 66, was identified today as one of those
 found dead Wednesday at the cult's palatial home near San Diego.
 Investigators believe the 21 women and 18 men drank a lethal
 mixture of phenobarbital and vodka and then settled back to die.
 "We couldn't be happier about what we're about to do. Doubt was never an
 issue," a woman says in a videotaped farewell statement.
 Meanwhile, authorities wrestled with a dizzying onslaught of
 information about the Heaven's Gate cult from multiple
 sources -- a book, the Internet, relatives of the victims,
 and acquaintances and experts from all over the country.
 The victims apparently believed that their human bodies were
 just temporary vessels and that their deaths would lead to a
 rendezvous with a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet, which
 passed closest to Earth last weekend. The group had posted a
 statement on its World Wide Web site that said, "Hale-Bopp's
 approach is the 'marker' we've been waiting for. We are
 happily prepared to leave 'this world."'
 Group members, who supported themselves by running a computer business, had
 sent out videos in which their leader described the hoped-for space
 encounter. Members came before the camera two at a time, side by side, to
 say their last goodbyes.
 "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," one woman said.
 "It's just the happiest day of my life," said a man. "I've been looking
 forward to this for so long."
 The people were taped seated in chairs outdoors, as trees
 and bushes swayed in the background. Most smiled as they
 talked of taking their lives. Some laughed. One woman cried.
 "People who thought I completely lost my marbles, they're
 not right," said one person to laughter.
 "We take off the virtual reality helmet. We take off the
 vehicle that we've used for this task," a man said, an
 apparent reference to their bodies.
 The cult published a 4-inch-thick book last year and posted part of it on
 one of its Web sites, Heaven's Gate. It contains a strange blend of
 Christianity and outer space similar to Applewhite's former proselytizing.
 The book contains "exit statements" that resemble suicide notes.
 "Survival requires that you allow nothing of this human existence
 to tie you here," wrote one cult member, identified only as
 "No wealth, no position, no prestige, no family, no physical
 pleasure, and no religion spouting to hang on to any of the above
 will enable you to survive. They are only entrapments."
 A writer calling himself "Do," apparently Applewhite, said, "We
 take the prize, I guess, of being the cult of cults."
 Back in 1975, Applewhite, along with a colleague named Bonnie Lu Trusdale
 Nettles, persuaded hundreds of people in California, Colorado, New Mexico
 and Oregon to leave their families and belongings behind and join them.
 They were known then as the "UFO Cult," and Applewhite and Ms. Nettles
 referred to themselves then as "The Two." The Heaven's Gate web site refers
 to its founders as "The Two" and said they began "rounding up their crew in
 A leader -- apparently Ms. Nettles -- is called "Ti" in the Heaven's Gate
 writings. She died in 1985. ("Do" and "Ti" are apparently from the musical
 "do re mi" scale.)
 One of the videos sent out before the suicides shows images of a bald,
 elderly man in a black, collarless shirt on a white plastic patio chair who
 apparently is beckoning followers to leave the Earth. That man -- who
 called himself "Do" -- is presumably Applewhite.
 "I can be your shepherd," the man says. "You can follow us
 but you cannot stay here and follow us. You would have to
 follow quickly by also leaving this world before the
 conclusion of our leaving this atmosphere in preparation
 for its recycling."
 "He was a very loving, caring person very intelligent and
 a wonderful singing voice," said Applewhite's 69-year-old
 sister, Louise Winant, in an interview today on ABC's "Good Morning
 She said her brother studied at a theological seminary in Richmond, Va.,
 and went on to teach and sing professionally.
 "Oh, he sang beautifully. He could play almost anything," she said. "He was
 extremely talented."
 Ms. Winant said in the early '70s, Applewhite was in the
 hospital in Houston with some heart block of some kind and
 had a "near-death" experience. It was then that he met Ms.
 Nettles, a nurse who Ms. Winant said was interested in
 "occult-type things." She said Applewhite, who had two
 children from a previous marriage, never saw his relatives
 after that.
 The suicides took place over at least three days,
 authorities said at an extraordinary news conference Thursday that included
 a brief videotaped tour of the immaculate home.
 The video shows corpses clad in identical black clothing and Nike shoes,
 all neatly laid out on mattresses, some with eyeglasses near the bodies.
 All were covered with purple, triangular-shaped shoulder patches bearing
 the Heaven's Gate name, although some hands peeked out.
 In their pockets were IDs, $5 bills and quarters.
 The coroner's office has tracked down seven families and was
 trying to reach the others, Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the medical
 examiner, said this morning.
 The victims, 26 to 72 years old with driver's licenses from nine
 states, apparently died in shifts over three days -- 15, then 15
 more and then the final nine.
 "Who or what would make 39 people take their life in this manner?" asked
 Sheriff Bill Kolender. "While at the scene last night, I told myself that
 the question cannot be answered in terms, I think, that the rest of us will
 ever understand."
 The cult ran a business at the home called Higher Source that built Web
 sites for businesses. Ranging in age from 20 to 72, the members were by all
 accounts efficient as a company, puritanical as individuals.
 They called each other brother and sister, dressed alike and wore short
 haircuts. But their beliefs were odd by any standard; modern civilization,
 wrote a student identified online only as Smmody, "seems ready to be
 A self-described prophetic minister from New Mexico, the Rev. Mike Dew,
 recalled meeting a Heaven's Gate leader eight months ago.
 "They're preying on weak Christians," said Dew, of the Prophetic Voices of
 the Wilderness in Mountainair, N.M. "They're portraying themselves as
 ascended masters or a 'Higher Source.' They'll use the terms 'Jesus' and
 'God,' but not in the traditional way. If you're not careful, you'll miss
 what they're doing."
 Nick Matzorkis, a businessman who employed a former cult member, said he
 and the employee, whom Matzorkis called "Rio," went to the mansion after
 Rio received the videos and a farewell letter. Rio went in and discovered
 the bodies, said Matzorkis, president of Interact Entertainment Group in
 Beverly Hills,
 "By the time you read this, we suspect that the human bodies we were
 wearing have been found, and that a flurry of fragmented reports have begun
 to hit the wire services," the farewell letter said.
 "We'll be gone -- several dozen of us," it said. "We came from the Level
 Above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were
 wearing for our earthly task, to return to the world from whence we came --
 task completed."

Next: Heaven's Gate (Part 10)