UFOs were suddenly in the news for the most unpleasant of reasons last week. The lurid story flashed around the world: Thirty-nine members of a decades-old cult, lately called Heaven's Gate, had committed suicide together in pursuit of their goal to leave the earth for "the level above human" aboard a waiting UFO.
Profiles of the Heaven's Gate membership suggest that they were intelligent and thoughtful people, yet profoundly alienated from society and utterly dependent upon the guidance of their leader, Marshall Applewhite. Former members who had left the group told investigators that they were never coerced to stay, yet while in the group they were expected to adhere to an oppressive, minute-by-minute regimentation covering every detail of their daily lives. This regimentation, members believed, was the only way to be fully protected from surrounding dark forces -- evil aliens, evil government personnel, and the minions of Lucifer -- and to develop the "efficiency" required at the "level above human" that they expected to achieve. [see following story]
Applewhite himself -- once called "Bo" but lately known inside the group as "Do" -- was a brilliant, charismatic but troubled man. He was a fine singer who performed with the Houston Grand Opera and taught music at the college level in the early 1970s. But his career fell apart when he was discharged from his teaching position, evidently for "moral misconduct." He struggled for years with his sexual identity and sought psychiatric help to overcome his homosexual urges. He later resolved this issue by having himself castrated. Seven of his male followers reportedly did the same.
While hospitalized in 1975, he had a near-death experience. At that time, he met a nurse, Bonnie Lu Nettles, who offered him friendship and spiritual support and encouraged him to recognize himself as a man with a mission.
Shortly thereafter, Applewhite and Nettles became known as "Bo and Peep," leading a small band of people who expected to be lifted off the earth to a higher level of existence in a UFO. The teachings that evolved in 1975-76 remained largely unchanged through 1997.
To their loyal following, Applewhite and Nettles later became known as "Do and Ti." Applewhite said that Nettles, aka Ti, was the more advanced of the two, and though he was the charismatic spokesperson, he deferred to her wisdom. It seemed fitting to the group, therefore, when Ti died of cancer in 1985. She was going on ahead to prepare a place for Do and the others in the "level above human."
In 1993, under the new name "Total Overcomers Anonymous," Applewhite and his followers placed a nearly full-page ad in USA Today. The headline ran, "UFO Cult Resurfaces with Final Offer." The ad explained that the group was in the process of a last round of recruitment, warning that time was short.
"Earth's present 'civilization' is about to be recycled -- 'spaded under,'" the ad proclaimed. "It's inhabitants are refusing to evolve. The 'weeds' have taken over the garden and disturbed its usefulness beyond repair."
Sometime between 1993 and 1997, Total Overcomers apparently evolved into its final form, the millennialist cult known as Heaven's Gate. During this time, Applewhite's followers outwardly presented themselves as a computer-based business called The Higher Source, designing high quality web sites for southern California clients. They all lived and worked together in a huge, immaculate mansion in the exclusive Rancho Santa Fe near San Deigo.
One member of the group, Richard Ford, left just last month after learning that the rest were planning suicide. Ford, identified only as "Rio" in the first news stories of the suicide, received two farewell videotapes in the mail on March 25 from cult members. One video was a final message from Applewhite. The other contained farewell messages from his followers.
On Wednesday, March 26, Ford and his employer, Beverly Hills businessman Nick Matzorkis, drove to the hilltop mansion, found the bodies and called police.
All evidence discovered by investigators, including extensive information on the Heaven's Gate web site, indicates that the members eagerly embraced death as a way out of an earthly existence they did not want. Police officials have announced that no one will be charged with any crimes in connection with the deaths.
It is clear that Applewhite and his followers considered Comet Hale-Bopp to be a sign that their time to depart had come. "Hale-Bopp's approach is the 'marker' we've been waiting for -- the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to 'Their World,'" the Heaven's Gate web site says.
But just as clearly, they were not hastened along their path by the discussions of a possible Hale-Bopp "companion" that erupted on the internet and late-night radio last November. The Heaven's Gate web site states: "Whether Hale-Bopp has a 'companion' or not is irrelevant from our perspective."
Importantly, from the standpoint of UFO research, it also seems clear that the actions taken by Applewhite and his followers were based in religious or theological convictions having nothing to do with the rational study of UFO phenomena. They viewed their salvation aboard a coming UFO in much the same way that Christians view the promise of resurrection offered by Jesus. For them, Comet Hale-Bopp might be likened to the Star of Bethlehem -- and Easter 1997 might have seemed a perfect time for their presumed ascension.
In point of fact, Applewhite told his followers that he was fulfilling the same role for the present age that Jesus fulfilled 2,000 years ago. Many in the group regarded Applewhite as divine, though he publicly disavowed identification as a "messiah." Nettles and Applewhite reportedly characterized themselves as higher beings who had taken over the bodies of mere mortals in 1975.
The group seemed convinced that Applewhite's deceased partner, Ti, was already on board the spaceship that was coming to pick them up -- perhaps even the captain. "We are happily prepared to leave 'this world' and go with Ti's crew," their web site says.
Their preparations and final actions were meticulous, if bizarre. Investigators established that the suicides were carried out in three or four phases, with those still alive cleaning up after those who had died. Two members were the last to die -- their bodies were the only ones not neatly draped with a purple cloth.
Cause of death was a mixture of phenobarbital and vodka, in some cases apparently aided by suffocation with a plastic bag. Investigators are trying to determine how the group acquired such large amounts of phenobarbital.
When found, the 39 bodies appeared serene. None showed any wounds or signs of struggle. Each person left a suitcase of belongings near their final resting place. Each also carried identification and money -- reportedly, several quarters and a five dollar bill.
Though the mass suicide provoked large outpourings of public revulsion and incredulity, a number of former members publicly stated their admiration for what the others had done.
"I wish I had the strength to have remained... to have stuck it out and gotten stronger and continued to be a part of that group," former member Nick Cooke said on the CBS television program "60 Minutes" on Sunday, March 30. Cooke's wife, Suzanne Sylvia Cooke, was among the dead.
Cooke and another former cult member identified only as "Sawyer" said they still believed in the tenets of the cult. They estimated that dozens of others still remain faithful to the cult's principles -- including the idea that members might be beamed up into space.
Nick and Suzanne Cooke had abandoned their young daughter, Kelly, 20 years ago when they joined the cult. Today, Kelly says she understands her mother's death. Speaking on "60 Minutes," she said:
"I don't believe she committed suicide. That's a strong word to use when you consider that... this is something she worked for all her life.... She graduated to the next level."
Sawyer agreed. "Suicide isn't the proper term for what they did, in my opinion. They left their bodies. It was something they were preparing for for a long time," he said.
FBI and local police investigators stated on Monday that they believe all active members of the cult are accounted for, and that all died with Applewhite. However, other researchers familiar with the long history of the cult, and mindful of statements from former members such as Cooke and Sawyer, remain cautious.
According to experts, this is the largest mass suicide ever on U.S. soil. But mass suicide has been in the news several times recently. In 1994, 48 members of the Order of the Solar Temple died in Switzerland. Five more members died that same year in Canada, followed by 16 others in the French Alps in 1995 and five more in Canada as recently as March 22.
Cult-watchers fear that, as the millennium approaches with its attendant anxieties, growing numbers of people and groups will choose suicide as a path to a presumed "better place."
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