THE INCREDIBLE SAGA OF HOW A CHARISMATIC FORMER MUSIC TEACHER AND 38
ANDROGYNOUS FOLLOWERS KILLED THEMSELVES IN ORDER TO HOOK UP WITH A UFO
"PLANET EARTH ABOUT TO BE RECYCLED. YOUR ONLY CHANCE TO SURVIVE--LEAVE
WITH US." --DO, LEADER OF HEAVEN'S GATE
If a group of people are going to choose to die together, it is best to have a master plan: proper burial outfits, packed suitcases, lists, farewell videotapes, even recipes for death. The ghastly jumble of bodies piled upon bodies discovered in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 may have provided a stark lesson in how not to do it. That mass suicide was a disorderly, ungracious way to meet your maker, a study not in serenity but in chaos.
So last week, in that spacious Rancho Santa Fe mansion, with the bougainvillea in full bloom outside, 39 bodies were laid out on their backs on bunk beds and mattresses, looking like so many laboratory specimens pinned neatly to a board. Each was dressed in black pants, flowing black shirt, spanking-new black Nikes. Their faces were hidden by purple cloths, shrouds the purple of Christian penance. Those who wore glasses had them neatly folded next to their body, and all, helpfully, had identification papers for the authorities to find. The house, more than one awed witness noted, was immaculate, tidier even than before the victims had moved in. It was as if, in preparing for their death, the members of what the world now knows as the Heaven's
Gate cult were heeding the words of the prophet Isaiah: "Set thine house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live."
PHOTO (COLOR):THE "CONTAINERS": San Diego sheriffs discovered 39 identically clad corpses, all in varying stages of decomposition
But though the victims may have believed their bodies were merely irrelevant "containers," to be left behind when they were whisked away by extraterrestrials, to the sheriff's deputies who first encountered them, the corpses were most certainly the real thing. The 21 women and
18 men, ranging in age from 26 to 72, were in varying stages of decomposition; the smell permeating the house was so putrid that two sickened officers went to the hospital to be sure they had not inhaled poisonous fumes. As the San Diego medical examiner reported, the cultists died in three groups: a first round of 15, then the next 15, then seven, all apparently by ingesting Phenobarbital mixed with a bit of applesauce or pudding, kicked by a shot of vodka, then helped along by the asphyxiating effect of a plastic bag over the head. The final two men--the ultimate angels of death--had only bags, no shrouds. Alone in the master bedroom, his order in the march of death still unknown, was the master himself: 65-year-old Marshall Herff Applewhite.
It was a remarkably well-choreographed departure, made more astonishing by the rich trail of video and Internet information the victims left behind. But the largest mass suicide in U.S. history has blasted the doors wide open onto a considerably less tidy world--a dense and jumbled universe of UFOs and extraterrestrials careening smack into unusual astronomical happenings, apocalyptic Christian heresies and end-is-nigh paranoia. Do and Ti, or Bo and Peep, or the Two, as Applewhite and his former partner Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles were known, plucked bits of this and pieces of that doctrine like birds building a nest, intertwining New Age symbols and ancient belief systems. And for scores of spiritual seekers, it worked. Some of Do and Ti's followers had been with them as long as 20 years; they were rich and poor, black, white and
Latino--people who shared little more than a willingness, or a need, to suspend disbelief, and in the end to participate in a common death.
Students of the millennium and historians of the bizarre have long been predicting such a catastrophic event in the twilight years of the 20th century, duly noting the rise in the number of obscure cults and the increasingly fevered pitch of