What Made Thirty-nine UFO Cultists Commit Bizarre Mass Suicide?
20 years ago, on 26th March, 1997, following an anonymous tip-off, police entered a San Diego, California mansion to discover 39 decomposing corpses lying neatly on 39 beds.
Initially, the 21 women weren’t easy to tell apart from the 18 men because they all had the same oddball appearance: short cropped hair, black shirt, black jogging pants, black or white socks, and brand new black and white Nike Decade trainers.
In their pockets, police found personal I.D. and some cash: a five-dollar bill and three 25-cent quarters in each case. And nearby, their belongings stowed neatly away in a bag or suitcase as if they were all going away together. Most bizarre of all was that each one of them bar two had their head and torso covered with a purple cloth exactly 3ft square.
The group they belonged to was easy for police to figure: patches sewn to their shirts read ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team’. They were all members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult.
It was a mass suicide on a scale unprecedented in America and made headline news around the world. When Nike coined their ‘Just do it’ slogan, they could scarcely have imagined the ‘it’ could refer to what these customers would ‘just do’. But why? What on Earth drove them to such madness?
The police tip-off, it transpired, came from surviving member Rio DeAngelo; surviving not because his suicide attempt failed but because he’d left the group some months before. Despite his departure, he’d received some material in the post from Heaven’s Gate detailing their plan for mass suicide; when he knew it would all be over he entered the mansion, videotaped the awful aftermath — hoping to cash in on the expected global infamy, it’s thought — then left and phoned the police without revealing his identity.
Lead investigator Detective Rick Scully said of the grisly scene with which he and his colleagues were confronted:
“It was like being in the Twilight Zone. We were wandering from room to room to room, and every room we went into we were finding bodies.”
It turned out the group followed a meticulous plan to commit the suicides in three ‘shifts’ over three consecutive days, starting on March 24th. The first ‘shift’ of fifteen took a cocktail of the powerful sedative Phenobarbital and apple sauce, washed it down with vodka, then tied a plastic bag around their head to induce asphyxia. The still-living arranged the dead neatly on their beds, removed the plastic bags and covered them with the purple ‘shroud’.
The next day the second ‘shift’ of fifteen followed suit, their corpses being tended to, likewise, by the living; and the day after that, the final ‘shift’ of nine took their turn to shuffle off their mortal coil. The very last of the nine to die were the two found with a plastic bag still on their head and without a purple ‘shroud’.
How the Cult Developed Its UFO Connection
The cult had its origins as far back as 1972, following the chance meeting of its Texan founders, 41-year-old Marshall Applewhite and 44-year-old Bonnie Nettles.
The son of a Presbyterian minister, Applewhite was a former University professor who’d been fired for an alleged homosexual relationship with a student. He met Nettles during his stay in a psychiatric hospital; she worked there as a nurse. He was investigating alternatives to his traditional Christian beliefs; she was interested in theosophy and biblical prophecy.
The pair became friends and co-habitees (though not lovers), and with their religious interests, by mid-1974 had crystallised their thoughts into a basic doctrine, believing that they’d been chosen to fulfil biblical prophecies and been given minds on a higher level to those possessed by ordinary people.
They also believed they’d die, be resurrected and, in public view, their bodies would be taken up into a spaceship. When they then set about recruiting followers, they referred to themselves as ‘The UFO Two’ and their followers as ‘The Crew’. At recruiting events they made out they were representing beings from another planet, dubbed the ‘Next Level’, seeking volunteers for an ‘experiment’. Those that did so would gain a higher evolutionary level.
Applewhite was a believer in the ancient astronaut theory that ETs had visited Earth many millennia ago and put homo sapiens here, and they would come back to save a select few. He talked a lot about ETs, even claiming they communicated with him through Star Trek.
A Promised UFO Visit Gets Cancelled
By early 1976 Applewhite and Nettles had given themselves the names ‘Do’ and ‘Ti’ (pronounced tea) respectively, and despite their clearly delusional beliefs had managed to attract dozens of followers. In June that year they summoned them all to a gathering on the promise of a UFO encounter. But, unsurprisingly, they later announced to their gathered followers the visit had to be cancelled.
Bonnie Nettles died from cancer in 1983. Convinced that her spirit had been taken into a spacecraft an incarnated in a new body, Applewhite believed he and his followers would all do the same when their time came. He interpreted Biblical heaven as in fact being a planet inhabited by highly evolved beings and believed Jesus was an ET who rose from the dead and was taken aboard a UFO.
Though just as the Bible tells of the battle between good and evil, not all extraterrestrials were good, Applewhite thought; there were evil ‘Luciferian’ ones, too, and they wished to prevent him from fulfilling his mission. This belief came to him around 1988; it’s been speculated it was a response to the shocking alien abduction stories that were gaining prominence at the time.
Throughout its existence, the group adopted various names. In 1994, Applewhite changed it from Total Overcomers Anonymous to Heaven’s Gate, impressing upon his flock they must abandon everything human, including their bodies, if they wanted to pass through the gate leading to heaven — to reach the Next Level.
And the only way to do it would be SUICIDE!
The Comet (and Salvation?) Cometh
Heaven’s Gate devotees didn’t have to wait too long for the opportunity to ‘just do it’ to emerge. It came the following year — and, appropriately, direct from the heavens. For in July 1995, amateur American astronomers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp discovered in their telescopes a comet approaching the inner solar system. (It remained invisible to the naked eye until 10 months later.)
Comet Hale-Bopp’s closest approach to Earth was estimated to be March 22nd 1997 at a distance of some 122 million miles. (The Sun is 93 million miles away). It brightened as it came closer, showing a pair of tails. One, a blue gas tail; the other, a whitish dust tail. It was a spectacular sight, visible throughout the night in the northern hemisphere for many months; the brightest comet ever observed in modern times.
But for Heaven’s Gate, there was a twist in the tail, so to speak.
The Hale-Bopp ‘Companion’ Controversy
Five months before the closest approach, in November 1996, amateur astronomer Chuck Shramek phoned in to the ‘paranormal’ Art Bell Show on Coast to Coast AM to say he’d taken a photograph of Hale-Bopp in which there appeared to be a “Saturn-like object” following behind it. The story quickly spread online and was picked up by a number of mainstream media outlets.
On the following night’s show, Bell interviewed director of the Farsight Institute, Dr. Courtney Brown. The Institute performs remote viewing, which means ‘seeing’ a distant or unseen object through extrasensory perception. Brown claimed three of his remote viewers had confirmed what Shramek had found and, furthermore, perceived the large object tailing Hale-Bopp to be metallic and occupied by aliens.
In support of his claim, Brown sent Bell a photograph he’d acquired, allegedly taken by someone he would only disclose as a “top-ten university astronomer” under the proviso that Bell not publish the image on the Coast to Coast AM website until the astronomer had held a press conference. However, no such press conference materialised within two months — time in which the Hale-Bopp UFO speculative balloon had been steadily pumped up on the show — so Bell decided to publish the photograph regardless.
A decision he regretted because within 24 hours, Dr. David Tholen of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy contacted him, asserting that the photograph was actually one he’d taken with the university’s telescope but it had been ‘Photoshopped’ — the ‘companion’ object was in fact a fake. He submitted these comparison images to back his assertion up:
Needless to say, Courtney Brown, hitherto a regular guest on the Art Bell Show, wasn’t invited back on again.
It’s thought very likely that because of the publicity given to Hale-Bopp and its ‘companion’ UFO, the story quickly appeared on the Heaven’s Gate radar and Applewhite seized it as the rationale for him and his acolytes to commit suicide and reach the longed-for Next Level. Their spirits would at last be liberated from all earthly encumbrances through suicide and be reincarnated on board the passing Hale-Bopp UFO.
Whether he actually believed the UFO and its alien occupants existed or not we can never know, but it would seem he was certainly able to persuade the Heaven’s Gate community that it did and their ‘end time’ was nigh.
For a full telling of the Heaven’s Gate tragedy, check out this BBC ‘Inside Story’ documentary featuring cult members, police investigators and clips of Applewhite preaching his bizarre beliefs:
VIDEO: BBC ‘Inside Story’ Heaven’s Gate Documentary
A somewhat perverse footnote to the saga is that five months before the suicide, Heaven’s Gate purchased alien abduction insurance for up to 50 members. Had any of them been abducted, impregnated or killed by extraterrestrials, the policy would have paid out $1 million each. It would be very interesting to know the standards of proof the insurers stipulated before they’d have coughed up the cash.
An even more perverse footnote — pun not intended — is that Nike sensitively withdrew their Decade trainers immediately following the Heaven’s Gate tragedy yet well-preserved pairs have since been sold on eBay for hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars. As one current seller writes in his pitch about the boxed, unworn size-12 pair found in a warehouse for which he’s asking an eye-watering $6,600:
“This is an original pair of Nike Decade’s. Made famous and often referred to as the “Heaven’s Gate” shoe that members were found wearing. These shoes have literally achieved cult status. This is your chance to own a piece of sneaker history, and you won’t find them ever again in this size or condition on eBay.”