It was March 26 1997 when 911 operators received an anonymous call, proclaiming that the members of the religious group Heaven’s Gate had committed mass suicide. On entering their mansion in Rancho Sante Fe in San Diego, authorities found all 39 members of the group, including their leader, dead on their beds. Entwining a concoction of Christianity, Science-Fiction and New Ageism into a modern philosophy, Marshall Applewhite led his people to what they believed to be the next level and ultimately their deaths.
History of Heaven's Gate
The group was founded by both Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles in the early 1970’s after Applewhite suffered from a heart attack. Nettles was his nurse, and the two quickly realised that they had a lot in common. Their mutual interest in spirituality led them to leave their lives in Texas behind on the search for answers. This meeting of Applewhite and Nettles was not of the flesh, but of the mind, and after six months, the pair believed they has found the answers they were searching for. They claim to have had a spiritual awakening on their travels, believing that they had both been sent to Earth on a sacred mission to guide people onto the next plane of existence.
Applewhite and Nettles began spreading the word of their findings, and they quickly managed to gather together a large group of people who all believed in their philosophy. The pair promised their followers that they would be granted access into the Kingdom of Heaven without having to experience death, and this became an attractive ideology for people from all social classes.
As the group become more popular, Applewhite and Nettles were reborn, changing their names to Do and Ti. One former member of the group recalls attending his first class of the group, and became entranced at the 500 people all memorised by these two people, particularly the newly named Do. It was this magnetism produced by the group’s founders that continued to attract new members from around the U.S, leading to their inevitable media coverage.
As soon as the media began questioning the belief structure within the group, Do and Ti picked up their belongings and their followers and moved away. They became a very closed-off group and went underground, cutting off all ties with friends and family outside of the cult. This cost Heaven’s Gate many of its followers, and it quickly turned into a smaller, but more intense group. The members who remained were all anointed with with new names, a strict regime and were labelled as The Class. Their purpose was to prepare for graduation, their step through the gateway into the next level: the level above human.
The group remained underground, moving from one city to the next, with Do in constant fear of the authorities. Their usual set up was to have only a few designated members leaving their home, making it look to the outside world that there was just a normal family behind the walls. In fact, there could be up to 20 people living in one house, with the majority of them becoming completely housebound.
In 1985 Ti (Bonnie Nettles) died of cancer, disproving the theory that the body was taken with the soul to the next level. Do changed his prophesy accordingly to suit Ti’s death, and continued teaching in hiding until 1994 when he decided to go public once again. This new publicity of the Heaven’s Gate attracted many new members, all understanding that in order to get to the next level, they must die. As children were not allowed in the cult, many parents abandoned their children in order to gain entry into Do’s group, and did so willingly in the belief that they were finding their true calling.
Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles (Do and Ti) believed they came to an awakening whilst travelling across America on a search to find life’s answers. They came to the understanding that they were in fact from a level above humanity, and it was their job to recruit people and teach them how to ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The core beliefs of the religious sect lie in a unusual combination of Christianity, New Ageism and Science-Fiction. Whilst they believed in Mary and Jesus, they believed that Mary was taken aboard a spaceship and impregnated. Such combinations of science fiction and Christianity compelled new recruits, as it offered them a more modern and acceptable explanation to the Bible.
For the first decade, the pair taught their followers that their body was but a vehicle to get them into the next world, and that death was not necessary. They could take their physical bodies with them, exploring the new dimension, where there is no gender, there are no emotions. Do and Ti taught that their students must become devoid of human attachment via a process called Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM). This meant learning to control their emotions and feelings, whilst discarding everything from their lives previous to joining. Many group members cut off contact with their parents, their friends and even their children, so that they could shed their human traits.
The philosophy taught was that the purpose of the Earth was to be one, giant garden. In this garden many seeds were sown (humans being born) and only the group were harvested to go on to the next realm. Those that were not harvested would be recycled, along with the Earth when the process starts from the beginning, sowing new seeds. The idea that it was Aliens who once came to this planet, and created the human race is a typical new age perspective titled Ancient Astronauts.
Ti died from cancer in 1985, the Heaven’s Gate theology was somewhat challenged, as she had clearly left her body behind as she died, not taking it with her to the next level. Do acted quickly and changed his teachings, concluding that Ti would pick up an angelic body, and return to collect the others at a later date. She would communicate to the group when it was time to leave, but in a message that only Do could interpret. Throughout the years, the doctrine gradually changed to the knowledge that their human bodies must be left behind to be recycled.
- The beginning of the end
When the Comet Hale-Bopp become visible, Do saw this as a sign from Ti that the end times had come. He taught that there was an alien vessel following the comet that was on it’s way to pick up his and his followers souls. They had to act quickly so they would not be left behind; thus the reason for their mass suicide.
Controversy leading up to the mass suicide
Whilst the group were known by the mass public and the media, they were predominantly renowned amongst alien belief groups. Their philosophy was indeed alien to the outside world, but it was not their beliefs that became under scrutiny, it was their leader.
The members of the group were forced to work long, gruelling days studying Do’s teachings and way of life. Suffering physical exhaustion, the students were forced to study and memorise his teachings, alongside living a highly ascetic lifestyle, devoid of luxuries, outside communication and sexuality. Both men and women were forced to be celibate, and even sexual thoughts were prohibited and taught as being shameful human emotions. Castration was an option used by several of the male members of the cult, including its leader, Do.
A list of the groups guidelines displays the extreme rules which were imposed on them upon entering the religious cult:
Guidelines for Learning Control and Restraint.
a) Doing an ‘act’ on the sly.
b) Lying to my teachers or any of my classmates.
c) Keeping an offence to myself, not exposing it the same day.
2) Sensuality – Permitting around in thought or in action. (Not nipping it in the bud.)
3) Breaking any instruction or procedure knowingly.
1) Taking any action without using my check partner.*
2) Trusting my own judgement – of using my own mind.
3) Twisting procedures for my own benefit.
4) Responding defensively to my classmates or teachers.
5) Criticizing or finding fault with my classmates or teachers.
6) Allowing blatant or lingering negativity, accepting the position of ‘I can’t.’
7) Permitting physical or verbal abuse, outbursts, harsh words, sarcasm, swearing, anger, hurtful teasing, loss of temper towards classmates.
* A check partner is another member of the group who is assigned to examine the work of a certain member. The majority of the students were paired, in order to ensure all rules are obeyed and tasks are performed effectively.
Mass suicide of Heaven's Gate
On March 26th 1997, the 911 operators received an anonymous call, stating that there had been a mass suicide at 18241 Colina Norte in Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego. Offering no further information, the caller hung up and the authorities paid a visit to the property to investigate.
Upon entering the building, police officers first noticed an intense stench in the air. As they searched the property, they located 39 dead bodies, all lying in their beds with purple shrouds covering their faces. All group members wore identical black uniforms with the Heaven’s Gate Away Team badge sewn into the left arm of the shirt. They all had a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pocket. The officers describe the atmosphere as serene; the bodies all looked like they were sleeping and peaceful.
It became clear in the autopsies that the group members had taken a mixture of the barbiturate Phenobarbital (used as a sedative) and vodka, many of whom secured plastic bags to their heads to induce suffocation. The bodies were in several states of decomposition, and it became clear that they had committed mass suicide in stages starting on Sunday 23 March, ending on Tuesday 25. One group would commit suicide, whilst the next group would tidy the area, covering the dead with purple cloths. They continued to eradicate themselves in this fashion, finally resulting in the group of Do (Applewhite), although he was not the last person to die. Two group members stayed behind after him to tidy around him and to place his veil over his face. They followed suit and killed themselves, although no one was left to cover their faces.
Just weeks before the group committed suicide, one of the members who had previously been called Richard Ford and was now Rio DiAngelo left. He and Do decided that it was time for him to start working for the group from the outside, trying to recruit new members and explaining to the public what they stood for. According to DiAngelo, he knew nothing of the plan to end their lives until Tuesday 25 March when he received a letter and video explaining the situation. The group informed him that they would leave a door unlocked for him to enter the building after their deaths, and it was this door which he used the following day when he entered the building and filmed the bodies around him. He then made the call to the 911 operators and left the building before the authorities arrived.
Two of the members who had previously left the group also killed themselves in the aftermath of the mass suicide, in an attempt to be reunited with their friends and loved ones.