In farewell video, UFO cult members welcomed death

Sun Reporter

As medical examiners continued autopsies onthe bodies of 39 "Heaven's Gate" cult members who committed suicide in thiswealthy San Diego suburb, new details emerged about how they died -- andlived.

About a half-dozen male cult members had been castrated, said San DiegoCounty coroner Brian D. Blackbourne, including 65-year-old cult leaderMarshall Applewhite, who went by several names, including "Do."

The group demanded celibacy of its members and avoided any suggestion ofsensuality.

Speaking at an afternoon news conference, Blackbourne said the surgicalcastrations appeared to have been done some time ago. "I have no idea of thereason for that," he said.

Of the five bodies examined so far, three had lethal levels ofphenobarbital, he said. The other two had smaller levels, but apparentlysuffocated themselves with plastic bags. He said the 39 deaths have been ruledsuicides.

The bodies were found Wednesday in a three-story hilltop mansion in thisexclusive rural retreat 30 miles north of San Diego after an anonymous calleralerted sheriff's deputies.

The bodies were identically clad in black shirts, pants and tennis shoes,with purple shrouds over their faces and canvas bags packed at their feet.

They left behind their blueprint for death. Reading from what he describedas a "little blue binder" found at the scene, Blackbourne described how thecult members apparently killed themselves in stages over two or more days.

"Fifteen classmates, eight assistants, then 15 more and eight assistants,then help each other," he read.

Authorities said yesterday that they were confident the people who diedhere were the only active members of the group.

"We have been told that this is not a splinter group," said JerryLipscomb, a San Diego County homicide detective. "We see no other tie. Theyare not a splinter group. They are not a group that controls any other."

Coroner's investigator Calvin Vine said 30 families had been notified andmore than 10 had made arrangements to claim the remains of a family member.

The families were reacting with sadness, he said, but not shock.

Most "had not really had any contact with them over the years," Vine said."They did not know exactly where they were."

In order to leave Earth and reach the "Kingdom of Heaven," Applewhite hadtold his followers, they must overcome the desires to reproduce and to clingto their homes, families and jobs.

As the coroner's office began calling the next-of-kin, it was apparentthat many of the 21 women and 18 men had, indeed, left behind their families.

Wesley Winant of Aransas Pass, Texas, said Applewhite had not seen hissister -- Winant's wife, Louise -- in 20 years.

"Once he got into that group, we were unknown," said Mr. Winant, whodescribed his relationship as "like father and son" when Applewhite was inhigh school and Winant got out of military service.

The oldest cult member, 72-year-old Jackie Leonard, left her Iowa home inthe early 1970s, according to son-in-law Angelo Bellizzi of Seattle.

"Grandmothers don't run away. The kids are supposed to run away," he said.

Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, 39, left behind five children in Cincinnati inSeptember after learning of the cult from the Internet.

"We are going through a tough time," said a statement from her relatives.

Among those who died was Thomas Nichols, brother of actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura in the original "Star Trek" televisionseries.

Michael Upledger, a free-lance writer who had interviewed cult members,said they became excited only while talking about science fiction televisionprograms. "They loved 'X-Files' and 'Star Trek.' It was their one charmingvice," he said.

A farewell videotape made by the cult members suggested that they had goneto their deaths quite willingly, some even joyfully.

"We couldn't be happier about what we're going to do," one woman said.Another woman, smiling, added, "We are all happy to be doing what we aredoing."

One cult member -- they didn't identify themselves -- said his death wouldbring him "just the happiest day of my life. I've been looking forward forthis for so long."

Yesterday, Dick Joslyn of Tampa, Fla., who was a member of Heaven's Gatefor 15 years, said: "This is not like Waco or Jonestown. Each one did this oftheir own volition, even though they were in a cult. At every step of the way[the leaders] gave us the option to go forward with the next step or toleave."

If members of the cult seemed unreachable to their families, communitymembers who had contact with them said that while they were private, they werenonetheless friendly and far from strange.

Michael Afshin, who owns Comp-X, a computer services firm, said a mannamed Geoff Moore walked into his store in a Del Mar strip mall in Septemberlooking for work.

Afshin hired him as a contractual worker. "He was really honest, preciseand accurate with his work," Afshin said. "He would do the job withoutsupervision."

Moore would often bring another person to work with him. They would laughand joke as they worked, and when they went to lunch, it was always preciselyat 12:15.

There was only one thing Afshin found unusual about them. "Just the waythey dressed up," he said. "Long sleeves in the summer, buttoned up all theway to the neck. Dark colors in the summer. And their hair was short."

Heather M. Chronert, office manager for the San Diego Polo Club in RanchoSanta Fe, said she met several of the Heaven's Gate members during the summerwhen they came unannounced to offer their services to design a Web page on theInternet.

"They kind of appeared out of the blue," she said. "Which is surprising,because they're not the kind of guys I would think would make cold calls.They're kind of shy and retiring."

The polo club hired them to design a Web page. Usually two men and a womancame, Chronert said: Stewart, Duran and Ruth

She last heard from Stewart, whom she described as a man in his 40s wholooked "like a teddy bear," about two weeks ago.

"The last communication I had with him was a voice mail saying they weregoing to be busy with monastery activities and to call him after Easter," shesaid.

Although the cult members kept a low profile, they were meticulous aboutwashing the vans and cars in their fleet. Every few days, they took thevehicles to the Rancho Car Wash and Detailing in Del Mar, where they becamefriendly with employees.

Supervisor Alex Fleet struck up a friendship with a cult member named Hal.He said the cult members frequently talked about the Hale-Bopp comet.

The cult members apparently believed that in committing suicide they wouldbe leaving this world and linking up with a spaceship that was trailing thecomet, which would take them into the "Next Kingdom."

Fleet said Tuesday, March 25, was an especially significant date for them."They told me that this was the day that something was introduced to us,something would break apart [from the comet] and come to us," he said. "Theytalked about it every week. When they came, I'd look at my pager and saysomething like, 'T minus 18 days and counting.' "

Fleet said that he had admired a piece of jewelry that Hal always wore --a bolo tie with a hologram that had the face of an alien on it. Similarpictures of aliens were found throughout the house where the bodies werefound, sheriff's officials said.

"I said, 'Try and get me one,' and they tried but couldn't find another,"Fleet said.

Last Saturday, Hal made one final visit to the car wash to tell Fleet hewas going away. "He jumped out of his car, ran up and took [the pendant] offof his neck," Fleet said.

Fleet, who thought the cult members were simply going out of town, askedHal how he could contact him.

"He said there were no phones where they were going."

The Associated Press, the New York Times and the Boston Globe contributed to this article.

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