Cult leaves trail of whys

Sun Reporter

The demise of the Heaven's Gate cult wasstranger and more convoluted than any episode of "The X-Files" show they lovedto watch on television.

A group of lost souls, led by a charismatic former music teacher who wentby the name Do, committed suicide in shifts so they could leave their bodies,or what they called "containers," and link up with a spaceship they believedwas trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

They packed bags, donned new tennis shoes and carried with them rolls ofquarters, presumably for their celestial journey. Then in small groups theyswallowed a lethal cocktail of vodka and barbiturates, reclining on bunk bedsto die.

The mass suicide was thoroughly documented through notes and videotapes.But it is still not, and may never be, understood.

"We may never know the answer to the question on everyone's minds why didthey do this?" Sheriff William B. Kolender said at a news conference onThursday.

Unlike the ghastly images of the Jonestown mass suicide -- bloated bodiespiled atop one another -- the aftermath of the Heaven's Gate suicide waseerily serene. The grim tableau haunted veteran sheriff's deputies who wereamong the first to lay eyes on it.

"It was an overwhelming experience," said Deputy Robert Brunk, the firstofficers on the scene Wednesday afternoon.

"Surreal," said his partner, Deputy Laura Gacek.

In fact, it was apparently so unbelievable that the first 911 call made bya former cult member who discovered the bodies Wednesday was not immediatelyrelayed to San Diego sheriff's deputies.

It was nearly two hours later, when the cult member called the BeverlyHills Police Department, that Brunk was sent to 18241 Colina Norte.

"When I opened up the door, I noticed an odor that has been associatedwith death," Brunk said. "Once you get that smell, it doesn't leave yourhead."

Gacek said: "We knew there was going to be death inside."

But as details of the cult members' lives unfolded, the story became moreakin to science fiction than any crime story.

Cult members, who lived together in a million-dollar mansion they called amonastery, neither smoked nor drank and practiced celibacy. Many of the maleshad been castrated, and all the members had buzz-cut hairstyles, giving themsuch an androgynous appearance that investigators initially reported all thevictims were men.

The bodies of the members, 21 women and 18 men, were dressed identicallyin black tunics, pants and sneakers, lying on quilt-covered mattresses, theirfaces covered with purple shrouds.

The house was immaculate. On one wall was a world map with pins markingearthly destinations. On another wall were pictures of alien creatures,showing the group's allegiance to other-world ideals.

They took their lives in three shifts over several days, the medicalexaminer said, by consuming phenobarbital mixed with applesauce or pudding andwashed down with vodka. Perhaps to hasten death, they put plastic bags overtheir heads.

The members, described as extremely polite, if guarded, by those theyencountered, were considerate even in death. They carried identification intheir pockets, and some even had the suicide recipe written down. A group ofassistants cleaned up after each suicide shift, and only the last two membersto kill themselves still had the plastic bags over their heads.

The cult, which supported itself by designing computer Web sites, was ledby Marshall Herff Applewhite, 65, son of a Presbyterian minister, a giftedsinger and a likable music professor in the 1960s.

The University of St. Thomas in Houston, where Applewhite taught musicfrom 1966 to 1970, denied reports yesterday that he was fired for having anaffair with a male student.

"He had tremendous musical talents and was well received by the facultyand students," university President Joseph McFadden said in a statement.

In what amounted to a videotaped suicide note, Applewhite said the groupwas joining a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. There, they would enterthe "next kingdom" or "next level."

Their message contains elements that seem to relate to Christianity, butany such connection is tenuous, several theologians have said.

"They're using the vocabulary and they're making general references," saidDr. John Pilch, who teaches theology at Georgetown University in Washingtonand lives in Catonsville. But the references are superficial. "It's justtouching the surface. It isn't connected to anything."

Yesterday, the news coming out of San Diego slowed to a trickle. Thedwindling numbers of what had been a media horde mostly staked out the medicalexaminer's office in San Diego.

Officials stopped giving briefings, and the only action occurred when thefamily of one victim, Erika Ernst, 40, drove into the parking lot in two motorhomes to identify her remains.

They stayed for about an hour, and then the visibly shaken family membersgot back in their vehicles to find lodging.

Ernst's father, Edewald Ernst, told a television reporter that the familyhad been vacationing in the Los Angeles area from their home in Calgary,Alberta, when they heard the news and drove down. Ernst said he had not seenhis daughter in more than 20 years.

The visit surprised county officials. "They just showed up," said SanDiego police Officer Dan Wall.

Even the location seemed an incongruous place for cult members to live --and die.

Rancho Santa Fe is a stunningly beautiful retreat nestled in rolling hillsabout 30 miles from downtown San Diego. It is dotted with gated mansions,flowering bougainvillea and lemon groves. For residents, a favorite pastime isriding horses along miles of winding trails.

The downtown consists of only about four square blocks ofSpanish-Mediterranean-style stucco buildings with red tile roofs, pricey cafesand real estate offices. Houses advertised in their windows start at $1million. The curbs are lined with Mercedes Benzes, BMWs and Range Rovers. Thestreets are lined with eucalyptus and palm trees.

Residents have not welcomed being in the spotlight. In a letter to thelocal paper, Marianne Champlin described the foreboding scene she returnedhome to Wednesday evening: "There above my home circled eight helicopters, andI believe, two single-engine aircraft. It gave the appearance of buzzardssweeping over the regrettable spectacle below."

Yesterday, on a San Diego talk radio station, an unsympathetic host waspoking fun at Rancho Santa Fe, asking listeners to call him with marketingslogans so the community could repair its image.

"Rancho Santa Fe, your stairway to the stars," offered one man.

Another caller, Dick, complained that so much fuss was being made. "Whyshould the city of San Diego spend all this money notifying the relatives ofthese people who hadn't seen their families in 20 years and probably couldn'tcare less about them?"

On an earlier show, a caller named Gary was typical of many who took alaissez-faire attitude: "If somebody wants to walk around stark naked in hisown house and put a plastic bag over his head, and that's his religion and hedoesn't hurt anybody, God bless him," he said. "That's what this country isall about."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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