RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif.—As medical examiners continued autopsies on the bodies of 39 "Heaven's Gate" cult members who committed suicide in this wealthy San Diego suburb, new details emerged about how they died -- and lived.
About a half-dozen male cult members had been castrated, said San Diego County coroner Brian D. Blackbourne, including 65-year-old cult leader Marshall Applewhite, who went by several names, including "Do."
Speaking at an afternoon news conference, Blackbourne said the surgical castrations appeared to have been done some time ago. "I have no idea of the reason for that," he said.
Of the five bodies examined so far, three had lethal levels of phenobarbital, he said. The other two had smaller levels, but apparently suffocated themselves with plastic bags. He said the 39 deaths have been ruled suicides.
The bodies were found Wednesday in a three-story hilltop mansion in this exclusive rural retreat 30 miles north of San Diego after an anonymous caller alerted 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 described as a "little blue binder" found at the scene, Blackbourne described how the cult 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 died here were the only active members of the group.
"We have been told that this is not a splinter group," said Jerry Lipscomb, a San Diego County homicide detective. "We see no other tie. They are not a splinter group. They are not a group that controls any other."
Coroner's investigator Calvin Vine said 30 families had been notified and more 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 had told his followers, they must overcome the desires to reproduce and to cling to their homes, families and jobs.
As the coroner's office began calling the next-of-kin, it was apparent that 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 his sister -- Winant's wife, Louise -- in 20 years.
"Once he got into that group, we were unknown," said Mr. Winant, who described his relationship as "like father and son" when Applewhite was in high school and Winant got out of military service.
The oldest cult member, 72-year-old Jackie Leonard, left her Iowa home in the early 1970s, according to son-in-law Angelo Bellizzi of Seattle.