Baltimore Sun

Death in three shifts

The 39 people found dead in a mansion near San Diego carefully planned their suicides, meticulously timing their deaths in three waves and following a "recipe" -- which they believed would lead to a rendezvous with a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

San Diego County officials described yesterday the chilling tableau left by the suicide of members of the "Heaven's Gate" cult, whose bodies, shrouded in purple, were discovered Wednesday afternoon.

The computer-savvy cult members took their lives in distinct shifts: Some died in the previous 24 hours, and others had been dead several days, said county coroner Dr. Brian Blackbourne.

Many of them carried with them a "recipe" tucked in their shirt pockets outlining the suicide method, he said.

"Basically it just said, 'Take the little package of pudding or applesauce, and eat a couple of tablespoons to make some room to pour the medicine in, stir it up, and then eat it fairly quickly. Drink the vodka beverage. Lay back and relax,'" Blackbourne said.

He said deputies also found, in trash behind the house, plastic bags tied with elastic bands, which could have been used to suffocate the victims and speed death.

The suicides were "sort of immaculately carried out," Blackbourne said.

A video released yesterday of the death scene showed the bodies lying on their backs on bunk beds or on mattresses, and one on a long folding table. Some had eyeglasses resting beside them.

Blackbourne said there was plenty of evidence left behind.

"These people all had identification in the front pockets of these big black shirts they were wearing," he said, mostly driver's licenses, but also some passports and birth certificates.

Packed flight bags or suitcases stood at the foot of many mattresses, and victims often carried $5 bills and rolls of quarters, he said.

To say their goodbyes, the group mailed out videotapes in which their leader described the hoped-for space encounter and members came before the camera two at a time, side by side.

"A lot of it was real and not very scripted. It was very self-evident that they were winging it," said Nick Matzorkis, who discovered the bodies and went to police after his employee, a former cult member, received a Federal Express package containing the videos and a farewell letter.

According to Matzorkis, the letter stated: "By the time this letter is being read, we will all have shed our containers" -- the term that members used for their bodies.

He said the people appeared very upbeat and many expressed pleasure that they were going to a better place.

Sheriff's investigators have identified the cult that lived in this pricey retreat about 30 miles north of San Diego as Heaven's Gate, but they do not seem to know much about who the members were or how the cult operated.

Its home office was a $1.6 million mansion where members created World Wide Web pages for profit under the business name Higher Source.

Neighbors and other acquaintances said the group kept quiet and clannish in the seven-bedroom, nine-bathroom house, cheaply and sparsely furnished but equipped with perhaps 20 computers.

More than 30 detectives and lab technicians combed through evidence in an exclusive neighborhood that is home to the likes of the diet guru Jenny Craig, sportscaster Dick Enberg and actor Victor Mature.

"We may never really know the question that is on anyone's mind: Why did they do this?" the San Diego County sheriff, Bill Kolender, said at a news conference yesterday. The Heaven's Gate group may be linked to a millennialist sect that earned notoriety in California 22 years ago, before disappearing into isolation to teach its members that Earth was corrupt, that civilization was doomed and that only the disciplined few could be saved, rescued by a UFO.

Documents on the Heaven's Gate Web site indicate that it was the same as a UFO-obsessed group once known as Total Overcomers Anonymous, founded in 1975 by a couple from Houston, Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles.

In a group in which members shed their birth names, Applewhite was identified on the Internet site simply as "Do," as in the musical tone, while the late Nettles was "Ti."

In 1975, Applewhite and Nettles, who then used the names "Bo" and "Peep," toured the West Coast, holding forth on college campuses and in private homes, declaring that a spacecraft would arrive to take away a select few.

They told the New York Times in 1976 that they were beings from outer space, incarnate in human bodies, with a mission to teach others about the possibility of reaching a new stage of existence.

ABC News reported that Applewhite, who was once in a psychiatric hospital, may be among the dead. Sheriff's department Cmdr. Alan Fulmer, who is leading the investigation, said that, contrary to initial reports that all the victims were males between the ages of 18 and 24, most of the dead were women: Investigators discovered 21 dead women and 18 men.

The lighting conditions and the condition of the bodies made it difficult for sheriff's deputies who initially entered the house to identify the victims.

The females and males all had very close-cropped hair, Fulmer said.

The dead ranged in age from a 26-year-old man to a 72-year-old woman, with 21 of the 39 suicides in their 40s, he said.

None was from Maryland.

There was one person with a Canadian passport; the rest came from Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, Utah and Washington.

The bodies were almost identically clothed in long-sleeved black shirts and black pants. All wore black Nike tennis shoes and white socks.

"It appeared as if it was almost a uniform attire," Fulmer said. "And they were covered with a purple cloth."

In one farewell video, there are ethereal, multiple images of a bald, elderly man who apparently is beckoning followers to leave Earth, Matzorkis said.

The letter accompanying the video warned that the group would have committed suicide by the time the package arrived, prompting Matzorkis and his employee, whom he would identify only as Rio, to rush to the mansion Wednesday.

They called police after finding the bodies.

"By the time you read this, we suspect that the human bodies we were wearing have been found, and that a flurry of fragmented reports have begun to hit the wire services," the letter said.

"We'll be gone -- several dozen of us.

"We came from the Level Above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly task, to return to the world from whence we came -- task completed," the letter said.

A site on the World Wide Web, called Heaven's Gate, celebrates the presence of the Hale-Bopp comet as "the 'marker' we've been waiting for."

On the page, "Do" likens himself to Jesus Christ and calls himself the "Present Representative."

"I am in the same position in today's society as was the One that was in Jesus then," Do says. One particularly macabre element was the indication that the suicides took place in shifts.

"The bodies had been dead for varying periods of time, which is rather unique," the coroner said.

"It appears that there were three groups," he said. "The first group went ahead with this plan.

"And the second group sort of assisted them, cleaned up after them after they had died.

"Then the third team helped the second team. And they were finally down to two people who were not shrouded with these sheets. We believe they were the last ones, and they did have plastic bags over their heads."

For investigators, the next step is notifying relatives.

Last night, one family had been notified, and the coroner's office has established a hot line at 800-600-0646 for anyone to call who might have had a relative in the house.