From young overachiever to cult leader

CNN/March 28, 1997
From Correspondent John Holliman

Change came with near-death experience in 1972

The young life of Marshall Herff Applewhite offered no clues to the tragic end in store for him and 38 of his followers decades later at a mansion near San Diego.

His friends called him Herff, and his sister, Louise Winant, recalls him as funny and charismatic, an overachiever who was on the honor roll.

"He was usually president of everything," Winant says. "He was always a born leader and very charismatic. He could get people to believe anything."

"He was quite the family comic at times. He knew how to do something he called an elephant walk that would always get everyone laughing."

Applewhite had musical talents

Applewhite, who was born in 1931, was the son of a Presbyterian minister who started new churches and moved from place to place in Texas about every three years. As a teen-ager, the young Applewhite wanted to preach, too. But his real talents were musical.

"He had a beautiful voice," Winant says. "He had sung in a few operas and had also taught music at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. And he was just a very loving, wonderful brother."

Throughout his 30s, in the 1960s, Applewhite lived a very conventional life. He played starring roles in stage musicals in Colorado and Texas. He was the choir director at St. Marks Episcopal Church in Houston. In addition to teaching at the university, he sang 15 roles with the Houston Grand Opera. He married and had two children.

But he left his family in 1972 at a time when he felt his life was falling apart. He had met the 44-year-old nurse who would change him forever -- Bonnie Lu Nettles.

Nettles told him he could be 'used mightily'

As Applewhite has described events, he was at the hospital visiting a friend when he met Nettles. His sister tells a different story.

"He was living in Houston at the time, and he had some trouble with his heart and ended up in the hospital and, according to the nurses, had a near-death experience," she says. "And one of the nurses convinced him it that it was for a very special reason and that he could be used mightily in a group that she knew about."

"She began seeing him and talking him more into joining this group. And then they become sort of co-leaders for a while, but he always considered her the senior leader."

Applewhite and Nettles would live together in what he termed a sexless union until she died in 1985. They changed their names, first to Bo and Peep, then to Ti and Do.

In 1974, they were arrested in Harlingen, Texas, and charged with stealing credit cards and a car. They explained the items belonged to the husband of a member of their group.

Soon after the arrest, Applewhite and Nettles cut off all ties with their families.

"He came to see us in Dallas, where we were living at the time, to tell us that he was going off with this group and we would not hear from him again," she said. "And we, of course, tried to talk him out of it. I told him that this wasn't him, but he said, 'You don't know the real me.'"

In an amateur video recorded two years ago in Arizona, Applewhite described the reactions of family members of people who join his group.

"It seems to always cause all of the people in the periphery of your life to turn against you -- think that you've lost your marbles, you've gotten duped by someone who has a spell on you and will lead you down a crooked path," he said.

By 1975, duo claimed to be space aliens

Applewhite and Nettles made news in 1975 when they convinced a group of 20 people from Waldport, Oregon, to leave their homes and move to eastern Colorado, where they would meet with a space ship. They claimed to be space aliens in contact with aliens from a heavenly kingdom.

When the ship didn't come, the group stopped its public activities. It didn't resurface until 1993, when it bought an ad in USA Today saying that the earth's present civilization was about to be "recycled" and "spaded under."

Last October, Applewhite rented the house in Rancho Santa Fe. He told the owner his group was made up of Christian-based angels sent to Earth, affiliated with other groups in Arizona and New Mexico.

Less than six months later, those "angels" would all be dead.

"I don't think he needed to have a following," says Bebe Kok, a former Applewhite student. "I think he was the kind of person that truly believed and had a lot of charisma. And so other people followed him."

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