Waldport, Oregon – One late March day in 1997 presented a disturbing scene in California that sent chills around the nation. A cult group called Heaven's Gate had committed mass suicide in an affluent neighborhood of San Diego, with police finding 39 bodies in a sprawling mansion. Room after room yielded more bodies for those on the scene, marking their psyches for life. Each of them lay peacefully as if they'd quietly gone to sleep, dressed in the exact same outfit down to the same Nike shoes. Above: in the late '60s, this hotel (now the Alsi Resort), began as the Pat Boone Inn, co-owned by the singer and featuring him wearing a pink leisure suit on its sign. Within a few years, it became the Bayshore Inn and hosted a notorious Heaven's Gate meeting in '75. It's pictured here in 2004.
For two Oregon coast towns, however, the incident hit a special nerve: the group had distinct connections to Gold Beach and Waldport. Those links reached all the way back to the beginning of the strange UFO cult up to just weeks before their bizarre demise.
The genesis of this end times-meets-UFO cult was in 1973, created by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, reportedly thought up during or around the time of a camping trip they made to the Gold Beach area of the southern Oregon coast. Often going by the nicknames of Do and Ti, the pair emerged from the wilderness claiming thereafter to be “The Two” - a reference to two witnesses in the Bible who had seen the end of days. This, combined with a hearty belief in aliens and a variety of other New Age aspects created the basis for a religion that eventually preached you could have your soul whisked away by an alien spacecraft, as well as one that insisted on absolute gender neutrality in dress and demeanor (which also meant some male members later attempted castration).
The group went by names other than Heaven's Gate initially, but over the years made a few pilgrimages to the Oregon coast and Gold Beach. Just two years after it began, cult leaders held a now-infamous meeting in Waldport, at what was then called the Bayshore Inn (now the Alsi Resort).
In September of 1975, posters began popping up around the central Oregon coast town with the enigmatic statement: "UFO's. Why they are here. Who they have come for. When they will leave." Purportedly more of a spiritual lecture that incorporated UFO lore, it wasn't advertised as a recruitment meeting – but it wound up being just that. At first, locals joked about the event, though it brought in 150 people from the area into the meeting hall at Bayshore Inn. The local paper ran a photo of the mayor tossing a UFO into the air.
After the cult's mass suicide in Cali, media interviews abounded with folks from Waldport who had been in and out of Heaven's Gate (and luckily no former Waldportians were a part of that grisly moment). Aaron Greenburg, living in Eugene in 1997, told the NY Times he recalled the pair's enthusiasm as captivating, and equated Applewhite's demeanor as akin to Richard Dreyfuss' character in Close Encounters as he piled up mashed potatoes in that inimitable scene.
Shortly after the meeting, nearly two dozen residents disappeared, and many were known to have sold their belongings. Worry erupted along this part of the central Oregon coast and the story even ran on the national news. Some 20 people had joined the cult after the lecture, following Nettles and Applewhite to a huge gathering in Arizona where everyone thought they might actually meet up with a UFO.
Oregon State Police investigated and found there was nothing they could do with adults that had decided to run off, even cutting family ties.
Eventually, the brouhaha blew over, and through the years hundreds came and went in that cult, with all the central Oregon coasties leaving eventually. Nettles died in ‘85 and Applewhite tightened his very un-utopian grip on the cult.
Then, almost twenty days before the dark find in California, the group made its way to Gold Beach one more time and stayed at Jot's Resort. At the time, the Associated Press reported owner Sam Walker recognized Applewhite as one of the guests after seeing his mug on TV. The cult kept careful ledgers and noted they spent $1,378 for all 39 to stay there.
With all members dressed in the same outfits and matching close-cropped hair, they “freaked” out employees. Beyond that, they did everything in unison, such as getting up at the exact same minute and showering at the same time. This resulted in the hotel running out of hot water a little after 5 a.m. They brought in cases of their own food, mostly bland things like bread and fruit pies. Employees also noted that while they left the rooms immaculate, they left behind odd little balls of different colored lint.
In 1997, the whole tragedy left people in Waldport wondering why the hell their own little town had been a part of this. In fact, between this and the Rajneeshee incident of the ‘80s, Oregonians pondered why cults in general had made up part of its recent history in such a potent way.