Families Learn of 39 Who Died Willingly

New York Times/March 29, 1997
By B. Drummond Ayres Jr.

Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. -- After fielding more than 1,500 telephone calls from anguished relatives across the country in the last 24 hours, investigators said Friday that they had identified 30 of the 39 members of a millenarian cult who had committed mass suicide in a hillside mansion here.

Officials of the San Diego County Sheriff's Office released the names to the public Friday evening and pleaded for help in identifying the remaining nine bodies.

At the same time, investigators revealed that about a half-dozen of the 18 male members of the cult who died had been surgically castrated, including Marshall Herff Applewhite, the 65-year-old leader of the group whose body was also found among the dead. The group demanded celibacy of its members and avoided any suggestion of sensuality.

Speaking at an afternoon press conference, Brian Blackbourne, the chief medical examiner, said the castrations appeared to have been done sometime well in the past and had been carried out with satisfactory surgical skill. He offered no other details or explanations of the finding.

The bodies of the group, identified by the authorities as Heaven's Gate, were discovered in the mansion Wednesday, scattered on their backs on cots and mattresses. All but two had purple cloths over their heads and shoulders like shrouds. Most of them died of suffocation. Plastic bags had apparently been placed over their heads after they had ingested a potent mix of phenobarbitol and alcohol.

According to material the group posted on its Internet site, the timing of the mass suicide was probably related to the arrival of the Hale-Bopp Comet, which members seemed to regard as a cosmic emissary beckoning them to another world.

As the authorities went about the sad task of notifying and talking with relatives of the victims Friday, a farewell videotape made by the cult members suggested that they had gone to their deaths quite willingly, some even joyfully.

"We couldn't be happier about what we're going to do," one woman said, her voice choking a bit but her face anything but sad. Another woman, smiling, added, "We are all happy to be doing what we are doing."

A toll-free number set up by the police led many relatives to call in, already suspecting the worst because, in many cases, their loved ones had been away or out of contact for months or even years.

Other relatives called in after excerpts of the tape, in which pairs of cult members spoke, one after another, were broadcast over national television.

"Most of the families are breaking down when we talk to them," said Calvin Vine, an investigator from the San Diego County Medical Examiners Office. By contrast, there was a tear or two on the farewell tape, but they seemed almost tears of joy.

The authorities said that while they were dealing with a mass suicide almost without parallel in the United States, it nevertheless appeared to be nothing more than that, with no suspicious criminal elements.

"We are proceeding with the preliminary conclusion that what we are looking at is, in fact, 39 suicides," said one investigator, Jack Drown, a San Diego County undersheriff.

He conceded, however, that it might never be known just what kind of cult mindset had led the members of the group, known as Heaven's Gate, to shut themselves up in a rented palatial house and then consume lethal combinations of vodka and phenobarbitol.

To that point, the group had lived quietly, almost unnoticed in this upscale community, with members spending much of their time designing computer programs for various commercial clients.

"I'm not too sure we will ever have satisfactory answers," Drown said.

Investigators also disclosed Friday that the cult, which had a nomadic history in this country, might have been planning a trip of some sort abroad. They said that while checking the house, they had found a map plastered to a wall with markings that indicated the course of an overseas journey.

The investigators did not elaborate.

The farewell tape, broadcast by ABC television, was especially strikingly for its upbeat tone, considering what lay ahead for those speaking and peering into the camera. On it, one cult member -- none identified themselves -- said his death would bring him "just the happiest day of my life."

"I've been looking forward for this for so long," he added.

A woman who appeared to be in her 20s looked intently into the camera and said, grinning broadly, "We are all choosing of our own free will to go to the next level."

Another woman said, "We just wish you could all be here and doing what we are doing."

The tone of that farewell tape, made with the cult members sitting in pairs on chairs placed outside in a setting of trees and bushes, was similar to the tone of another tape found after the 39 bodies were discovered, with men and women alike dressed all in black, their hair closely cropped and their faces covered by diamond-shaped purple cloths.

On the second tape, Applewhite attempted to explain why he and the others were about to take their lives. He said that human bodies were just temporary earthly parking places for the soul and that suicide would free the soul to make a rendezvous on a higher plane of existence with an Unidentified Flying Object that is trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet, currently on a swing past Earth.

"We have no hesitation to leave this place, to leave the bodies that we have," he concluded.

As of late Friday, the coroners had completed 21 of the autopsies, and medical examiners said they were prepared to release some bodies to relatives as early as this weekend. Relatives were being told that they did not need to come to San Diego to claim their loved ones but could instead have mortuaries arrange shipments.

While the cult members may have taken many of their secrets to the grave, the authorities said Friday 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."

Also Friday, the authorities provided further details of the elaborate planning that went into the suicides.

Blackbourne described one document, found by detectives, that was titled "The Routine." It outlined how the cult members were to go about killing themselves.

First, it said, 15 of the 39 cult members, called "classmates," would kill themselves with help from 8 "assistants." Then 15 more "classmates" and 8 more "assistants" would repeat the process.

It was unclear how the final 9 cult members were to go about killing themselves.

To bring on death, the cult members were to ingest, in order, a dosage of Dramamine, followed by "tea & toast," followed an hour later by "alco. & med."

When the bodies of the cult members were searched, Blackbourne said, the pockets of their matching black tunics were found to contain a collection of odd items -- $5 bills, rolls of quarters, tubes of lip balm, pencils and ballpoint pens, and facial tissue.

Beside each body was a travel bag. But Blackbourne said he had not been told what the bags contained.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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