Families Getting the News They Feared

New York Times/March 29, 1997
By Carey Goldberg

Kearny Mesa, Calif. -- Hour after hour for two days, Calvin Vine has performed the loathsome task of turning old dread into new grief, informing family members who telephoned that yes, their relatives had been among the purple-shrouded dead.

Vine, the supervising investigator at the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office here, had not slept for 70 hours when he spoke at a news conference Friday afternoon. He said he and more than a dozen other workers had fielded more than 1,000 calls from worried relatives Thursday and nearly 500 Friday. Most families received good news.

But for the relatives of 30 of the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult who committed mass suicide in nearby Rancho Santa Fe, the calls turned into confirmations of their worst pit-of-the-stomach worries about a loved one who had been sucked into cult life years ago.

"Most of the families are breaking down when we're talking to them," Vine said. "That's part of our job, to help them through."

The experience of his telephone workers confirmed reports of the isolated, nomadic life that Heaven's Gate members had led, cut off from their old identities. Vine said that of all the relatives his crew had spoken with, the most recent contact anyone had had with a cult member had been two years ago.

As the bad news was leaving the medical examiner's office, some of the last of the 39 suicides were still arriving -- making a final journey not as liberated souls in a comet-borne spaceship but as white-sheeted bundles loaded by forklift into the frigid confines of the morgue.

No one was rushing to San Diego to claim the bodies, which members of the group had called their "human containers." A county spokesman said that of the 30 families involved, none had evinced any interest in picking up the remains personally.

Vine said there was actually no need for families to come, because there was no question about the suicides' identities, and arrangements to return the remains for funerals could be made through mortuaries. Family members also had no desire to be besieged by reporters, the authorities said.

It appeared that the lack of desire among family members to come claim the bodies might stem in part from the distance that had grown between them and long-lost cult members. But medical examiners said their unwillingness was nothing unusual, and that 11 were already at work on funeral arrangements.

Although television and movies still commonly feature scenes in which tearful relatives recognize a corpse pulled out of a morgue drawer, relatives are virtually never called upon to identify a body in person, said Scott Carrier, a longtime investigator and spokesman for the Los Angeles County coroner's office.

"We haven't done things like that since the '50s," he said.

Because of the sheer number of cases involved, Los Angeles has sent 4 employees to aid San Diego's 8 medical examiners and 15 investigators. Los Angeles has also supplied two refrigerated trucks with the capacity to hold 14 bodies, Carrier said.

But despite the spectacular nature of the mass suicide, coroners said the autopsies were noteworthy only in number.

The procedures are standard. Investigators photograph the corpses and conduct toxicology studies. That is, they gather tissue samples and test them in the laboratory for drugs and alcohol. They also test blood and urine.

"Every coroner in the country does this on a daily basis," Carrier said. "This isn't anything earth-shattering."

In fact, with initial tests on five bodies complete, nothing about the causes of the deaths, coroners said, appeared as mysterious as the group's decision to commit suicide.

Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the San Diego County medical examiner, said the tests had detected only the combination of phenobarbital and alcohol that had already been identified, along with suffocation, as the probable cause of death. Three of the bodies examined contained lethal doses of phenobarbital, he said; the two others contained the drug as well, but not at lethal levels.

The autopsies also revealed that some of the men had been castrated, but long ago, Blackbourne said.

Vine said that a page in a spiral binder laid out even more clearly "the routine" of the suicides, as it was called: how 8 "assistants" at a time would help 15 members of the group commit suicide.

Although the autopsies weren't unusual, the members of the medical examiner's staff appeared to be feeling the pressure and the grief of handling the victims of the largest mass suicide on American soil. Some workers said they had been particularly struck by the eerie neatness of the scene.

They had seen mass deaths before. In 1978, 135 people died in an airline crash in downtown San Diego, and in 1984, 21 people died when a man opened fire in a McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif. But the orderly, peaceful deaths in the Rancho Santa Fe mansion differed markedly from the chaotic carnage that characterized those earlier incidents.

And few had seen the likes of the worldwide attention the mass suicide has brought.

Robert Brunk, the San Diego sheriff's deputy who discovered the bodies Wednesday, said that when he and his partner had realized the extent of the deaths they had come upon, he thought, "The world's going to come down on us now."

Blackbourne said the televised broadcast of farewell videotapes from some of those who had committed suicide had badly upset some family members who called. They had seen their relatives saying goodbye on national television before they had been officially notified of their deaths, he said.

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