Cult Group's Leader Among Suicides

Washington Post/March 29 1997
By William Booth and William Claiborne

San Diego -- Authorities identified 30 of the 39 members of the space-age cult Heaven's Gate who committed mass suicide, and a portrait began to emerge of people who left everything behind -- spouses, children and jobs -- to disappear into a disciplined and demanding life that promised its members a ticket to a "higher Kingdom."

Authorities who contacted relatives of the dead said today many of the families said they had not heard from cult members in years.

The members had been recruited from around the country, particularly western states and from communities with colleges known for supporting alternative lifestyles. They lived communally, taking vows of celibacy, sharing food and money. For many years, they begged for meals and gas money from churches or students, traveling like vagabonds. It was only recently that they entered the computer business, designing World Wide Web pages and using the money to rent the vast estate in the hills north of San Diego where they ended their long, strange trip.

As families were notified of long-lost children or parents, police indicated that their investigation was nearing conclusion and that the members all voluntarily committed suicide -- calmly and methodically -- a dramatic conclusion reached after the appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp in the night sky.

Cult members believed the comet was a "marker" announcing the appearance of an alien space vehicle come to shuttle them to a higher plane of existence, away from their earthly bodies, which they called mere "containers."

Nichelle Nichols, an actress who played Lt. Uhura on the original "Star Trek" television series, disclosed that she lost her brother, Thomas Nichols, 59, in the mass suicide.

The two were "not in close touch," said her manager, Jim Meecham. "She did see him just a few years ago." He said the actress, who has recently promoted a line of telephone psychics, was shocked and under sedation.

Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, a 39-year-old Cincinnati woman, left behind five children in September to join the Heaven's Gate cult. The family's pastor said she learned of the cult from the Internet.

McCurdy and her husband, Steven M. Hill, a man six years her junior, have five children, ranging in age from 18 years to 7-month-old twins. Hill, according to family members, was "addicted to science fiction and aliens." His wife, Yvonne, became interested in the Heaven's Gate philosophy last year. They left their children and moved to California to join the group in September. Hill moved back to Cincinnati some time later, but was unable to convince McCurdy-Hill to return with him.

David Geoffrey Moore, 41, was also among the cult's dead, and his mother Nancie Brown described how she lost her son to the group 21 years ago.

"I had no idea where they've ever lived. There's never been an address," Brown said.

Former members and researchers who have studied the group said the cult demanded that members leave their families behind and live as monks in a commune, sharing everything, living together in roving "classrooms."

"Most of the families realized they were in the cult, or had been in different cults, but they had not had contact with them over the years," said Calvin Vine, the official from the Medical Examiner's office who contacted family members.

Angelo Bellizzi, whose son married a daughter of Jacqueline Leonard, 72, who committed suicide with the group, said, "She just disappeared sometime in the early 1970s. She left her husband, left her kids and just took off. . . . Nobody knew where the hell she went."

Bellizzi said Leonard did not return for her daughter's wedding.

About five years ago, members of the cult began an intense search for recruits, traveling around the country, speaking not only at colleges but at meetings of UFO buffs and New Age seminars. In recent years, they appeared in Atlanta, Missoula, Las Vegas and Durham, N.H. The group, whose existence dates back decades, also conducted heavy recruiting in the 1970s, traveling to a small ocean-side Oregon town called Waldport, where they gathered up some 20 members. It is not known how many members were long-time participants or newer recruits.

Several years ago, they also trolled for recruits on the Internet and offered promises of moving from "the human level to the heavenly kingdom."

Robert McKown, who was a student studying cults in college, attended a meeting in 1994 with members of Heaven's Gate at the First Existentialist Church in Atlanta.

"They were very focused, very disciplined," McKown recalled. "They gave testimonials. They offered a lot of things, but kept talking about the notion of transcendence, of going to a higher level."

McKown said about 50 people attended the meeting, and that after it was over, cult members focused on the curious who lingered, trying to encourage them to come along in their VW bus.

"They said they were just here to testify, but they were selling it. They definitely had a planned pitch and they were selling the group."

In one videotape released by a surviving group member to a television station in Michigan, a woman with close-cropped hair speaks before the camera: "Maybe they're crazy for all I know, but I don't have any choice but to go for it, because I've been on this planet for 31 years and there's nothing here for me.

She continued: "I don't feel there was any way that anybody could say that I was influenced by somebody's strong personality. . . . The second time I sat with King Do, I felt absolutely [that] there was no lie in [him], that there was truth and goodness beyond anything I've ever seen."

As information began to trickle out about the victims, police confirmed that the group's leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite, 66, was among the dead. He was found alone in the master bedroom of the $1.6 million estate in the wealthy San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe.

Applewhite, who called himself Do and was referred to as King Do by some cult members, was the only one found alone.

Police also said several of the cult's male members, including Applewhite, had at some point been surgically or chemically castrated. The cult insisted that its members refrain from sexual activity. San Diego County Medical Examiner Brian G. Blackbourne said Applewhite had apparently undergone a "remote," or chemical, castration "some time ago" and showed no evidence of surgical scars.

The walls of the home had at least three drawings of alien beings, shown as the almond-eyed and hairless creatures with big heads popular in science fiction and UFO accounts.

There was also a map of the world, with cities around the globe marked with dots. Lt. Jerry Lipscomb of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department's homicide division said the map "indicated they planned to go to different countries."

Investigators stressed that they found no evidence of foul play and police detectives said the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult were "the core isolated group" and did not appear to be the splinter of any larger cult operating elsewhere.

When asked if any member of the group may have left the house alive, Lipscomb said, "There's nothing to support that concept."

Investigators also referred to a sheet of paper they found at the suicide scene, titled "The Routine." It briefly outlined the systematic way in which the cult undertook the mass suicide in three stages over several days.

The first 15 "classmates" would kill themselves, with the help of eight "assistants." Then another 15, also assisted by eight fellow members, would commit suicide. And then the final group would "help each other." The document also noted that the postal mails could take three days, so investigators speculated the group members wanted to be dead before their actions were announced to former members and the media.

Police said they were convinced that the deaths were all voluntary suicides. Autopsies have been completed on 21 victims and Blackbourne said toxicology tests on the first five showed evidence of phenobarbital, a powerful sedative. Of the five, three victims had enough of the drug in their bodies to kill them. Investigators suspect the deaths were hastened by cult members covering their heads with plastic bags.

San Diego Sheriff's deputy Robert Brunk, the first to enter the estate, described the scene as "almost like it wasn't real." The odor, he said, was immediately overpowering when he first openned a kitchen door. Despite the gruesome discovery, Brunk described the scene as "serene."

Applewhite and the group's co-leader, Bonnie Lu Trousdale Nettles, spent months traversing the country and gradually coming to the conclusion that they were the two "witnesses" mentioned in the Book of Revelation. The referred to themselves alternately, as Bo and Peep or The Two and later as Do and Ti.

They first began communicating their message and recruiting cult members in Ojai, Calif., in March 1975. Their followers were self-described hippies and various lost souls for whom, in the words of former cult member Dick Joslyn, the two leaders were "everyone's Mom and Dad."

Logistics were haphazard. The group often broke up into smaller units, which would then recruit around the country. There would be reunions, or "classrooms," in various campsites around the western United States. In the late 1970s the cult disbanded and went underground. Nettles died sometime around 1985 of liver cancer. Applewhite resurfaced in 1992.

A "student" of the group wrote on the cult's Web site that when Applewhite began preaching his UFO gospel again "those who watched and responded were almost entirely our own "lost sheep" -- that is, crew members who had previously dropped away, having been overcome in earlier years by the temptations of an increasingly decadent civilization."

Staff writers Judith Havemann and Joel Achenbach and staff researcher Margot Williams contributed from Washington; staff writer Tom Kenworthy contributed from San Diego; special correspondents Cassandra Stern and Sharon Waxman contributed from Los Angeles.

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