Heaven's Gate Survivor Keeps Faith

The Associated Press/March 26, 2002
By Seth Hettena

San Diego -- Rio DiAngelo walked away from the regimented life within the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997 after three years, but a message from cult members drew him back a month later to the group's rented hilltop mansion.

There, on March 26, 1997, he uncovered the worst mass suicide on U.S. soil. The 39 cult members killed themselves, believing they were shedding their earthly "containers'' to catch a ride on a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet.

Five years later, DiAngelo, or "Neody'' as he was known in the group, still sees himself as its messenger.

"I'm really the only one left,'' the 48-year-old Los Angeles resident said.

Interviews with news organizations five years ago left DiAngelo angry at the media, but he agreed reluctantly to a phone interview with The Associated Press last week.

Little remains from the group whose androgynous-looking men and women downed a lethal concoction of pudding or applesauce spiked with vodka and barbiturates. They sealed their fate by placing plastic bags over their heads.

The group's possessions have been auctioned off. The 9,000-square-foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, one of San Diego's northern neighborhoods, was sold for a fraction of its value.

Now a free-lance designer who makes ergonomic items, DiAngelo is applying what he learned from Heaven's Gate to his earthly life and cashing in on it. DiAngelo is auctioning off the cult's van on eBay to mark the Tuesday anniversary of the suicide.

He is asking a minimum of $39,000 for the 1992 Ford van, which cult members once used for road trips to SeaWorld and Las Vegas.

Some victims, who ranged in age from 26 to 72, had traveled around the country with the group for decades. They included Jackie Leonard, a grandmother who was the eldest member of the group, and Thomas Nichols, 59, whose sister, Nichelle, played Lt. Uhura on TV's "Star Trek.''

Clad in black outfits with "Away Team'' patches and Nike tennis shoes with their trademark comet-like swoosh, each packed a small bag and carried identification, $5 and some change for their journey toward what they believed was a "level beyond human.''

Two other cultists later followed with similar suicides.

"They weren't trying to kill themselves because of a crazy idea, although some people saw it as a crazy idea,'' DiAngelo said. "It really is an advanced level of being.''

DiAngelo said cult leader Marshall Applewhite, 66, known as "Do,'' was from another planet and taught DiAngelo to be more aware, honest and sensitive to the world around him: in short, a better person.

"What I've gained from this group is phenomenal,'' he said. "If he is just a gay music teacher from Texas how he could teach all these advanced ways of being that really work?''

At the same time, DiAngelo, is not sentimental about the past.

He signed a development deal to write a TV movie based on Heaven's Gate, but the project never got off the ground. A tabloid offered him $1 million for exclusive rights to his story five years ago, but he refused, preferring to preserve the dignity of his departed friends. Today, he said he'd take the money.

His life today is far from his days in Heaven's Gate, when members watched selected TV programs in assigned seats and wrote the "Individual Needs Department'' when they ran out of deodorant.

He has re-established contact with his 19-year-old son and earns his living working in the nation's second-biggest city, slogging his way through daily traffic jams.

"Here I am a slave to commerce like everybody else,'' he said.

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