Cult Leader Believed in Space Aliens and Apocalypse

New York Times/March 28, 1997
By Frank Bruni

Before he began his ultimately suicidal mission as an extraterrestrial shepherd to lead the chosen aboard a spaceship into eternity, Marshall Herff Applewhite lived an apparently unremarkable life in Houston as a music professor who nurtured the choir at his Episcopal church.

That was in the early 1970s, and people who knew him then said they saw no omens of the zealot Applewhite would become. But for reasons that were unclear, and with a suddenness that was equally mystifying, he was seemingly transformed into someone else from 1972 to 1975, a budding cult leader with beliefs in aliens and Armageddon.

Applewhite and a female companion, refashioning themselves first as Bo and Peep, and later as Do and Ti, set off on a nomadic adventure through the Midwest and West, preaching their unorthodox gospel and beckoning people to prepare with them for an ascent into the stars. It was that journey that apparently led to what happened inside a million-dollar house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., where the bodies of 39 cult members, who had committed suicide, were found on Wednesday.

Late Thursday, the authorities determined that the body of Applewhite, 65, was among those recovered from the house. There seems to be little question that the people in the house were disciples of Applewhite's preachings, which were accessible on the Internet and were being actively spread in public lectures by his followers as recently as last year, according to one writer who has done extensive research on Applewhite and his cult.

"He went underground for a long time, but then in the last two years, posters for his group began appearing in cities where New Age stuff was prominent," said the writer, Peter Klebnikov, who is researching a book on doomsday cults.

Klebnikov said the posters, which summoned people to special lectures, articulated a spiritual philosophy and apocalyptic outcome identical to those espoused through the years by Mr. Applewhite, and warned that the end was near.

According to various newspaper and magazine articles about Applewhite, his father was a Presbyterian minister, and Applewhite studied to become a minister but then switched his focus to music.

He received a master's degree in music from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1969, published reports said. While there, he played starring roles in two musicals, "Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific."

At some point, he married and had two children, Klebnikov said. Applewhite also went to Alabama and taught music at the University of Alabama, published reports said.

By 1971, he had apparently divorced, left his family and moved to Texas, which may have been born. Tom Crow, an organist at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Houston, where Applewhite worked from 1971 to 1972, said on Thursday that he believed Applewhite had been raised near Corpus Christi.

In Houston, Applewhite worked for several years as a music professor at St. Thomas University and sang 15 roles with the Houston Grand Opera, said a New York Times Magazine profile of him and his group in February 1976. He also directed the choir at St. Mark's.

"He was a superb musician, a superb singer and a super choir director," Crow said, adding that Applewhite was an "extraordinarily gentle fellow" whose patience seemed ideal for teaching.

Crow said that Applewhite had occasionally displayed a curiosity in meditation and Eastern mysticism but that it was nothing out of the ordinary.

"I wouldn't have seen any preview of any of the cult business that finally happened," Crow said.

Its genesis seems to have come in 1972, when Applewhite, then about 40, met a nurse named Bonnie Lu Nettles, then 44, and the two discovered a mutual interest in astrology and reincarnation and came to believe that they were the earthly incarnations of aliens.

Materials put on the Internet by the Heaven's Gate cult group, which the authorities have named in connection with the mass suicide, give this version of the meeting of Applewhite and Ms. Nettles:

"In the early 1970s, two members of the Kingdom of Heaven (or what some might call two aliens from space) incarnated into two unsuspecting humans in Houston. The registered nurse was happily married with four children, worked in the nursery of a local hospital, and enjoyed a small astrology practice. The music professor, who had lived with a male friend for some years, was contentedly involved in cultural and academic activities."

The Internet text continues, "They consciously recognized that they were sent from space to do a task that had something to do with the Bible."

The couple opened a short-lived book store in Houston called the Christian Arts Center, which sold information on astrology, metaphysics and Theosophy.

Then, according to the group's own writings, published reports and experts familiar with the cult started by Applewhite and Ms. Nettles, they began to take retreats during which they formulated their beliefs.

Klebnikov said they had set up a spiritual retreat of sorts in a house in Houston that they called Knowplace. Calling themselves Bo and Peep, they also traveled outside Texas to share their philosophy with others.

In August 1974, they were arrested in Harlingen, Texas, on charges of stealing credit cards and a car, according to the magazine profile of Applewhite published.

Both that article and the cult's own Internet materials said the credit cards belonged to the husband of a woman who had left home to join Bo and Peep.

The Internet materials said Applewhite was extradited to St. Louis, from which the car had been taken, but the authorities there could not provide details about the disposition of the case on Thursday.

It did not put an end to either Applewhite's travels or his proselytizing. In 1975, he and Ms. Nettles were preaching in Oregon, and they attracted national attention after persuading a group of about 20 people from the tiny coastal town of Waldport to sever all ties to the lives they were leading and make a pilgrimage to the prairie of eastern Colorado, where they would supposedly rendezvous with a space ship.

The notoriety that the incident brought them, and growing scrutiny by federal authorities and cult watchers, scared them underground for a long time after that, said Klebnikov. Crow, the organist in Houston, said that while people in Houston heard from Applewhite occasionally until 1975, they lost track of him at that point.

The group's Internet materials, which refer to Applewhite and Ms. Nettles as Do and Ti and as "The Two," said they and their followers went into deliberate seclusion for 17 years, until 1992. Ms. Nettles apparently died of cancer in 1985.

In those years of relative silence, Klebnikov said, they moved many times, usually throughout the West. Sometimes they lived in motels, sometimes in rented houses, sometimes in wilderness camps.

Jerome Clark, author of "The U.F.O. Encyclopedia," said that wherever they were, Bo and Peep kept careful track of their sheep, monitoring their followers' movements and their adherence to an ascetic life style, dressing them in odd uniforms and giving them "psychic training."

"Sometimes they were told to sit and stare at a single object for hours," Clark said.

The group showed up in places as disparate as Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, N.M. and Laramie, Wyo. Dr. Leo Sprinkle, an emeritus professor of counseling service at the University of Wyoming and a researcher of UFO experiences, recalled meeting Bo and Peep in Laramie when they spoke to his group, the Institute for U.F.O. Contactees Studies.

"They thought those of us that were doing UFO research did not have the full story that they had," Sprinkle said. "They were attempting to attract people who would go with them."

To survive, the members of the group did odd jobs or used the money that rich recruits brought with them. Clark said that the group bought houses in the Denver area and the Dallas area and called these houses "crafts," as in space crafts.

In 1993, according to the group's Internet materials, "we took a much more overt step toward the conclusion of our task." The group said it published an advertisement in USA Today that year that was titled "UFO Cult Resurfaces with Final Offer," along with advertisements in other publications that proclaimed, "Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human.".

"Again, the ball was rolling," the group said. "We were definitely in the public eye."

In 1994 and 1995, newspaper reports from various cities cite controversial public lectures by the group, then identifying itself as Total Overcomers, in which its followers talked about the coming end of the world and the need for people to renounce worldly belongings and desires.

But what is unclear from those reports, and what cult experts seemed uncertain about, was whether Mr. Applewhite made any of these appearances or emerged in public himself. The question of whether he was still tending to his flock, however, was resolved by the presence of his body among the dozens of other corpses in Rancho Santa Fe.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

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