Surrounded by Riches, Cult Members Lived Closed Emotionless Lives

New York Times/March 28, 1997
By James Sterngold

Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. -- If there is a cult indigenous to this extraordinarily affluent, if puzzled, community just north of San Diego, it is the cult of good living.

In a region that is dry and flat, Rancho Santa Fe is wooded, rolling country with acres of golf courses, paddocks and shady cafes. A panel of residents called the Art Jury in this exclusive community must pass on the wattage of the lights illuminating the long driveways of the huge homes, on the color of the fences and on roofing materials. The average listing price for a house is a shade less than $2 million.

In an area also notable for its rich suntans, members of the Heaven's Gate cult stood out, many people here recalled, not just because they were taciturn, unemotional and seemingly unisexual, but because they were all so unnaturally pale. Nearly everyone interviewed made the same observation. The cult members seemed to know nothing of the golden sunshine here.

They were completely absorbed in a religion that they did not speak to outsiders about, but which guided their lives up to their conclusions, just five months after they made their way to a house here.

The mass suicide of 39 members of the cult has left Rancho Santa Fe startled, a bit testy at the assault on its privacy, and sifting through its few recollections of the group for harbingers of the deaths.

The sheriff's office has altered its initial statement that the victims were all young men, saying there were 21 women and 18 men, all dressed in what appear to have been black warm-up suits. All seem to have died lying down and most in their beds, as though they were going to sleep.

There were 2 blacks, perhaps 1 or 2 Hispanic members and the remainder were Caucasians, the sheriff's office said, with their ages ranging from the 20s to 72. The group's members carried driver's licenses and other forms of identification from Arizona, California, Canada, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Washington state.

The cult rented the house last October and began soliciting customers for its business, Higher Source, which created web pages for the Internet.

Cory VanKleeck, the manager of the Postal Annex shop, where the group rented a postal box and received letters as well as regular shipments of computer gear, said members of the group called incessantly last Thursday regarding a bank statement, then a few of them picked up their mail the next day, as usual. They were in a gold Toyota Corolla.

VanKleeck said the group had paid the $12 monthly fee for its box to July 1.

Heather Chronert, an assistant at the San Diego Polo Club, for which the cult constructed a web page on the Internet, recalled that the normally congenial members had seemed unusually agitated last fall in discussing something she had never heard of, the expected arrival this month of the Hale-Bopp comet. It was the only time she remembered them showing any emotion, she said, as they spoke of how much they were looking forward to the event.

Ms. Chronert added that she had called the group's office telephone 10 days ago to get some help with a problem on the web page, and received a call back from Stuart, the only member she knew by name. He left a message, she said, saying the group would be unavailable until after Easter because of "monastery activities."

A call to the group's business telephone on Thursday was answered by a recording of a man speaking rapidly: "This is Higher Source contract enterprises. We're unable to take your call right now, but we'd sure like to hear from you. Please leave your name and phone number and we'll be back to you shortly."

A message left on the machine on Thursday went unreturned.

Bill Strong, the group's next-door neighbor, said he rarely saw the cult members and exchanged almost no words with them. He said they came and went in several large vans.

The only unusual event involving the group came last Saturday, he recalled, when some of the members departed in great haste in the vans. That was the last he saw of them.

Tom Goodspeed, the general manager of the San Diego Polo Club, said his first contact with the group came when Stuart and two or three other members showed up last November, out of the blue, asking if the club was interested in building a web site.

He said that the club had been interested and that he negotiated an arrangement to get the work done at a cut rate in return for favorable business referrals to some of the polo club's members. He said he ultimately paid $1,000 in two equal installments for work that normally would have cost about $6,000. The work, he added, had been done superbly. "They were real computer nerds and they really knew about this stuff, but everyone thought they were just so strange," he said.

Goodspeed recalled the group's members as so odd in appearance and demeanor that at one point he advised them that if they wanted to succeed in their business, which they indicated they did, they ought to hire a "more normal" person as a contact person. They said they would consider it.

He and several other people recalled the oddness in the form of the uniformly buzz-type haircuts, for both the men and the women, the loose-fitting clothing, the frighteningly pale complexions, the passiveness of the members and their seeming lack of interest in most of what was happening around them.

Ms. Chronert said she occasionally joked with Stuart and some other members, who did not seem to care at all about their appearance. "One woman said she had been a nerd in high school," Ms. Chronert said, "but that now it didn't matter and it was more acceptable." She added, "They seemed like they were on a higher plane. They just had no connection."

But to prove that they were in touch with popular culture, Ms. Chronert said, the members had shown her a web site they had constructed on Madonna and her music.

The deaths have had little obvious impact on Rancho Santa Fe. Bertrand Hug, proprietor of the popular Milles Fleurs restaurant, said he received calls from people complaining that they did not want their dinner reservations affected by the crush of journalists.

Peter Smith, head of the Rancho Santa Fe Association, the governing body for the communithy of 4,400 people, said the event was perceived as a disruption for people who came here seeking a low-key way of life. The last big thing came last year when a hot air balloon crashed on a golf course.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.