Families Left Behind Share Years of Puzzled Anguish

New York Times/March 29, 1997
By Barry Bearak

Gail Maeder weighed less than 100 pounds. She grew up in Sag Harbor, N.Y. She went to Suffolk Community College. She loved animals, especially cats. She did not like to use too much paper because it meant killing trees. And she would have turned 27 this August if she had not joined what her parents called "the UFO cult."

"We kept hoping that someday she would just appear at the front door and we could throw our arms around her and tell her how much we loved her," said her father, Robert Maeder, in his Sag Harbor home.

The Maeder family, like dozens of other grieving families and a stunned, puzzled nation, is wondering what had been the magnetic pull that led 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult to commit suicide in a luxurious mansion near San Diego this week.

Late Friday, the authorities released the names of the victims. At first glance they were a curious mix: Thomas Nichols, the brother of Nichelle Nichols, the woman who played Lt. Uhura on the original "Star Trek"; Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, 41, a veteran postal worker and mother of five; Jackie Leonard, a 72-year-old grandmother from Iowa; David Geoffrey Moore, who 21 years ago was just a teen-ager who had gone to check out a cult meeting at a San Francisco area park.

But the common thread among them was the bafflement they caused their families. They often had left home suddenly. They were rarely in touch. They moved from place to place.

Gail Maeder left home five years ago, off on an adventure to California with her boyfriend. "At first she seemed happy," her father said. "She opened a small shop and did housework to pay the rent. But then she broke up with her boyfriend, lost her business and fell in with the wrong crowd.

"I think she got too depressed and then got involved with the cult. We first knew it was this UFO cult when she wrote us a note about three years ago on the back of a cult flyer: 'This is what I'm doing. Don't worry, I'm happy.'

"There was nothing we could say or do to get her back. We tried everything. It was like they kidnapped her mind."

Yvonne McCurdy-Hill's five kids ranged in age from a baby to a 19-year-old. She had a husband. She had friends. She had a steady job, sorting mail. She was a computer whiz who loved playing around on the Internet. And on the Internet, she read about the group called Heaven's Gate.

Last summer, she and her husband abruptly left the children, their other relatives and their home in Cincinnati, the two of them bound for California and some curious new path through the thickets of the soul.

Her husband came back, but Ms. McCurdy-Hill stayed on, devoted to the wisdom of a computer-age cult and prepared to separate herself from her earthly body. Her family never understood.

"We are going through a tough time," the McCurdy family said Friday in a statement read by their minister. "We appreciate your prayers during this time of tragedy, and we ask for your support."

Nancie Brown, David Moore's mother, told The Associated Press, "It's been, I'd say, 21 years of losing." She lives now in Carmel, Calif. Over two decades, she had heard from her son only twice.

Angelo Bellizi, of Seattle, Jackie Leonard's son-in-law, said the elderly woman had left her Iowa home in the early 1970s. The departure has always confounded the family.

"Grandmothers don't run away," he said. "The kids are supposed to run away."

After hearing that her brother had died in the mass suicide, Ms. Nichols was shocked and under sedation, according to her agent, Jim Meecham. The two "had not been in close touch," the agent said.

Driver's licenses and other identification that were found on the dead showed a variety of home addresses: 10 people were from New Mexico, 8 from Texas, 6 from California, 4 from Colorado, 3 each from Arizona and Utah, 1 each from Florida, Minnesota and Ohio. Two victims carried no identification papers.

At one time, several of the abandoned families had located each other and formed a network. Occasionally, when they knew the location of the cult, they tried to reach their loved ones with anguished letters.

Families made copies of what they had written and shared them; some letters were saved by Nancie Brown.

One read: "It is almost Christmas time again. My how time flies! We had hoped we'd hear from you again by now so we'd know you were alright, but guess no news is good news.

"Remember we love you and want you home with us so much! Take care and God bless and keep you! Love and kisses, Mom and Dad."

Another read: "The years speed by, full and wonderful for me and I hope for you. I feel sad not being able to share some of your marvelous experiences. I took special delight in your person and was always amazed at my part in producing you.

"Your grandfather died at 94. Imagine -- it's the passing of an era. He left a gift for you. Do get in touch to claim it. I love you, Susie. From Jane."

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