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The Sunday TimesPlus

6th April 1997



When they hitched a ride to eternity

From Lakshmi Pieris in Los Angeles

The rented mansion where they lived and left collectively, to hitch a ride to eternity, was unusually quiet from outside. Inside there was no blood, no bullet marks, no fire, no mess and no signs of resistance whatsoever. That’s how they planned their departure from this planet ‘Earth.’

When the details began to surface of how they lived and how they died, it was clear that in comparison to the violent deaths of other cult groups - the Branch Davidians, Rev. Jim Jones People’s temple in Guyana, or the Order of the Solar Temple - the Heaven’s Gate suicides in california, USA were an orderly affair.

The cult members also had a bizarre "last supper" prior to their journey to eternity. But in this case there was no Judas involved. The day before the suicide ritual began all 39 of them got off a minibus at Marie Callender’s Restaurant in the scenic seaside town of Carlsbad about 5 miles away from their mansion home. They piled out and occupied eight tables in a separate dining area. The appearance of the group attracted the attention of the staff, and the manager of the place thought they were all cancer patients, with their short cropped hair seeming to be the result of radiation treatments. The group also wore the same type of dark pants and long sleeve shirts.

Their food order was identical. They ordered 39 turkey pot pies and 39 iced teas, with lemon. Dessert was 39 slices of cheesecake. The Staff was curious. When they asked, from where they were, they gave an evasive response politely. They settled their bill in cash in full $350, in dollars.

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Until Sunday the last autopsies of the dead cult members were conducted in detail. During the process they found out that the leader of the cult Marshall Applewhite and five other members had been surgically castrated. According to one of their Internet Web pages Heaven’s Gate members believed they would be taken to a higher plane by a UFO if they practised an ascetic, celibate lifestyle.

As police sought to tie up the loose ends of their investigation details of the Heaven’s Gate lifestyle continued to emerge. It sounded crazy. Hearing the news the nation was stunned. It all started with a religious cult and a mass suicide that took place in one of the mansions in one of the richest neighbourhoods in Rancho Santa Fe, in southern California.

Members of the cult, 39 in all, with their suitcases packed, downed a cocktail of barbiturates and vodka and quietly lay down on their neatly made bunk beds and cots to die in a suicide pact.

The appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp was the signal for the "Heaven’s Gate" cult members to take their final ritual on the planet earth. An Internet site linked to the mansion indicated that the members believed that a spaceship was coming to take them to a heavenly existence. An entry on the website described the cult’s belief that spaceships were the vehicle to heaven. "The joy is that our Older member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the Kingdom Heaven) has made it clear to us that Hale Bopp’s approach is the "marker" we have been waiting for - the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the level above Human to take us home to ‘their World’ - in the literal Heavens.

The man who apparently founded that cult "Heavenly Gate" and led the members in to mass suicide was once a highly respected University of St. Thomas Music Professor, in Houston Texas. Professor Marshall Herff Applewhite was later terminated due to health problems of an emotional nature. His students remember him as affable likeable, handsome and powerfully built, with a superb operatic baritone.

Two video tapes were found on a table near the dead bodies. One of the tapes carried farewell messages of 38 cult members, which explained why they were taking their own lives. In the second tape only one cult member appears, but there was no indication that he was the leader of the cult. The group also mailed video tapes to a minister in Ohio which showed images of a bald, elderly man in a black collarless shirt seated on a plastic chair, who apparently was beckoning followers to leave the earth.

The video arrived with a warning letter that the group would be dead by the time the package arrived at its destination. The letter said, "We will be gone - several dozens of us. We came from the level above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly tasks, to return to the world from whence we came task completed.

The whole saga was unveiled when the police received an annonymous tip on Wednesday night requesting them to check on the well-being of the inmates of the mansion. When sheriffs entered the home they were shocked to find ten dead bodies in the immediate vicinity of the house. They retreated and handed over the investigation to homicide detectives.

‘Do,’ leader of the cult likened himself to Christ, calling himself the son of heavenly Father. He criticized the established religions as the homes of con artists who prayed on the hopes and dreams of others. Those who did not succumb to their teachings, he said, took the first step towards reaching the Evolutionry Level. As Jesus came and left in a ‘cloud of light’, ‘Do’ told his followers that they also would leave in the same fashion - in a UFO belonging to the ‘Kingdom of God’.

‘Heaven’s Gate’ members paid their rent in cash. Cash was also used to pay telephone bills which ran into about 1,000 dollars a month. Members told the Landlord that they did not have any identification numbers or Social security cards, Drivers’ Licence or checking accounts. "They did not want to have anything in their names. They did not feel there was any authority or government over them. They did not want secular authorities to hold power over them," said the attorney of the Iranian Landlord. According to him one woman member was on a wheel chair. "Members were cordial, polite and occasionally humorous", he said.

Mark Applewhite, a resident in Corpus Christi Texas who spoke for the first time, after the bizzare events, said that he was appalled by the things that have resulted from the actions of his father and the others in the cult. He said he wanted to make a statement for two reasons. "To express his condolences to all the families involved. And to present, hope of something good coming out of something terrible. "If there is anyone else out there wondering what to do with their life, the answer is in the BIBLE," he said.

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