They were right, in a way: They were not really of this Earth.
All the things that bond a person to the world -- family, friends, jobs -- were abandoned, cut away, excised. They tried to overcome their urges, their natural human desires. They used castration as a technique to subdue what the cult called "human-mammalian behavior." They struggled to overcome such mundane personal failings as procrastination, untidiness and the use of too much toothpaste.
The UFO cult known as "Heaven's Gate" did not really live anywhere on the planet, at least no place in particular. Its members had been on the move for more than two decades. At their final celebratory meal last weekend, eating 39 identical turkey pot pies, a waiter asked where they were from. "From the car," one replied.
The death mansion wasn't really a home. It was just another in a series of sterile rented houses. They could promise the owners, truthfully, that despite their great numbers they would leave no mark, no sign that anyone had lived there. In the silent video of the corpses lying on bunk beds there is no sign of decorations on the walls and few personal effects.
The arrival of comet Hale-Bopp was the signal that their odyssey would go in a new direction. They hated their world. They had nowhere to go but up.
Authorities in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., hindered by the cult's passion for anonymity, were still identifying some of the dead yesterday and notifying next of kin. But cult documents and extensive interviews with former cult members and people associated with the group have made it increasingly clear that UFOs, space aliens and Hale-Bopp were just packaging. They were the gloss on a theology that promised an end to suffering, doubt, confusion, the various pains of being human. Had extraterrestrials not been so prominent a part of the Zeitgeist there might have been some other means by which Marshall Herff Applewhite sold his apocalyptic gospel.
Applewhite knew: A man selling answers can always find people asking questions.
"We were seekers of what was going on, why were we here, what's the purpose of life," said former cult member Robert Rubin.
The secret to the sale is to be absolutist, terrifying, and at the same time reassuring. To follow him is to live forever. A Lot of Chemicals'
Herff Applewhite's journey to the fringe and beyond began in the early 1970s, when he was a music professor in Houston. A charismatic man just entering his forties, he taught at a conservative Catholic college. In private he used drugs with the neighborhood crowd, including a friend, Ray Hill, now a local radio personality.
"We'd sit around cross-legged on bean bags with incense burning," Hill recalled. "Herff would talk his spiritualist stuff. The music was strange and there were a lot of chemicals -- reefer, hallucinogens."
Although it was the height of the so-called sexual revolution, Applewhite found that his own sexuality brought only agony and guilt. He had been married with two kids, but had secret homosexual liaisons.
"Herff always had a kind of struggle with sexual guilt," Hill said. "If Herff could cloak his sexual encounters with a spiritual ritual event, he would." After his divorce, Applewhite moved in with another man. There followed a period of "severe upheaval and personal confusion," in the words of a Heaven's Gate treatise written in 1988, apparently by Applewhite, that gives the best synopsis of the cult's history and is posted on the group's Web site.
Applewhite had himself castrated. It was the most sexually revolutionary act anyone could imagine. Years later, some of his male followers would do the same. Applewhite's private torment had been converted into a vaporous dogma, a belief that to rise to the Next Level one had to give up any use of "reproductive organs." One blissed-out young man seen on a cult videotape last week referred to himself as neutered, and said, "I can't tell you how free that has made me feel."
Dick Joslyn, a member of the cult for 15 years and a University of Maryland graduate, defended the castrations. He said he considered it himself but chose not to do it.
"They did it because it was a celibate group. It's a time honored religious tradition," said Joslyn, now living in Tampa. "Even Jesus said, very clearly, there are some who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake."
In 1971, Applewhite met Bonnie Nettles, an astrologer and nurse. They felt like they had known each other all their lives, and decided that their acquaintance went back even farther than that, to previous incarnations. Nettles left her husband, Joseph S. Nettles, and their four children.
Applewhite and Nettles opened a New Age bookstore in Houston called the Christian Arts Center, but it quickly flopped. They spent six weeks in "painful, soul-searching isolation" in a ranch house in Texas Hill Country. They did not drink, smoke or have sex, but the old programming of their "vehicles" as they called them "had to be kept at bay like an annoying puppy," according to the 1988 memoir.
They gave away everything they owned except one thing: A sports car. For the next few years they bombed around the country in their convertible, Bonnie and her damaged Clyde.
Their precise itinerary in those years is unknown. At one point, they tried to start another business, this one a restaurant in Taos, N.M., called Sunshine Company. That venture failed and they were back on the road. They made little crosses for a shop in Las Vegas. When their sports car broke down in front of a yoga center in Portland, Ore., they stayed for a while, pawned a few possessions, bought another car and kept moving. They begged, cajoled, borrowed and stole. They had a brief job digging septic tanks along a river in Oregon.
Then, while camping one day near a place called Gold Beach, their "awakening" took a great leap. They became convinced they were the two witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation:
"And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth."
Their theology was starting to come together, dazzling if somewhat incoherent. They came to believe UFOs were the key to salvation. Flying saucers were means of transport to the Kingdom of Heaven. It would be via the spaceships that they would leave this planet behind. In the meantime they had received a nice insurance check from an automobile accident. They kept driving.
"They seemed to just go where the spirit' led, lacing the country up and down and from side to side as if they were being used as cameras and microphones for the Next Level," said the 1988 document.
They also ran into trouble with the law. In 1974, Applewhite and Nettles were thrown into the jail in Brownsville, Tex., charged with stealing a rental car and using stolen credit cards. Applewhite languished in jail in Brownsville and then St. Louis while Nettles went back to work as a nurse in Houston, making money to pay lawyers.
Applewhite got out after six months and with Nettles bought another used car and some camping gear. They were weary and scared. They had decided that rental cars and credit cards were the tools of Lucifer.
In March 1975, camping in Ojai, north of Los Angeles, they issued their first statement, a jail house treatise written by Applewhite. It was all about caterpillars and butterflies, the metaphor for the human metamorphosis they envisioned for themselves.
"A member of the next kingdom finds favor with one who is willing to endure all of the necessary growing pains of weaning himself totally from his human condition."
This kind of thinking seemed clear and cogent in certain Zip codes of California. The middle of the 1970s saw the rise of such consciousness-raising movements as est, transcendental meditation and mind cults like the People's Temple of Jim Jones. Huge numbers of young people were searching for something to believe in the post-Vietnam and post-Watergate era. In the psychic confusion of the times, Applewhite and Nettles -- now calling themselves "Bo" and "Peep," or just "The Two" -- were able to convince scores of educated, middle-class people that there was a spaceship in their future.
They met with 100 people in Hollywood, and began holding what they called "classrooms" in places like their old campground near Gold Beach, Ore.
They offered potential followers a 17-step process of personal transformation. Examples:
"1. Can you follow instructions without adding your own interpretation?"
"8. Do you use more of something than is adequate (for example, excessively high cooking flame, more toothpaste than necessary, etc.)?"
"11. Do you needlessly ask a question when the answer is obvious or a moment of silent observation would quickly reveal the answer?"
The cult grew quickly. Members fanned out and held their own recruitment meetings. The cult became a road show, a "traveling asylum" as former member Todd Berger told a reporter at the time. At its peak in the mid-1970s, there were about 200 members. Robert Balch, a sociologist who infiltrated the group, said many were middle-class kids from the hippie counterculture. One member told Balch her life was a "bumper-car ride through a maze of spiritual trips." Another had already tried LSD, witchcraft, born-again Christianity, holistic healing and the Unity Church.
They tried to become bland, devoid of strong interpersonal attachments. Group activities were few. They worried when their relationships became "too human." They traveled in pairs with each member responsible for monitoring the asexuality of the other.
"We constantly changed partners. Maybe every six weeks. And just about the time you had worked through all the personality quirks with the person you were partnered with, they'd switch you to that person you hoped you'd never really be partners with," Joslyn said. Surrendering Kids, Money
They would beg money for gas and food. They went to alternative coffee houses, health food stores, meditation centers. They did not believe in human law, meaning they didn't have to pay their motel room bills.
"They just believed in God's law, so they had all these scams that they pulled to get by," said Karuna Gatton, a massage therapist in Eugene, Ore., who briefly followed Applewhite and Nettles.
Some members gave their kids up for adoption. Some turned over their financial assets. In late 1975 and early 1976, the cult went to Denver, Chicago, Tulsa. Bo and Peep predicted that they would be assassinated and then would rise from the dead, a "demonstration" that they were telling the truth. They'd take everyone away in spaceships, they promised. But they couldn't deliver. Instead they were mocked in the national press and on Walter Cronkite's "CBS Evening News." They grieved, "shot down by the media," the 1988 document states. Balch's account describes a chaotic period in which Bo and Peep, disillusioned by the public scorn, seemed to disappear completely for weeks at a time. The cult, leaderless, began to disintegrate. Some members began openly smoking pot, even questioning whether Bo and Peep were legitimate.
Then, in April 1976 at a meeting in Kansas, Nettles announced that the "Harvest" was over and no new members would be accepted. From there the cult moved to Medicine Bow National Forest in Wyoming to camp for the summer. Dissension erupted. Bo and Peep cracked down on drug use and sex, telling their followers to get serious about the group's guidelines. But many members drifted away. That fall, the snow came, and everyone scattered.
Around this time, the UFO cult vanished from America's radar. Someone in the cult inherited a large sum of money and the core of the group moved to a rented house in suburban Denver.
Bo and Peep became "Do" (pronounced Doe) and "Ti," respectively. The new names were from the end of the musical scale, a reminder of Applewhite's profession. The cult meanwhile reveled in the movies "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
"That showed what we were all about," said Joslyn. "The Force. We were serving The Force."
Whenever Applewhite came back through Houston in the early 1980s he would stop by to see his old friend Ray Hill. Hill, always on the lookout for strange stories to tell on his radio show, would invite Applewhite onto the KPFT airwaves to talk about spaceships.
"He always had people with him in those days, androgynous people, very nice," Hill recalls. Applewhite then was not the severe, shaved-head figure of his final days, but a laid-back, rail-thin, gentle-eyed fellow with a long white beard and Whitmanesque hair. He wore long robes and cheap silver jewelry.
In 1981, with Nettles and his followers, Applewhite opened a spiritual center on Houston's Lovett Boulevard. There, in a pea-green, Italianesque house just down the street from a couple of the city's alternative radio stations, Applewhite talked about the next life and the promise of outer space with anyone who wandered in.
In 1985 the Two became One when Nettles died of cancer.
"For the most part her vehicle slept through the transition," the 1988 document states.
The cult dwindled to a few dozen members. The doctrines evolved. After watching the movie "Cocoon" the members of the group thought they might be picked up by aliens if they could get themselves a boat. So they moved to Galveston and bought a used houseboat and spent thousands of dollars making it seaworthy. The aliens didn't come.
Joslyn began to wonder: Why after 15 years had they not left the Earth? So in 1990 he quit.
"I finally left because I felt I had to break the isolation, be my own person," said the former cultist. "I saw Do cracking under the strain of being without Ti." Camping in New Mexico
The cult began to reemerge in 1992. It produced and sold a video, "Beyond Human." In 1993 it put a one-third page advertisement in USA Today titled " UFO CULT' Resurfaces With Final Offer."
For several years, until last summer, Heaven's Gate members camped high in the Manzano mountains above the plains southeast of Albuquerque. They lived on arid land in large, Army surplus tents in a compound they called the "Earth Ship." The tents were temporary housing: Cult members had plans to build a dormitory-style building, an infirmary, a bakery, and a nursery. The land was owned by a cult member, David Cabot Van Sinderen, son of the former chairman of South New England Telephone, Alfred White Van Sinderen. This week, all that was left on the site were the military-green steel support poles from the tents and about 20 metal bedposts that looked like parts from the bunk beds seen on the videotape of the Rancho Santa Fe death scene.
Littered about in the abandoned campsite were volumes of a book called, "Earth Ship -- How to Build Your Own."
Patsy Gustin, who rented office space to the cult members in 1995, said they ran a business called "Computer Nomads." Every day, the members' van would arrive at the office at precisely 8 a.m. and leave at 5. In between, about 10 members would sit at their computer terminals working, apparently without a break. They kept crock pots on their desks and ate there.
"They were such happy people," Gustin said yesterday.
The rise of the Internet gave the isolated group the perfect recruitment tool. Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, a science fiction buff, encountered the group on the World Wide Web, and decided that life in the cult was better than working at a post office in Cincinnati. She left behind five children.
The cult began touring the country again, talking at colleges and public libraries. In Minneapolis, about 100 people showed up for a 1994 talk. The cultists dressed identically in collarless shirts. They had buzz cuts. Twin Cities Reader reporter Sari Gordon remembers that one person in the audience asked if aliens had genders. No, said the cultists. When the questioner pressed the issue, one of the cult members said, "Well, some aliens have bumps where boys have bumps and some girls have bumps where girls do."
Last summer, the group moved to San Diego County. It rented a house that looked a little bit like a spaceship. In October the cult moved again to the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. They ran a business making computer Web sites. They ate at the Pancake House, always ordering the same thing, "Dutch babies," a German-style pancake, and grapefruit juice.
The Internet meanwhile buzzed with news that a UFO or "companion object" had been detected in the shadow of the Hale-Bopp comet. Suicides Begin
At about 2 p.m. on March 21, all 39 members of the group walked into Marie Callender's Restaurant in Carlsbad, about 15 miles from Rancho Santa Fe. They ordered the same meal: turkey pot pie, ice tea and cheesecake with blueberries, according to David Riley, a waiter who served them.
They wore baggy shirts, not tucked in, and baggy trousers. The restaurant staff was amused by these strangely identical people. But the diners were polite. At the end of their main course, they methodically stacked their dishes.
The next day Hale-Bopp made its closest approach to the Earth. The suicides began. It took three days, in shifts.
In his final videotaped message, Applewhite spoke with wide-open, unblinking eyes, looking as though he wanted to transfix or hypnotize the viewer. His voice was gentle, almost sing-song.
"Your only chance to evacuate is to leave with us. Planet Earth about to be recycled. . . ."
All the cultists taped exit statements. They were cheerful, giddy.
Said one: "You know, these are like vehicles. I mean if you use the analogy of a car and, you know, people may keep their cars for a long time before they finally wear out and conk out and they die on 'em and, you know, they go and get another car. . . . I mean that's all we're talking about. It's not a big deal."
Another man said: "It's just the happiest day of my life."
A woman said: "Thirty-nine to Beam Up."
Astronomer Alan Hale said Friday of the comet that bears his name, "For all its beauty, its magnificence, its splendor, all it is is a dirty snowball that's orbiting the sun. Nothing more."
No spaceship came. No one rose from the dead. The coroner's office said the bodies will be shipped out on Monday, sent across America one more time, back to their families. Staff writer Donald P. Baker in Tampa, William Claiborne and Tamara Jones in San Diego, Doug Struck and Judith Havemann in Washington, Sue Anne Pressley in Houston and Laurie Goodstein in New York, and special correspondent William Abernathy in Portland, Ore. and news researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report. CAPTION: A LONG DAY'S JOURNEY Beginning at upper left and moving clockwise in approximate chronological order, here is a summary of cult activities: HOUSTON Applewhite teaches, sings in opera, meets Nettles. TEXAS HILL COUNTRY Applewhite and Nettles spend six weeks soul-searching. PORTLAND, ORE. Sports car breaks down in front of yoga center. ROGUE RIVER, NEAR GOLD BEACH, ORE. Camped for several months, decided they were the two witnesses mentioned in Book of Revelation. ST. LOUIS Another car breakdown, stranded on the night comet Kohoutek is at its peak. BROWNSVILLE, TEX. Applewhite and Nettles thrown in county jail, charged with auto theft and stealing credit cards. HOUSTON Nettles works in hospital while Applewhite is incarcerated in St. Louis. OJAI, CALIF. March 1975: Recruitment begins for UFO cult. GOLD BEACH, ORE. First cult "classroom" at campground. REDWOOD CITY, CALIF. Another classroom forms at Canada College. STANFORD UNIVERSITY Aug. 13, 1975: Meeting with students. WALDPORT, ORE. First meeting to gain media attention. DENVER and CHICAGO Group stays in campgrounds. TULSA Cult breaks up into smaller groups because campgrounds are overcrowded. MANHATTAN, KAN. April 21, 1976: Nettles announces that there will be no more new recruits: "The Harvest is closed." MEDICINE BOW NATIONAL FOREST, WYO. Class begins to break up. DENVER and DALLAS A cult member inherits money; cult lives in rented houses and stays out of sight in the 1980s. Nettles dies in 1985 of cancer. MANZANO MOUNTAINS, N.M., 50 MILES SOUTHEAST OF ALBUQUERQUE Cult occupies a 40-acre compound until June 1996, then moves to San Diego area. CAPTION: Marshall Applewhite, 38 followers died in house that wasn't home. CAPTION: This compound in Manzano, N.M., constructed of tires and cement, was apparently home to members of the Heaven's Gate cult four years ago and known as "Earth Ship," the Albuquerque Tribune reported. CAPTION: Marshall Applewhite was arrested for auto theft in Texas in 1974. (1972 photo) CAPTION: "I am deeply hurt by the knowledge that people have now lost their lives in connection with my father," Mark Applewhite, son of cult leader Marshall Applewhite, said during interview outside his home in Corpus Christi, Tex. CAPTION: Victim David Cabot Van Sinderen held a California driver's license.