Heaven’s Gate was a religious sect led by Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles that combined apocalyptic Christian beliefs with UFO themes. On 26 March 1997, police discovered 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult had committed mass suicide in their rented California mansion.
The first incarnation of Heaven’s Gate started in the early 1970s when Marshall Applewhite was recovering from a heart attack. He claimed to have had a near death experience that led him to believe that he and his nurse, Bonnie Nettles, were “The Two” witnesses referred to in the Book of Revelations 11:3. Upon his recovery, they assumed various aliases such as “Bo” and “Peep” and in 1975 formed a religious sect called Human Individual Metamorphosis (HIM). They traveled throughout America to recruit “crew members” into their organization. At one point, the group went to a Colorado desert to wait for an expected UFO landing that never arrived. Nettles would eventually die of cancer in 1985 and Applewhite would continue to refine his belief system.
In 1993, Applewhite formed a new sect called “Total Overcomers Anonymous”, where he started spreading the message of Earth’s imminent recycling, which will be further explained below. Eventually, Applewhite renamed his sect “Heaven’s Gate”. The group maintained itself financially by building websites for customers using the name “Higher Authority”.
The Heaven’s Gate philosophy was that 2,000 years ago, Earth was visited by extra terrestrials from the Kingdom of Heaven (The Next Level) and Jesus Christ’s mind was commandeered by one of these visitors. Applewhite informed the group that these visitors had returned once again. Applewhite stated that the extra terrestrial mind that once resided in Jesus Christ’s body is now in him. Applewhite, now using the name “Do” (pronounced Doe), stated the Earth was going to be “recycled” in the near future. Do defined the recycling as a global renewing in which life as we know it would be wiped away and started anew. Heaven’s Gate belief system was that the only way to achieve the “Next Level” was to leave their bodies to join the Next Level. Do identified the appearance of the comet Hale-Bopp as the sign that the time had come to leave this earth and that a spacecraft was hiding in the comet to take them to another “level of existence above human”. Although suicide was not endorsed by Heaven’s Gate, Applewhite reasoned that suicide was the only way to ensure they would be able to meet that spacecraft.
Applewhite described their human bodies as “the temporary containers of the soul…The final act of metamorphosis or separation from the human kingdom is the “disconnect” or separation from the human physical container or body in order to be released from the human environment”.
The group lived together in a large rented mansion on 3 acres in Rancho Santa Fe, California. They called each other brother and sister. Everything was shared between the members. At least six (some sources say eight) of the male members went to Mexico to voluntarily castrate themselves due to their belief of abstinence.
The Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide was not done all at one time. Fifteen members committed suicide on March 24th, fifteen on March 25th and nine on March 26th. In total, 21 women and 18 men died. The method used was taking crushed sleeping pills mixed with apple sauce or pudding and washing it down with Vodka. The surviving members would then place a plastic bag over the drugged members head once they were asleep to ensure death.
All members were found neatly on their beds with a square purple cloth over their upper torso. They all wore a black shirt, sweat pants, and brand new Nike shoes. Each member had a $5.00 bill and 3 quarters in their pocket.
Applewhite considered the members of his group as “crew members”. He identified himself as the Captain and Ti as the Admiral in their latest return back to Earth. The patches sewn on their shirts identified them as the “Heaven’s Gate Away Team”. These were some of the references Applewhite seemed to borrow from the science fiction television and movie series “Star Trek”. In fact, Nichelle Nichols, known for her role as Lt Uhura in the Star Trek series, had a brother Thomas who was a member of this cult who died with the group.
One member, Rio Di Angelo, was chosen to stay behind to ensure their literature continued to be spread. Two former members who did not die that day were Wayne Cook and Charlie Humphreys. However, they both committed suicide a short time later to “rejoin” the group.