The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department received an anonymous tip in the afternoon of March 26, 1997. ‘This is regarding a mass suicide, and I can give you the address…’ said the person on the other line. First responders could have never expected the ghoulish scene that awaited them at the mega-mansion in the tony suburb of Rancho Santa Fe.
39 bodies in identical black clothing were carefully staged in bunk beds. Their heads were shaved but neatly covered with a purple shrouds. They wore matching black tunics and fresh out-of-the-box Nike ‘Decade’ sneakers. Each had exactly $5.75 cash in their pocket and a travel bag next them on the floor. Triangular arm patches on all the bodies read: ‘Heaven’s Gate Away Team.’
Investigators were confounded. Meanwhile, computer screens all over the mansion flashed ‘Red Alert.’
It was a plot ripped straight from the scripts of Star Trek and would soon become apparent just how heavily influenced the outer-space obsessed cult was with the sci-fi drama.
Things got weirder when police uncovered video manifestos explaining that disciples of the Heaven’s Gate cult were ‘exiting their human vessels’ to enter the ‘Next Level’ via an extraterrestrial-piloted spaceship that was apparently, zipping along the wake of comet Hale-Bopp on its close cruise over planet earth.
Now, 23-years later, HBO has released a four part docuseries titled Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults. The show examines how the bewitched UFO death cult led by two unassuming middle-aged Texans named Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles (a music teacher and former nurse) – ended in the largest mass suicide event on American soil.
New HBO docuseries, ‘The Cult of Cults’ tells the story of how Marshall Applewhite (above) and Bonnie Nettles started the Heaven’s Gate cult in the 1970s. Both abandoned their children and spouses because they believed that they were chosen to fulfill biblical prophesies. Their doctrine mixed Christian theology with UFOs, aliens and elements of science fiction
First responders found 39 bodies (21 men, 18 women) carefully arranged at a mansion in a wealthy San Diego suburb in March 1997 – each with packed luggage at its side and five dollars and three quarters in the pockets. All of the bodies were dressed in matching black clothing, wearing the same Nike Decade sneakers. They took their own lives in shifts over three days, with members arranging the bodies of those who died before them
The doomsday cult believed that the end of civilization was imminent and those who wanted to survive needed to reach what they called, ‘The Evolutionary Level Above Human’ which was a genderless, blissful, alien existence aboard a massive spaceship. As a prerequisite, members would have to forsake their human ‘vessel’ (body) and every attachment to planet Earth – i.e. family, friends, sexuality, individuality, jobs, money, and possessions
Marshall Applewhite (a music professor) and Bonnie Nettles (a nurse) had a platonic relationship. They called themselves Do and Ti (like the music notes) and created a strict routine and set of rules for their followers which regulated everything from clothing and bathing, to food and free-time activities. These rules were intended to help them ‘disassociate’ from their ‘humaneness’ so they can prepare for the ‘Next Level’
News of the mass suicide turned into a media frenzy; footage of the black and white Nikes poking out from under a purple cloth would be burned into the eyes of a generation. What began to unfold was the bizarre tale of a fanatical doomsday cult steered by a persuasive, wild-eyed leader who believed in extra-terrestrials, flying saucers and that the end of civilization was nigh.
The public was shocked to learn at the time, that Heaven’s Gate was 25 years in the making. At its height, the cult attracted hundreds of followers until its ‘graduation’ in March 1997 when the remaining 39 members drank applesauce laced with barbiturates, washed it down with vodka and put bags over their heads. Members wholeheartedly believed it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to board an extra-terrestrial spacecraft that would take them to the ‘Next Level,’ – a physical realm in outer space where they would live as an immortal, perfected species of space aliens.
It all began in 1972 when Marshall Applewhite, a college music professor met Bonnie Nettles – a middle-aged nurse and mother of four. Nettles was working at the psychiatric hospital where Applewhite was institutionalized following a mental breakdown.
Until that point, Applewhite was known to be a bon-vivant in the small Houston arts community. Born in Spur, Texas in 1931, Applewhite had a deeply religious upbringing as the son of a dynamic Presbyterian minister whose life’s work was starting churches in small Texas towns. Applewhite would later infuse his father’s teachings (including his own messianic role) into the Heaven’s Gate theology.
Applewhite entered the seminary before he changed paths to follow a career in music, earning a master’s degree. Known for his bright baritone voice and flawless diction, he attempted to make it big on Broadway in New York City but failed and turned to teaching music at universities instead.
Marshall Applewhite was the son of a Presbyterian preacher who believed that God was an extraterrestrial. He was suffering a mental breakdown after loosing his teaching job for having an affair with a male student when he met Bonnie Nettles, a nurse working at the psychiatric institution
He taught at the University of Alabama but lost his job over a sexual relationship that he pursued with a male student. By then Applewhite was a family man with a wife and two children who soon after left him upon learning of the affair. He relocated to the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas where was forced to resign again after pursing another romantic relationship with a student.
Applewhite was frustrated by his sexual desires, which were at odds with his strict Christian upbringing. By 1972 when he met Bonnie Nettles, Applewhite was in the midst of a mental breakdown. His father had died one year earlier, he lost his teaching career and family. Money was tight, he was in debt to friends and his cachet in Houston social circles was vanquished.
There was an instant ‘spiritual’ connection between the two. Bonnie Nettles herself was well-versed in the Bible as a born-again Baptist, but she also had New Age leanings and dabbled into fortune telling and astrology. She felt that she was being guided by the voice of a 19th century monk that she called ‘Brother Francis’ and would often summon the dead in séances from her living room.
‘We spent a lot of time talking about spiritualism, mediums and astrology,’ said her daughter, Terrie Nettles in the HBO series. ‘We used to dream about a UFO picking us up and taking us away from this world. We didn’t feel like we belonged here.’
Nettles convinced Applewhite (who was suffering from an identity crises) that their meeting was divine intervention and foretold to her by extra-terrestrials. There was an instant ‘spiritual’ connection between the two; he was enamored with her self-confidence and ability to give order to a chaotic universe using the cosmos.
Shortly after in 1973, Bonnie Nettles abandoned her family and set off across the country with Applewhite on a journey of self-exploration. They often ran out of money, slept in tents, and stopped at blood banks for cash. Sometimes they would take odd jobs like digging ditches for money to buy bread rolls and butter.
They often skipped out on checks, and at one point, Applewhite spent six months in jail in Missouri for auto theft after renting a car and simply driving off with it – he maintained that he had been ‘divinely authorized’ to keep the vehicle.
During this time the unlikely apocalyptic pair developed their own jerry-rigged brand of theology: a bizarre mashup of Christianity with space alien lore, Star Trek nomenclature and doomsday prophecy.
The couple believed that they were the two witnesses described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation – who warned of judgment day, were martyred and then resurrected and taken to heaven in a cloud of light. They believed ‘the cloud’ was actually a flying saucer.’I think most people don’t think of Ti as the real leader of the group but she met Do (Applewhite) when he was obviously at a vulnerable point, she convinced him that he was her soulmate,’ said Janja Lalich, a sociologist to HBO. ‘Ti really recruited Do, and Do was her follower’
The group believed they were not, in fact, taking their own lives but would achieve a higher ‘level’ of being after being transported by a spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet. They defined ‘suicide’ in their own context to mean ‘to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered.’ The Next Level, was their version of heaven: an immortal place where ‘technically advanced’ beings lived in pure bliss and nourished themselves by absorbing pure sunlight, did not engage in sexual intercourse, eating, or all the things that make us ‘mammalian.’ By Heaven’s Gate definition, suicide would be to prevent their souls from leaving their human ‘containers’ to join the Next Level
Ti and Do controlled what their adherents ate and they attempted a variety of diets. ‘We tried every diet out there to see its affect on the body…From fruitarian, to wheatgrass, to low cooked grains to juice only consumption.’ Ridding oneself of addictions or cravings- was the ultimate goal. Members were told that the human ‘vehicle’ could get used to any regime and then crave it – so their diets were always changing
Sawyer, was a Heaven’s Gate member for 19 years. He told HBO: ‘Ti and Do gave us the tools to brainwash ourselves, literally wash out our humanness from our brain.’ Sawyer eventually left the cult because he could not control his sex drive – a primary tenet of the group. He said he ‘kept on giving in to masturbation.’ But laments his decision to leave: ‘I don’t feel guilt, I feel like I flunked my test,’ he said. ‘I could have graduated with them, I had the capacity to do that. People say to me frequently, you were duped, you know? Why don’t you go on with your life? But I still believe in all the teachings of Ti and Do and that if I continue to grow then I will potentially pass through the Heaven’s Gate, the birth canal’
Though heavily influenced by their Christian backgrounds, Applewhite and Nettles avoided using the term ‘religion’ because they felt it was inferior to the science and technology behind their beliefs. One ex-member told DailyMail.com: ‘That is like saying NASA is a religion.’
The couple believed they were chosen to fulfill biblical prophesies and concluded that they were the two witnesses described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation – who warned of judgment day, were martyred and then resurrected and taken to heaven in a cloud of light. They decided ‘the cloud’ was actually a flying saucer.
Their unorthodox take of the Bible was that Jesus had ascended to heaven (what they called ‘The Evolutionary Level Above Human,’ or TELAH) in a spacecraft and that Applewhite had arrived on Earth from that same TELAH realm and brought with him the Heavenly Father in the person of Bonnie Nettles.
They recruited followers while crisscrossing the country and called themselves ‘Bo and Peep’ – shepherds of their new flock. Later they would change their names to Do and Ti (like the music notes) as an homage to Ti’s (Nettles) favorite movie, The Sound of Music.
‘I think most people don’t think of Ti as the real leader of the group but she met Do (Applewhite) when he was obviously at a vulnerable point, she convinced him that he was her soulmate,’ said Janja Lalich, a sociologist to HBO. ‘Ti really recruited Do, and Do was her follower.’
Ti was the sage, and Do was the speaker. They were cosmically close but their relationship was strictly platonic.
They distributed fliers, took out newspaper ads and proselytized their mission across the country.
Their doctrine hinged on a few basic concepts: ‘Earth was about to be recycled’ (meaning: the end of civilization was nigh) and those who wanted to survive needed to reach ‘The Evolutionary Level Above Human’ which was a genderless, blissful, alien existence aboard a massive spaceship (much akin to Starship Enterprise). They believed that some of these evolved creatures were coming back to save the faithful and take them to the ‘Next Level’ but as a prerequisite, they would have to forsake their human ‘vessel’ (body) and every attachment to planet Earth (i.e. family, friends, sexuality, individuality, jobs, money, and possessions). They explained that the opportunity was rare: the last time an extra-terrestrial had taken human form and visited Earth was 2,000 years before. His name? Jesus Christ.
‘They said if you followed their approach, that your body would chemically and biologically transform into a perfected space alien and you would go physically on board a UFO and physically sail into heaven- which they would call ‘the Next Level,’ explained Benjamin Zeller, author of Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion.
Their message peddled fear into potential acolytes: the only way to escape human suffering and ensure entry into the Next Level, was to join Heaven’s Gate and follow the teachings of Ti and Do. ‘There are no teachers in the Next Level, we are your teachers now,’ said Do in a 1976 recording.
In 1975, they received national attention after a successful recruitment seminar that took place at a packed motel hall in Waldport, Oregon. The meeting netted them 20 new disciples who abandoned their earthly possessions and said goodbye forever to family members to join what was quickly becoming known as ‘the UFO cult.’
The dramatic departure of 20 people in the small town was felt (it equaled to one in every 30 residents). Parents were distraught. Police and journalists investigated but turned up nothing.
Walter Cronkite reported: ‘A score of persons from a small Oregon town have disappeared. It’s a mystery whether they’ve been taken on a so-called trip to eternity — or simply been taken.’
A spate of negative press forced the cult to go underground and they completely vanished from the public eye.
Do and Ti turned to a nomadic lifestyle with their flock (now 200 persons strong). They slept in tents and sleeping bags in remote campgrounds across the country. Devotees came from all walks of life, and most surprisingly, a large part of them hailed from affluent families and were well educated.
There was a former Navy missile-launching officer, a journalist, computer scientist, real estate developer, inventor and patent holder, a Catholic biology student on scholarship, and male model on the brink of fame.
Terrie Nettles was one of four children that Bonnie Nettles left behind to start the Heaven’s Gate cult with Marshall Applewhite. She explains how her mother always had ‘New Age’ leanings. ‘We spent a lot of time talking about spiritualism, mediums and astrology. We used to dream about a UFO picking us up and taking us away from this world. We didn’t feel like we belonged here.’ Despite strict rules that required members to cut off all contact with family, Bonnie wrote to her daughter but always kept her whereabouts secret. Terrie was unaware that her mother was suffering from cancer and only learned of her death nine months later
Between seven and nine men within the group were castrated. All members were required to pledge celibacy and some took the extreme measure to prove their dedication. So eager, they did a coin toss for who went first. They attempted to perform the inaugural surgery themselves and it resulted in a near death hospital visit for Steve McCarter (not pictured). Sawyer says he threw the testicles off a pier to hide the evidence. They found doctors to perform subsequent castrations ‘
One member holds a Heaven’s Gate promotional flier that reads ‘The Only Way Out.’ The apocalyptic cult believed that the only way to survive the end of civilization is by following them to the ‘Next Level.’ They claimed that if you forsook all earthly possessions and obeyed Applewhite’s lessons that were designed to strip one of their humanness – then you could transform into a perfected space alien and physically board a UFO the Next Level
John Craig, a prominent Republican that was running for the Colorado House of Representatives was one of their earliest recruits. He had previously served in the Korean War before his strapping 6’6′ frame and cowboy good-looks earned him bit parts in Hollywood movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was a wealthy developer with six kids and a seemingly perfect life.
In the summer of 1975, Craig was visited by a college classmate who was a recent convert of Heaven’s Gate. One week later, Craig secretly transferred power of attorney to his wife and said he had to go to Denver on business. Instead he met Ti and Do at the Stapleton Airport to join Heaven’s Gate, leaving his wife to raise their six children (aged 7 to 18) alone.
The group expertly covered their tracks. He changed his car registration to the address of a state park. Subterfuge and secrecy was a top priority in the cult.
John Craig’s wife never spoke to him again. He died in the mass suicide in 1997.
Craig wasn’t the only member who deserted his children. Kelly Cooke tells HBO how both of her parents sat her down to explain that they were going to join a cult.
‘It was trying to talk sense to your parents when they’re telling you about the likelihood that they’re gonna go off in UFOs and that I was never, ever, ever going to speak to them again.’
Years later, she still struggles to reckon with why. ‘It’s nonsense UFOs, c’mon! I don’t know how they ever believed that, I really don’t. I mean me- a 10 year old, I didn’t believe that, how did they? It just never made any sense.’ She described her parents as highly intelligent her father was an inventor who patented an ergonomic chair. ‘They weren’t simple.’
‘As soon as they were gone there was absolutely no contact with me ever again,’ said Cooke. ‘It was like trying to compete with god, that’s what it felt like and made me feel rather meaningless to be honest.’
In the beginning, Do and Ti prophesied that they would be killed and restored to life (much like Jesus) and, in view of others, beamed up onto a spaceship. That ascension was supposed to be imminent and to prove their claims they advertised it as an event that they called ‘the Demonstration.’ But as time went on, the UFO rendezvous never happened and some followers were disillusioned by the false promise. Nettles pivoted their message and explained to their followers that poor treatment by the media, was in itself a form of assignation that fulfilled their prophecy.
‘They really explained it as though they might not be here much longer than a month or two,’ said Kelly Cooke. ‘It was really an immediate state of mind that everything was going to change and the UFOs were going to pick us up any day now.’ And yet somehow, when the UFOs failed to materialize, 22-years-later, her parents remained devoted.
There were a lot of failed prophecies that didn’t pan out – but it never seemed to affect membership. One December night in the late 70s, Ti and Do made an excited announcement that they’ve been given an exact date for UFO lift-off – it was to be the day after Christmas.
On the designated eve, the giddy campers loaded all their gear into cars and waited – and waited, and waited. Everything, including the vehicles were supposed to be picked up. By 2am, Ti admitted defeat: ‘Well, I feel like I have egg on my face,’ she said. Unload.
‘If any of you want to go home, go home.’
No one did.
In 1976, Heaven’s Gate announced that they were no longer accepting new recruits. Doors to the Next Level were now closed. The group had winnowed down to 70 people and Ti said it was time to ‘clarify the butter’ – separating the pure from impure.
The nomadic group made ends meet by living off the $500,000 trust fund of David Van Sinderen, an affable man with a ponytail and a passion for the environment. He hailed from a prominent Connecticut family and his father was the chief executive of the Southern New England Telephone Company.
Later in the 90s, the cult made money building websites during the early years of the internet. They called their company ‘Higher Source’ and promised clients ‘a crew-minded effort’ from people who have worked ‘closely’ together for 20 years. There were no references to their unconventional belief system.
Ti and Do formed a holy boot camp to prepare their flock for the Next Level. They called the classroom ‘God’s astronaut program.’ Lessons were designed to cleanse them of their humanness and strip them of their individuality.
Every aspect of their lives were controlled. Their diets were measured. They showered for six minutes and were given exactly one gallon of water to use. Music was prohibited. They weren’t allowed to smoke, drink, flight, or mingle with outsiders.
Members of Heaven’s Gate look for new recruits while holding a promotional flier that reads ‘The Only Way Out.’ Among thise who took their own life was Thomas Nichols (back row, left) brother of Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lt. Uhura in the original Star Trek. The cult was heavily steeped in the sci-fi show. Applewhite stated that aliens communicated him through the show and believed that their life-saving UFO looked a lot like Starship Enterprise
Above, Marshall Applewhite was discovered in the upstairs bedroom. The Heaven’s Gate victims ranged in age from 26 to 72, and some had been members of the group for as long as 22 years under the leadership of Applewhite
Former members Marc and Sarah King who were tasked with managing the Heaven’s Gate website which still runs to this day. They maintain the site, answer emails and take care of intellectual property. The website exists today, exactly as it did in 1997. Above is a grab from a link titled: ‘How a Member of the Kingdom of Heaven might appear.’ Heaven’s Gate believed that they would be reincarnated into extra terrestrials in the ‘Next Level’ afterlife
The cult afforded the pricey $7,000 rent for the mansion in San Diego by working as web designers in the early years of the internet. The group ran a firm called Higher Source, and counted the San Diego Polo Club, a local topiary company, and a Christian music store among their clients. Their advertisements promised to ‘enhance your company’s image’ and also ‘make your transition into the world of cyberspace an easy and fascinating experience’
A colossal ‘Procedures Book’ mandated how everything was done, from the proper direction for pulling a razor to the perfect circumference of pancake. ‘There was a mixture, a size, how long you cooked it one side, how much the burner was on, how many a person got, how the syrup was poured on it. Everything,’ said former member, Michael Conyers.
Ti and Do outlined how they were to spend their free time with ‘approved’ games like Yahtzee, Clue and croquet. They were also allowed to read mysteries and watch The Price Is Right or Star Trek.
They developed their own Trekkie-inspired jargon that was intended to further distance acolytes from their past and not stimulate memories: A house was a ‘craft’ (as in spacecraft). A body was a ‘vehicle.’ Brain –’computer.’ The Kitchen was a ‘Nurti-Lab.’ Sexual organs were ‘the pluming.’ Money- ‘sticks.’ Underwear- ‘seat covers.’ And of course, heaven was ‘Next Level.’
Experiments were tried. People would concentrate for hours on the pitch of a tuning fork. Or they would wear blinder-like visors so they could see only straight ahead. These were intended to teach self-disciple.
They were also asked to change their name. Applewhite said that it helped them ‘disassociate from the family tree.’ The first name had to be single syllable, comprised of thee consonants and always capitalized. They each shared the same last name which was ‘ody.’ Ody is a diminutive that means ‘little member.’
‘When we were to become adults, they would drop the Y so it would just be ‘od,’ which is ironic because we were odd,’ said former member, Sawyer (or, SWYODY).
All adherents (both male and female alike) were ordered to have close-cropped androgynous haircuts. They were encouraged to take on a totally new appearance as a way to distance themselves from their human ‘vehicle.’ Women were not permitted to wear makeup. And every member donned a similar uniform that was comprised of trousers, tennis shoes and a blouse buttoned all the way to the top.
‘Since we are moving into a world that is gender-less, we are doing everything that we can do to not identify with gender,’ Applewhite said in a training video.
‘I don’t know if you all have seen this Boy George?’ says Ti in a classroom recording. Using the 80s pop-singer as a paradigm for gender-neutral style, she continues: ‘You can’t tell if he’s a boy or a girl. Now it doesn’t mean we want all of you to go sloppy like Boy George okay? He isn’t right but at least he isn’t trying to dress in a sensuous way.’
Clothing was generally purchased by Ti and Do, avowed masters of mall shopping, especially at T.J. Maxx and Burlington Coat Factory. Apparel, even underwear, was shared. Any attachment to a favorite garment was frowned upon. (Their infamous Nikes were purchased because they got a good deal on them).
Members were forced to sleep in two hour shifts: two hours awake and then two hours asleep – all day long. ‘We’d look up at the sky a lot,’ said Sawyer (nicknamed after Tom Sawyer for his ability to chop wood). One person stood guard, nightly, with their eyes fixed to the stars, just to ensure they didn’t miss their exit ship.
‘We had assigned tasks, somebody would get up and watch the heavens for an hour, and then go back to sleep.’
Prohibited behaviors included: ‘Trusting my own judgment – or using my own mind.’ ‘Having likes or dislikes.’ ‘Having inappropriate curiosity’ as well as ‘Vibrating femininity or masculinity in any way.’
Strict guidelines were intended to divorce acolytes from their past and without stimulating memories. Their goal was to become as close as possible to the technically advanced aliens of the Next Level by surrendering ‘family, sensuality, selfish desires, your human mind, and even your human body if it be required of you – all mammalian ways, thinking, and behavior’ reads the Heaven’s Gate manifesto.
The goal was to de-program their human identities and become one singular, buzzing hive that was primed for great beyond.
‘Ti and Do gave us the tools to brainwash ourselves, literally wash out our humanness from our brain,’ said Sawyer.
Kelly Cooke lost both her mother and father to the Heaven’s Gate cult. She was one of many children who were abandoned by abandoned by their parents. She tells HBO: ‘As soon as they were gone there was absolutely no contact with me ever again. It was like trying to compete with god, that’s what it felt like and made me feel rather meaningless to be honest.’ Her parents left the cult multiple times but ultimately they chose to stay. In her exit video, Cooke’s mother said: : ‘I feel very honored, and very lucky that I wasn’t stuck back in the world, where I chose to make the mistake of going for a while’
Heaven’s Gate began posting their belief system online in 1996 and they feared the government would take down their website so they sent physical floppy desks around the world with copies of their materials in the event the government took down their American host, they manifestos can live on
Sexuality, like gender was also an earthly concern that needed to be destroyed.
Nothing was more important than the cardinal rule that banned all forms of sex, from intercourse to thoughts, desires, self-pleasure and even the word itself. ‘Sensuality – permitting arousal in thought or in action (not nipping it in the bud)’ was strictly verboten.
So serious was this decree -that they replaced ‘sexual’ with the word ‘sensual,’ so as to not inadvertently stimulate anyone.
Men who succumbed to their carnal desires were forced to use a communal towel to clean up, sign their sin into a public logbook that was posted in the communal bathroom and announce their lapse to the class using euphemisms. (Again, they were careful to not unintentionally arouse others). Then they were expected to divulge the full details of their illegal sexual fantasy to Ti and Do in a written note.
Sawyer revealed to HBO that he departed the group in 1994 after he committed the capital offense one too many times. ‘I remember turning on MTV one time and boy did that inflame me,’ he said. ‘Seeing women dancing around half-clad… I was off the wagon. I was occasionally masturbating. I would have a thought and the thought was so powerful, I couldn’t hold back.’
‘I’m really kind-of a pitiful person really,’ he says wistfully.
The purpose of these stringent rules were two-fold: they served as control tactics that simultaneously proved loyalty to Ti and Do. Manipulation was moonlighting as snake-oil assurance to the Next Level promise land – and for many it was a small price to pay for safe deliverance during the Armageddon.
Applewhite’s fanatical condemnation of sexual expression was largely informed by his own shame as a closet homosexual. ‘He created a myth around that piece that he didn’t like,’ said a former member in the docuseries. ‘He came to a conclusion about his body, that it was abhorrent.’
He preached that sex was the work of Lucifer but suffered from temptation himself.
‘My vehicle is becoming attracted to your vehicle,’ is what he told his loyal assistant, Dick Joslyn (DCNODY). He had no choice but to relieve Dick of his position in order to avoid further ‘Luciferian’ lapses in judgement.
Joslyn was one of the cult’s earliest devotees in 1975. With chiseled features and boyish charm, Dick Joslyn was already a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes model on the brink of Hollywood fame when he gave it all up to join Ti and Do on the road. From the very beginning, he was a gung-ho member who spearheaded the effort to find more recruits; and felt devastated by his demotion.
Sexual temptation was a battle of will that seemed easily fixed with castration. The group was surprisingly receptive when Applewhite proposed the idea; in fact, so eager there was a coin toss over who went first.
They initially attempted their own castrations. A member of the cult, a former nurse, performed the first surgery which went horribly wrong and resulted in a near death hospital visit for Steve McCarter (SRRODY). Sawyer says he threw SRRODY’s testicles off a pier to hide the evidence.
They found doctors to perform subsequent castrations. ‘Eventually, there were, depending on which source you look to, between seven and nine men within the group that had been castrated,’ said Benjamin Zeller to HBO. One of those men was Marshall Applewhite.
The Heaven’s Gate dogma was inconsistent and often at odds with itself. ‘One plus one did not always equal two.’
And their belief system was constantly in flux. For instance, at the very beginning, Do and Ti preached that they were mere human messengers of the Next Level, albeit with higher than normal intelligence. (They likened themselves to the ‘two witnesses’ from the Book of Revelation). But later, Do and Ti said their souls were actually from the Next Level, and that they were forced to inhabit human bodies only because the US government seized their alien forms when they descended to Earth sometime during the 1970s. Applewhite then claimed that his soul was the same one that once belonged to Jesus. Indeed, a huge promotion.
There were other discrepancies too. The largest revision happened after Ti’s (Bonnie Nettles) unexpected death from cancer in 1985. Up until that point, they proselytized that their bodies would be transported aboard a spacecraft to the Next Level where they would undergo a physical transformation into a perfected space alien. But Ti’s passing undermined this very theology because she died ‘a very real human death’ and left behind an unchanged corporeal body. Applewhite had to refine the doctrine to explain that Ti’s soul instead left Earth to board a spacecraft – and that her human form was just a mere short term ‘container’ for it.
It changed from a physical transformation to a spiritual one.
Overall, the group took well to the fundamental shift in their belief system – it resulted in only one defector from the flock.
‘Do explained it as, ‘Yes, it looked to us that she was suffering from cancer, but her Next Level consciousness burnt up her body,’ said Sawyer in the documentary.
Nettles’ death led to a crises of faith for Do and more radical changes to the cult. Under Do’s leadership, the message became more biblical and less New Age (Ti’s influence on the group). The class turned into Do’s support system. He became more obsessed with control and the loyalty of his flock switched from the message of Heaven’s Gate, to its messenger.
The website was updated with one final message: ‘Hale–Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate. Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion—graduation from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.’ In another prepared press release for the media, Applewhite wrote: ‘By the time you receive this, we’ll be gone – several dozen 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 task, to return to the world from whence we came – task completed’
Before ingesting the barbiturate-laced apple sauce, member’s stuffed their pockets with $5.75 for interplanetary toll fare and signed out a logbook. In the column marked ‘estimated time of return,’ they wrote messages like: ‘Never’ and ‘Austa (sic) la vista, baby’
Members (all 39 above) videotaped ‘exit’ messages before the mass suicide, which had been meticulously planned in advance to coincide with the passing of the Hale-Bopp comet. They were excited to be delivered from what they believed was the looming apocalypse” ‘We’re very happy and proud to be members of Ti and Do’s class, and we couldn’t be happier about what we’re about to do,’ said , Julie LaMontagne. Her classmate, Robert John Arancio said: ‘I can hardly wait, and I’m ready to go!’
‘Do’ encouraged his followers to view him as Christ.
He then organized a ring ceremony in which he symbolically married all of his followers. Recalling the perspiration on his upper lip, Sawyer said: ‘He was giving birth, he was birthing students into the Next Level.’
They progressively became more reclusive and paranoid. Applewhite increasingly discussed the impending Apocalypse. One video manifesto is titled: ‘Planet Earth About To Be Recycled (Your Only Chance To Survive Is To Leave With Us.’
It was around this time that Applewhite first mentioned suicide, even though the group was staunchly against it prior. But they defined ‘suicide’ in their own context to mean ‘to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered.’ Suicide, to members of Heaven’s Gate would be to prevent their souls from leaving their human ‘vehicles’ to join the Next Level.
Applewhite said that Jesus Christ (also an extra-terrestrial) was the last opening that Earthlings had to ascend to the Next Level. He reasoned that the opportunity happened ‘every two millennia’ and therefore time was of the essence with the year 2000 fast approaching.
‘Now the end of age, I’m afraid, I feel is right upon us,’ said Applewhite in one of his many recordings. ‘It’s going to come, I don’t want to sound like a prophet but my gut says and everything else I know points to that it’s going to come before the end of the century.’
They were looking for a way out, fast.
The 53-day long standoff between law enforcement and a fringe religious group in Waco, Texas in 1993 gave Applewhite an idea. They feared the government might also besiege Heaven’s Gate so they started stock-piling weapons, hoping to bait law enforcement into a similar attack where they can die as martyrs and ascend to the Next Level.
‘The Evolutionary Level Above Human’ (TELAH) was as a ‘physical, corporeal place,’ where residents live in pure bliss and nourish themselves by absorbing pure sunlight. At the next level, beings did not engage in sexual intercourse, eating or dying, or the things that make us ‘mammalian’ on earth. Heaven’s Gate believed that what the Bible calls God is actually a highly developed extraterrestrial
That plan changed when the comet Hale-Bopp was discovered in 1995. A shock-jock radio host announced a conspiracy that said a mysterious ‘companion object’ that was larger than planet Earth appeared to be trailing behind the comet’s tail.
It was the sign they needed. At last, their long-awaited flying saucer savior was returning to save them.
‘The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp’s approach is the ‘marker’ we’ve 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,’ read their website.
The cult began making meticulous preparations to kill themselves, even though the Heaven’s Gate credo was staunchly against it prior. But they defined ‘suicide’ in their own context to mean ‘to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered.’ Suicide, to members of Heaven’s Gate would be to not allow their soul to leave their human ‘vehicles’ to join the Next Level.
They purchased alien abduction insurance that would pay out $1million per person and covered abduction, impregnation or death by extra-terrestrials. (Lloyds of London stopped writing new policies after the suicide).
Applewhite prepared a press release for the media: ‘By the time you receive this, we’ll be gone – several dozen of us,’ it read. ‘We came from the Level Above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly task, to return to the world from whence we came – task completed. The distant space we refer to is what your religious literature would call the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of God.’
The group videotaped eerie farewell messages which showed them giddy with excitement. ‘I feel very honored, and very lucky that I wasn’t stuck back in the world, where I chose to make the mistake of going for a while,’ said Kelly Cooke’s mother.
‘One last thing we’d like to say is: 39 to beam up!’ said a smiling, Denise Thurman (JWNODY).
The website was updated with one last message: ‘Hale–Bopp brings closure to Heaven’s Gate. Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion—’graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.’
The cosmos-bound cult then enjoyed one last meal together at Marie Calender’s.
Before ingesting a lethal barbiturate-laced apple sauce, they stuffed their pockets with $5.75- toll fare for the celestial voyage. They arrived at that figure from a Mark Twain story who wrote: ‘The fare to get to heaven on the tail of a comet was $5.75.’
39 people in total – 21 men, including Applewhite, and 18 women committed suicide in three staggered groups. The last two people to go were charged with arranging the bodies and covering them with purple shrouds.
‘The moment I was dreading for most of my life, had finally happened,’ said Kelly Cooke, who lost both of her parents to the cult.
Sawyer told the HBO: ‘People say to me frequently, you were duped, you know? Why don’t you go on with your life? Instead of continuing to think about this. But I still believe in all the teachings of Ti and Do and that if I continue to grow then I will potentially pass through the Heaven’s Gate, the birth canal.’
One former member told DailyMail.com that the largest misconception of Heaven’s Gate is ‘that the teachers were crazy and the students were weak-minded and gullible. Just the opposite is true’