Heavens Gate: The UFO Cult That Resulted In A Mass Suicide

Heavens Gate was an American UFO cult founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. The group believed they would ascend to heaven on a UFO after death. This ultimately led to the mass suicide of 39 members in San Diego in 1997.

Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles were the leaders of the UFO cult
Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles were the leaders of the UFO cult

At 3:30pm, on March 26, 1997, the San Diego Country Sheriff’s Office took a 911 call from an anonymous informant (later identified as Richard Ford, alias Rio D’Angelo) reporting a group suicide at a house in San Diego’s plush Rancho Santa Fe neighborhood.

Two investigating deputies found 39 bodies of identically dressed, androgynous-looking men and women. Autopsies established that each had drunk a lethal combination of vodka and barbiturates and smothered their faces with plastic bags. Some of the men had been surgically castrated.

Videotaped statements left behind explaining that the suicides, members of a cult called Heaven’s Gate, were leaving their earthly "vehicles" (bodies) behind and expected to board a spacecraft trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

The story generated headlines all over the world. Within a day or two reporters had pieced together a story of a cult whose origins could be traced to the 1970s and to two individuals who first called themselves “The Two.”

The Two, Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles, met in 1972 at a Houston hospital where Applewhite, then in his early 40s, was being treated for psychiatric problems and where Nettles, four years older, worked as a nurse. Applewhite had been a professor of music at the University of St Thomas and later director of music at St Mark’s Episcopal Church in Houston. Nettles had long been interested in the occult.

According to sociologist Robert W Balch, Applewhite had long sought a platonic helper who, among other things, would relieve him of the burden of confused sexuality that had been responsible for emotional and employment difficulties. Nettles proved to be that person. Not coincidentally, the doctrine the couple would preach rejected sexuality.

Leaving Houston in 1973, they wandered through various western states, eventually establishing themselves in a camp among Oregon’s Rogue River. There Applewhite and Nettles experienced a revelation that convinced them that they were the two witnesses whose appearance on earth in its last days was prophesied in Revelation 11.

In what may have been their first attempt to reach out to the larger world, they showed up unannounced at the Oklahoma City headquarters of the International UFO Bureau and spoke to its director Hayden Hewes.

Hewes would recall that they introduced themselves simply as "Herff" and "Bonnie", here to give him a message of utmost importance. They gave Hewes permission to record their words. They wanted him to inform the world that, in Herff’s words, "there are two individuals who are here to show and tell how man may make the ascension into the next evolutionary level." They said that one day they would be assassinated; three days later they would return to live in full view of members of the news media.

In the spring of 1975, letters attributed to Human Individual Metamorphasis (HIM) circulated through the occult and New Age community announcing that prophets from the "next kingdom" fully as important as Jesus, and with the same mission, were now on earth and about to make their presence known:

"There are two individuals here now who have also come from that next kingdom, incarnate as humans, awakened, and will soon demonstrate the same proof of overcoming death. They are sent from that kingdom by the Father to bear the same truth that was Jesus. This is like a repeat performance, except by this time by two (a man and woman), to restate the truth Jesus bore, restore its accurate meaning, and again show that any individual who seeks that kingdom will find it through the same process. The two who are the "actors" in this "theatre" are in the meantime doing all they can to relate this truth as accurately as possible so that when their bodies recover from their "dead" state (resurrection) and they leave (UFOs), those left behind will have clearly understood the formula."

The followers would have to abandon family, friends, and possessions and devote themselves entirely to the metamorphosis, a "chemical and biological change" that would render their bodies indestructible.

Applewhite and Nettles’s first more or less public appearance was in Los Angeles in the spring of 1975, at the home of psychic Joan Culpepper. By now they called themselves Bo (Applewhite) and Peep (Nettles) and refused to speak of, or even acknowledge prior personal histories. Their message so mesmerized 24 of their listeners that they made the decision to become the sheep of Bo and Peep. They left their families and joined the Two in their wanderings through the West.

Scene of the mass suicide in San Diego
Scene of the mass suicide in San Diego were 39 Heavens Gate members committed suicide

Over the next several months the Two and their entourage held other meetings in California and Colorado, bringing more faithful into the fold.

Except by those directly affected, these events were little noticed. All that would change after a meeting held at a Waldport, Oregon, hotel on September 14, 1975. When 20 of the 300 audience members disappeared in the meeting’s wake, the Oregon State Police and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department launched an investigation.

Reporters learned that those who stayed behind were unsure of what they heard. The message seemed vague to them. As one said, "I guess the implication was that you might leave in a UFO."

Some listeners remembered that this departure would take place from a camp somewhere in Colorado. Confirmation of this idea came via postcard from Colorado. One of the Oregon missing informed his mother, "I am leaving this earth and will not see you anymore."

Six weeks after the Oregon meeting, University of Montana sociologist Robert Balch and David Taylor located Bo and Peep’s followers in Arizona and, disguising themselves as believers, joined the group. By this time Bo and Peep had disappeared, fearing they would be assassinated before they had fulfilled their mission. The followers believed they would soon rejoin the Two and witness the "Demonstration," in which Bo and Peep would be martyred, rise from the dead three and a half days later, and ascend to heaven on a cloud of light. A few days later UFOs would carry away the most devout followers.

Before leaving the faithful, Bo and Peep - who by now had attracted 150 to 200 followers, in Balch and Taylor’s estimation - broke them up into several autonomous families, typically consisting of 12 to 14 persons, most in their early 20s and more or less equally divided between men and women. Each member was assigned a partner, if possible of the opposite sex, though sexual, romantic, and even friendly relations were forbidden; instead, the two individuals, who were to be together 24 hours a day, would observe each other closely and thus come to intimate knowledge of the human qualities the other had to overcome before he or she could experience metamorphosis. Beyond communicating for necessary business, the partners were to have as little as possible to do with the others in the family.

The families went their own ways, each moving wherever it felt it was being led. They lived on the food secured through begging and camped out every night. Periodically the families would stop, hold meetings, and recruit new members even as some of the original members left for greener spiritual pastures. Balch and Taylor noted that interaction with audiences "was limited to discussing the message, and the answers given by the members of the cult were often so stereotyped that they sounded like tape recordings." Mostly "these meetings produced nothing more than catcalls and insults, or at best interesting questions," according to Balch and Taylor.

39 members of Heavens Gate were found dead at the property in San Diego
39 members of Heavens Gate were found dead at the property in San Diego

During the day, members were to spend virtually all their time "tuning in" - establishing a psychic connection with the people of the next level (outer space) to which they would go once the "process" was completed. Most members were persons who had long been drawn to occultism and unorthodox religious beliefs. Others were hippies and dropouts. Few, in other words, had appeared out of nowhere. The eclectic mix of metaphysical teachings about flying saucers, reincarnation, psychic power, and the like was nothing new to them; the only novelty was the particular manner in which Bo and Peep had put them together.

Followers believed that the "demonstration" would occur in Oakland, California, in early October. But when the two failed to appear (the meeting was a Hoax engineered by a newspaper), many followers became disillusioned. The attrition rate was high, but the group survived because new members continually replaced the old. Only a small minority stayed on for any length of time.

In late 1975 or early 1976, the two resurfaced and set about to re-energize the movement. A significant development took place at a meeting in the Midwest where, after enduring the taunts of hecklers, Peep declared that "the doors to the next level are closed." In other words, the missionary work was over, even though fewer than 100 persons in the earth's population has been harvested. Bo and Peep took their followers to a mountain camp outside Laramie, Wyoming. Those whose faith in the Two was less than total were asked to leave. Members were given uniforms and subjected to psychic and other training to prepare them for a life in space. In the fall of 1976, the group moved to Salt Lake City.

Not long afterward two members received inheritances and turned the money over to Bo and Peep, who used it to buy houses in the Denver and Dallas-Fort Worth areas. Members lived in these "crafts" essentially from the rest of the world. They operated on a strict time schedule with their every movement monitored.

The group pursued its nomadic ways and dropped out of sight for some years. In 1985 Bonnie Lu Nettles, now calling herself "Do" (to Applewhite's "Te," as in the musical tone), died of cancer or, as one follower told a reporter a decade later, "returned to that next level to resume her position there." The group was renamed the Total Overcomers, and in the 1990s members gave occasional public testimony. They warned of the imminent destruction of earthly life and also of the schemes of evil "Luciferian" extraterrestrials.

In 1995 the group, now known as Heaven's Gate, settled in San Diego and started a computer business, Higher Source, which designed commercial websites. It also established its own website. In October 1996 it moved into the mansion where members, including Applewhite, would die.

On March 31, 1997, the body of another suicide, Robert Nichols, was found in his trailer home near Marysville, California. A handwritten note stated, "'I'm going on the spaceship with Hale-Bopp to be with those who have gone before me." Nichols had no known association with Applewhite's group.

On the other hand, Wayne Cooke had been involved as recently as 1994, and his wife Suzanne had been among the dead at Rancho Santa Fe. He committed suicide at a motel in nearby Encinitas on May 7. A companion and fellow believer, Charles Humphreys, was taken in critical condition to a local hospital and survived the attempt.

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