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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Cult Targeted Web Sites for Abuse, Depression Victims

Internet: It is unknown if such promotion brought recruits. But some say worst potential of cyberspace may have been realized.

March 28, 1997|TERENCE MONMANEY and DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

It may have been by the ghostly light of a computer screen that some of the men and women found dead in the Rancho Santa Fe house-turned-temple first got word of the oft-changing cult now called Heaven's Gate.

The group's extensive use of the Internet--as a bulletin board, publishing medium, outreach device, income source and possibly recruiting tool--added a chilling new element to what will likely be remembered as an epoch-marking tragedy.

Researchers and religious authorities expressed some dismay that the worst potential of cyberspace had perhaps been fulfilled, as people already estranged from traditional society turned to the World Wide Web and found not community but the ultimate alienation.

Among the dozens of interactive computer bulletin boards that Heaven's Gate targeted with links to its own Web site were support groups for abuse victims and people with depression. While it is not clear that those electronic postings were in any way heeded, just the targeting of those groups betrays an intent that some experts find deeply offensive.

"It's really ruthless to exploit people on the basis of their illnesses," said Dr. Louis J. West, a UCLA psychiatrist and noted authority on cult victims. "To go after people with medical problems because you know they're more vulnerable . . . and pull them into something that could cost them their lives is as bad as you can get."

At the same time, other experts have pointed out that the Internet is simply a distribution system, and is thus no more culpable than the printing press that churned out Hitler's "Mein Kampf." The apparent suicides, said computer columnist Mark Kellner, author of "God on the Internet," "could be the last straw for many who are justifiably bewildered by the Information Age." He suggested that the Net's benefits definitely outweigh its harm, and argued that many lives have been saved by information made available online.

And for all the group's apparent reliance on the Internet, it also depended on traditional media.

A book appearing on the Heaven's Gate Internet site describes how the group began to get out the word about its beliefs in the mid-1970s, long before the World Wide Web or the Internet existed.

The text of its "first poster used for public meetings," dated 1975-76, advertises a lecture on UFOs that would cover such topics as "Why they are here?" "Who they have come for?" and "When will they leave?"

The poster, typical of the group's disjointed rhetoric, adds: "Two individuals say they were sent from the level above human, and are about to leave the human level and literally (physically) return to that next evolutionary level in a spacecraft (UFO) within months! 'The Two' will discuss how the transition from the human level to the next level is accomplished, and when this may be done."

The poster says the group sponsoring the meeting "is not a religious or philosophical organization recruiting membership."

More recently, it appears that Heaven's Gate may have used the Web to post advertisements for meetings at which new members were instructed or enrolled. In July 1994 in Madison, Wis., a group referred to as Total Overcomers Anonymous--believed to be an earlier incarnation of Heaven's Gate--drew 30 people to a meeting in a public library, according to the Capital Times newspaper.

That meeting coincides with an Internet calendar of scores of Heaven's Gate meetings that took place in cities nationwide in 1993 and 1994. And the newspaper quoted the onetime watchdog group Cult Awareness Network as saying that Total Overcomers was started 10 years earlier. A pamphlet distributed at the meeting described the group as including "a rejection of everything that one 'knows,' " adding that "a serious change is about to take place . . . and only the converted can move on up."

UCLA's West said "totalist cults" like Heaven's Gate use whatever means available to attract new members. "That the Internet is now being used the way the mails used to be used, or people going door to door on the street, isn't that surprising," he said.

Still, the group's use of targeted electronic communications is unparalleled, if not unprecedented.

One Heaven's Gate key word, "discarnate," links it to numerous home pages devoted to a drug referred to as DMT, which is described as producing experiences of apparent death and visions of nonphysical beings in "hyperspace."

The Heaven's Gate text describes new members as "Overcomers," a usage which mixes the group's Internet advertising with that of dozens of Christian "Overcomers" drug recovery programs as well as other Christian counseling groups for survivors of severe trials such as cancer or divorce.

Curiously, the harsh reception by some Internet users of the group's scattershot messaging may have hastened the group's actions.

In September 1995, a Heaven's Gate member named "Jwnody" wrote an article on the Web describing public reaction to one of the group's manifestoes, "Undercover 'Jesus' Surfaces Before Departure." The reaction from Internet users was largely negative.

"The loudest voices were those expressing ridicule," Jwnody wrote. "This was the signal to us to begin our preparations to return 'home.' "

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