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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Group Ran Web Site Business as 'Impeccable Professionals'

March 28, 1997|MICHAEL GRANBERRY and DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RANCHO SANTA FE — It was only last July that Heather Chronert answered the door of the San Diego Polo Club to find a pair of unexpected visitors: "Gentle, pale people,"--middle-aged men, she recalls, who proposed designing the club's World Wide Web site.

At first skeptical, Chronert, the club's office manager, was soon won over by her visitors' "lavish, impeccable portfolio," which included among its offerings a "beautiful" site that paid homage to a famous rock star and actress:

Madonna.

Based largely on her impression of the Madonna sample, Chronert decided to hire Higher Source Contract Enterprises as the polo club's Internet architects. In exchange for referrals, they were paid only $1,000, she said, but ended up working "hours and hours and hours."

She described them as "impeccable professionals, some of the best people we've ever worked with, who did nothing but A-plus work. We never had a single problem with them.

"They knew the computer industry backward and forward," she said.

Over the past two years, thousands of design companies have sprung up across the country to service the many companies and nonprofit organizations eager to jump onto the Internet bandwagon with their own Web sites.

A design company can range from a single person with almost no training to an operation with dozens of sophisticated software engineers and graphic artists creating complex sites capable of selling merchandise.

Higher Source--the business end of what officials are now calling the Heaven's Gate cult--was little known among the Web design community in San Diego. But the polo club was only one of its clients. Others included a British auto parts dealer and a Hollywood studio, the Kushner-Locke Co., whose most recent movie title offers an eerie epitaph to the now-deceased Web-site creators:

"The Last Time I Committed Suicide."

Competing Internet professionals offered mixed assessments of the group's work. David Bernsen, president of 1Link Internet Services, one of San Diego's largest Web design companies, with 30 employees, said the art produced by Higher Source for the polo club and other clients was well-done, but the technology was unsophisticated.

But Chronert said the common bond among the Higher Source clientele was a willingness to overlook the group's eccentricities for the sake of their craftsmanship.

"They were genuinely very nice people and very talented," said Tom Goodspeed, the polo club's general manager. "But we used to joke in the beginning that they were beamed down from somewhere."

Oddities abounded, Goodspeed said, to the point that he offered to help them "overcome the strangeness of their impression as business people" with the aid of a professional marketing company. But they rejected the idea, saying they were "members of a monastery."

Chronert also found herself puzzled by the group's "peculiar" requests. She never knew the last name of a single member of Higher Source, she said, calling her primary contact a man in his 40s named "Stewart."

Two weeks ago, he offered what sounded like parting words.

"He said, 'Don't bother calling me until after Easter, because I won't be available. I'll be involved in some monastery activities,' " she remembered him saying.

During one visit, she gave Stewart a polo cap.

Showing the group's tendency toward uniformity, Stewart requested matching headgear for 12 colleagues.

When members of the group attended a polo match last summer, they were wearing their polo caps and, Chronert said, matching each other from head to toe.

Goodspeed said the group all wore "buzz cuts and dark clothes" and "looked like they were spun out of a mold."

The Web site that got them hired at the club is not endorsed by Madonna, her publicist said Thursday.

Liz Rosenberg said "there are numerous Madonna Web sites," such as that designed by Higher Source, which is found on the Internet at http://www.primadonna.com. Only those designed by her record company bear the "official" label, Rosenberg said.

Los Angeles businessman Nick Matzorkis, who enlisted Higher Source to design Web sites for his company, Interactive Entertainment Group, said the group was referred by movie producer Peter Locke.

Matzorkis liked Higher Source, he said, for producing superior work at a low cost and for being "professional, courteous and worldly." He also remembered them as being " 'Star Trek' junkies."

Officials at British Masters, an auto parts dealer in Vista, declined comment on Higher Source, which designed their Web site.

A man identified only as Eric said he would be willing to discuss Higher Source "for 15 minutes at 4 p.m. for $1,000."

But Marvin Caldwell, a San Diego-area real estate agent, said he had known the members of Higher Source for about six months, having met them at an estate sale.

He identified the person he dealt with primarily as Brother Logan, who told Caldwell he came from the Midwest and used to work for a Fortune 500 company.

Brother Logan told him, Caldwell said, that the group supported itself through its Web site work and had designed a site for the movie "Pinocchio." The film's producers could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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