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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY | DANA PARSONS

Going From Darkness Into Light

March 28, 1997|DANA PARSONS

RANCHO SANTA FE — When dawn crept over the coastal mountain range around 5:30 Thursday, a stranger could finally see where he was. Ah, natural light. And darned if the place didn't turn out to be a little piece of heaven, just like the locals say. Trees, meadows, fruit groves, spectacular vistas from hillside estates.

But make no mistake, a person can get lost here in the dark. "You can make a turn on one of these roads and drive around and be lost all night," one local resident says.

How odd and ironic to be so close to heaven and not see it. How sad to wander in the darkness, waiting for the light.

"Come back and tell us what happened," a young man at the Village Church told a newspaperman Wednesday night who stopped to ask directions to the suicide scene.

By the time they carried the last of the 39 bodies out of the big house on the hill Thursday, a person had plenty of time to think of darkness and light.

What happened, to answer the man's question, was another California "event," the kind that would seem to defy comprehension if it didn't happen so often. Sure, this one was macabre, but we've seen macabre before. Rich kids killing their parents. An ex-football star charged with double murder. Two bank robbers firing away on North Hollywood streets.

So let's call this one macabre with a twist--39 cultists dying not in some grungy no man's land in Guyana or a desolate bunker outside Waco, Texas, but in such a splendid setting that many would call it a place, pardon the expression, to die for.

And, just to take the craziness roaring toward the millennium, this would appear to be the first suicide sect to have its own Web site.

The "event" unfolded like they all do--first, the local media show up, and before you know it, Paris and London are on the phone, not to mention Ted Koppel. By Thursday morning, the Kookens, a family of four from Chicago vacationing nearby, came over to check things out. They somehow got through security and wound up on television.

Yet Gary Kooken didn't come across as a glory hound. "We were getting ready to take a drive down to San Diego and we wanted to come over and see what we could see," he said as his daughter stood a few feet away, engulfed by interviewers. The family had never been to a major news happening, he said, although "it seems commonplace for California."

Kooken found the media presence unbelievable; one wonders how he would have reacted the night before when, just before 10, a San Diego reporter phoned in her story from the front seat of a red convertible. But the visit to the scene had its somber side too. "I definitely think about why it happened," he said of the deaths. "I've got a daughter, she's 14, who's not that far behind [in age] of some of them [who died]. I don't understand it."

Nor can most of us understand why people lay themselves down to die.

"It's 39 lost souls. That's how I look at it. I wish there had been a way to reach them before it was too late," said D.R. Martinez, a 17-year veteran with the California Highway Patrol who was among those trying to keep the two-lane road restricted to local residents and the media. "You can't look at something like this and call it another day at the office."

As with most towns suddenly besieged by out-of-town media, the locals rallied 'round. This is, after all, according to a resident, a place where parents send their youngsters to Montessori and then to Country Day School. Many residents live in gated mansions perched on pastoral pedestals. The locals embody "the horsy set, and the golf and tennis set," one man said.

Perhaps that accounts for a certain detachment that emanated from some of them. In the morning paper, for example, a local resident noted that the cultists were "renters."

One man downtown joked, "The rumor is that they [the dead] were upset that Lauren Bacall didn't win an Oscar." Meanwhile, his co-worker complained about a giant RV taking up space in front of their business and later lamented that the news helicopters at the death site were "scaring away the animals, just to get pictures of corpses--like we've never seen them before."

Yes, Rancho Santa Fe is primed to put this quickly behind them. Life does go on, and in few places in as high a style as this one. And as for the cultists, let us hope they find the light they sought.

They died together but, apart from that bond, they surely lived alone in their mansion, cut off in many ways from the outside world. In the end, they proved they had nothing in common with their neighbors--none of whom would be in any hurry to leave their heaven on earth for the real thing.

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