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As Families Grieve, a Portrait Emerges of Cult's Final Days

Tragedy: Members prepared for trip, held a last supper at a restaurant. Some had given up jobs and abandoned their families to pursue nomadic life.

March 29, 1997|JOHN M. GLIONNA and ALAN ABRAHAMSON and TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Grieving families around the nation began Friday to plan funerals for relatives they had long ago lost to the Heaven's Gate cult, which promised disciples they could evolve into extraterrestrials by severing all links to modern society and human desires.

As authorites identified the cult members who committed mass suicide, friends and relatives said some had cast away well-paying jobs, cut off spouses or abandoned children to join Heaven's Gate in a vagabond lifestyle that demanded communal living, periodic fasting and a disdain for mainstream culture.

Medical examiners working around the clock confirmed that the 39 cult members died after ingesting the anti-seizure drug phenobarbital and drinking alcohol. But at least a few of the victims did not have lethal levels of phenobarbital in their blood; these may have died from suffocation, as they had apparently placed plastic bags over their heads, authorities said.

Several of the male cult members had been castrated long before the suicides--in keeping with their belief that in order to ascend to the next level, they needed not only to remain celibate but to prove they had no need for reproductive organs.

As autopsies continued, investigators emphasized that they saw no indication of murder--and no hint that any cult members survived the mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe.

The 39 victims seemed to be the only active members of the Heaven's Gate cult. The group had no other chapters despite grand dreams of expanding overseas, said San Diego County Sheriff's Lt. Jerry Lipscomb.

"We cannot tie this group to any other one in the world," Lipscomb said.

Founded more than two decades ago by nurse Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, who died several years ago, and former music teacher Marshall Applewhite, who died in the mass suicide, the group attracted all types of members, of all ages and races.

A career postal worker abandoned five children to join the cult after catching word of it on the Internet. A troubled teenager ran away from home to sign up after hearing members lecture in a neighborhood park. The members included the daughter of a retired federal judge and the son of a major telecommunications executive.

The brother of "Star Trek" star Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura, joined too, immersing himself in a mystical theology that offered believers the chance to cast off their clunky earth-bodies and transform into extraterrestrial angels ascending into a "Kingdom of Heaven."

About two dozen of the cult members appeared to have joined the group in the mid-1970s and stuck with it until its final act.

A Final Meal, Together

Though they isolated themselves from friends and family, the cult members were far from hermits. They watched "Star Trek," breakfasted on strawberry crepes at a local pancake house and boldly knocked on the doors of some of San Diego's toniest businesses looking for work designing World Wide Web sites.

And a week ago Friday--just a day or so before enacting their meticulously planned suicides--the cult went out for a last supper together at the Marie Callender's restaurant in Carlsbad, dining on turkey pot pies and squeezing extra lemons into their iced teas .

But they indulged in these activities only with the fellow cult members they called "brothers" and "sisters." Meanwhile, their true relatives fretted and feared, baffled by the ideology that had snatched them from mainstream society. "He just dropped out," Steven Stevens, the manager for actress Nichols, said of cult member Thomas Nichols.

Those outside Heaven's Gate had no way of reaching their loved ones on the inside. And those in the cult made little effort to reassure them.

Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, for example, made just one 10-second phone call to her mother after joining the cult last summer. A postal supervisor in Cincinnati, McCurdy-Hill abandoned her family shortly after she gave birth to twin girls. She also had three sons, said the Rev. H.L. Harvey, a family friend and pastor at the New Friendship Baptist Church.

"Her brothers and family were concerned about where she was and what she was doing," Harvey said. "She was a whiz on the computer, but then she started acting strange and studying this religion."

Another member, David Geoffrey Moore, visited his mother just twice in the 21 years since he linked up with the cult near San Jose.

Moore's most recent employer, Mike Afshin, described him as a skilled computer consultant, a man so honest and friendly that he once fixed a client's plumbing for free because he felt guilty about charging her $79 for a service job that took just 10 minutes to complete. But Moore's mother, Nancie Brown, had no such memories to cling to as she grieved. She had not been in regular contact with her son since he was in high school.

Similarly, Applewhite's sister, Louise Winant, said she had not heard from him in more than 20 years--and added that he did not even know he had grandchildren.

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