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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

The Cult in Hindsight : Diamond Bar Woman Recalls Group's Beginning and the Unease That Turned Into a Crusade Against It

March 30, 1997|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When a mysterious man and woman known as "The Two" began seeking fellow travelers for a space trip to a higher world, they came to Los Angeles, to a tract home in Studio City, to the living room of a spiritualist and onetime advertising executive named Joan Culpepper.

After two hours, on that spring night in 1975, Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Nettles had two dozen of their first converts ready to follow them to Oregon and, beyond, on an astral journey to eternity, Culpepper said in an interview Saturday.

The quest, of course, ended sensationally last week with the deaths of 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult in suburban San Diego.

When Culpepper heard the announcement on her car radio--that Applewhite had apparently led 38 other people to their deaths--she nearly drove off the road.

Now the 62-year-old grandmother from Diamond Bar is left to think about that meeting long ago, the first recruiting session ever held by the group then known as Human Individual Metamorphosis.

She recalled how after a short membership in the group she became one of its most outspoken critics. And she expressed relief that many of those who joined with her in 1975 had also defected.

"I am enraged when I hear all these 'experts' making blanket statements," Culpepper said in her first newspaper interview since the mass suicide. "Not everyone who was involved in this was a loser, with low intelligence and low self-esteem. These were people who strongly believed in something."

It was the spring of 1975 when a friend of Culpepper, a metaphysical teacher named Clarence Klug, told her of a couple he had met in Ojai. They wanted to come to Los Angeles to talk about UFOs.

Culpepper at the time had lost her job at a large advertising agency, which closed its West Coast office. She was making a living by teaching meditation and performing "spiritual counseling," she said.

Culpepper respected Klug and so helped gather a group of about 80 people for a nighttime meeting at her expansive Studio City home. She found Applewhite not unattractive, with riveting blue eyes. Both he and Nettles wore sweatpants and desert boots. "I thought to myself, 'My, what is this?' " Culpepper said.

When the two went to the front of the room, they introduced themselves as "Guinea and Pig," a quip about their role in what they considered a cosmic experiment, according to one account of the meeting.

Culpepper remembers the duo calling themselves "The Two," but most of all she remembers how "they laid it on the line that night. They were very stern. There was not any kind of loving kindness or nurturing. They said they would die, be assassinated, and anyone who followed would travel with them on a spaceship to a higher level, to heaven."

Culpepper said she was stunned when more than two dozen of the people in her home, including many of her friends, made plans that night to trek to the Oregon coast to rendezvous with the enigmatic couple.

Already in her 40s and with a grown daughter, Culpepper said, she was wracked with mixed feelings about the trip, especially the admonishment that acolytes must abandon their families. A part of her worried that she might be missing out on something big, but another part was concerned.

"Every nerve in my body was screaming, 'This is not right, this is not right,' " she said. "I remember when the meeting ended I was nauseous, sick to my stomach."

Culpepper said she also felt guilty for luring many of her friends to the meeting. So she resolved to go to Oregon, if for nothing else but to keep an eye on "The Two."

"I felt responsible," she recalled. "I felt totally responsible."

She went with the group from Oregon to Wyoming but her constant questioning of the leaders and her doubts were anathema to their rigid dogma. After about six weeks she and another member were left behind in Sedona, Ariz.

On returning to Los Angeles, Culpepper became a crusader against the cult, speaking out against it at every turn, including in a 1975 interview with The Times. She also operated a halfway house for former members in Topanga Canyon and went to meetings around the country, where she would glare at Applewhite and Nettles and question their teachings--earning herself the title of "Judas" among the followers. She continued her fight for several years, before the cult went underground.

Last week, she was driving in her car when a radio report delivered the news that the mass suicide had apparently been orchestrated by the man with the penetrating eyes whom she had known two decades before.

"I had to slam on the brakes. I almost lost control of the car," she said. "I can't describe the feeling."

She said her sadness in recent days has been eased only somewhat by the knowledge that none of her old friends had apparently stayed with the group. She did not know any of the names listed among the dead.

For many years, Culpepper believed that "The Two" were charlatans, preying on others. "But in retrospect, I think they believed their message to the end, with all their hearts. They thought they were going to that spaceship."

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