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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Cult Leader's Son Apologizes to Families Who Lost Loved Ones

Aftermath: Medical examiners continue grim task of autopsies. Looky-loos flock to death scene.

March 30, 1997|GREG KRIKORIAN and JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — San Diego County medical examiners Saturday worked through their grim backlog of 39 autopsies, using forklifts to haul bodies two at a time into a refrigerated tractor-trailer as camera crews recorded the macabre scene.

As the row of corpses grew and grew, the son of Heaven's Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite apologized to the families who had lost loved ones to the mass suicide.

"I am appalled by the things that have resulted from the actions of my father and others in the cult," Mark Applewhite said.

He had not heard from his father--who preached the need to cast off family--in more than 25 years. Nor had he known about his father's belief that a UFO tucked behind an approaching comet would carry him and his followers away to a higher plane once they departed their earthly bodies.

"I am deeply hurt by the knowledge that people have now lost their lives in connection with my father," Applewhite said in a statement released from his home in Corpus Christi, Texas. "My sympathy and prayers go out to all those who are suffering the loss of loved ones."

Though Applewhite and other victims' relatives spoke of the raw pain that was just now starting to register, residents of this tony golf-and-polo community seemed to have largely gotten over the horror they felt upon learning of the mass suicides last week. On a beautiful sunny day, they focused on more cheery topics--like today's Easter parade.

Predictably, the million-dollar mansion where Heaven's Gate members took their lives morphed from a creepy symbol of death into an instant tourist attraction.

Local police and private security hired by the homeowner kept looky-loos from peering too close. (Not that there was much to see anyway; authorities had cleared out the file cabinets, computers and even the metal bunk beds where the cult members ate their sedatives mixed with pudding or applesauce, donned their suffocating plastic bag hoods and lay down to die.)

Still, visitors kept coming by, pausing to look at the home that's flashed on televisions worldwide since the suicides were discovered Wednesday. Some stopped to chat with security guards. Others just gawked.

"We were [staying] five miles away and . . . came by out of curiosity," said Barbara Beers, a 36-year-old waitress from Quincy, Ill. Beers said she could not miss the view, not after being deluged with calls from friends back home who knew she was staying only a short distance from suddenly famous Rancho Santa Fe.

While the tourists snapped photos of the house on Colina Norte, most of the news crews had shifted to the medical examiner's warehouse-like headquarters in San Diego.

There, through a chain-link fence, they filmed the weary routine: Every hour or so, attendants in blue hospital scrubs would wheel another body out from the autopsy room on a gurney. Forklifts would then transfer each corpse to the trailer, depositing it at the end of a row of bodies wrapped in white sheets.

Most of the victims' relatives heeded authorities' advice to steer clear of the camera-clogged county. Instead, they arranged for local mortuaries to send the bodies--or cremated ashes--back home for funerals.

Only one family showed up in person Saturday: relatives of 40-year-old Erika Ernst. "For 21 years I tried to find her but I couldn't find her," her father Edewald Ernst told CNN. Though she sounded happy in the few phone calls she made home over the years, Ernst said he was dubious. "They brainwashed the people," he said.

Meanwhile, President Clinton alluded to the tragedy in his weekly radio address, saying: "Let us also remember there are some Americans who feel isolated from all of the rest of us in other ways--sometimes with truly tragic consequences like the events just outside San Diego, which have so stunned us all this week."

On a less somber note, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner, who is also the vice chairman of Time Warner, called the mass suicide "a good way to get rid of a few nuts."

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