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DEATH IN SAN DIEGO COUNTY

Two Businessmen Reportedly Offer to Buy Estate

Tragedy: Mansion would be razed in effort to protect property values. Medical examiner releases bodies.

March 31, 1997|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — As coroners completed the grim task of examining the bodies of 39 cult members who died in a mass suicide here, a real estate agent said Sunday that two wealthy businessmen have offered to buy and raze the mansion where the deaths took place.

The two men want to protect local property values and "spare Rancho Santa Fe the stigma of what happened" at the 9,200-square-foot house atop Colina Norte, real estate agent Steve Leggitt said.

With autopsies finished, the county medical examiner's office began releasing bodies for either burial or cremation. All 39 victims have been identified, but in four cases, authorities have been unable to find relatives to notify.

"Our work is done," said Medical Examiner Dr. Brian Blackbourne. "It's just paperwork now."

Blackbourne said a visual inspection of cult leader Marshall Applewhite's internal organs did not detect any sign of cancer, casting doubt on widely circulated rumors that the man who called himself Do already knew he was close to death at the time that he and his followers decided to take their lives.

Several people claiming information about the cult have said that Applewhite, 66, either told them or told others that he was dying of cancer.

If true, those claims would help answer the question of why, after two decades together, cult members decided to take their lives this year. But the credibility of the reports has been questioned--one of the sources, for example, is a writer who has said that he met space aliens.

In this wealthy enclave north of San Diego, the impact that the suicides might have on property values has been a considerable concern. The two businessmen who wish to raze the house "want to make sure the value of the property, and of the rest of the Ranch, is not hurt by what happened there," Leggitt said. "These are very substantial people who want to turn a negative into a positive."

Leggitt, an agent with Dyson & Dyson Real Estate Associates, one of the area's top realty companies, declined to name the pair. But he said their offer was near the $1.6-million price set by owner Sam Koutchesfahani, who is set to be sentenced in July on tax evasion and fraud charges.

Robert Dyson, co-owner of Dyson & Dyson, said that the prospective owners may be joined by other investors eager to see that the property sells for close to its asking price. If the owner was forced to accept a "low-ball" offer because of the house's notoriety, it could hurt property values of adjoining properties, he said.

"Razing the structure and building something new will help the psyches of people who are offended by the house," Dyson said.

As officials here seek to wrap up their investigation of the mass suicide, San Diego Sheriff's Department's investigators, aided by FBI computer experts, are reviewing the cult's computer files. Those files may shed additional light on whether Applewhite's followers thought he was dying of cancer. Officials noted, however, that they are not necessarily hunting for evidence on that subject.

"The concern is that other people out there might still be in danger, not to find what Applewhite said to anybody," one official said.

Medical experts say that autopsy should reveal most significant tumors, but that in cases where the tumors are small, visual inspection might not reveal them. Blood and tissue sample tests, which will look for such small tumors, will take four to six weeks, according to Jack Merker, spokesman for San Diego County. "We're definitely going to look," he said.

In suicide cases, the medical examiner's office often orders tests to determine the presence of drugs or alcohol or any other condition that might be listed as a contributory cause.

Applewhite's decision to have himself castrated might have provided protection against a condition that threatens men his age: prostate cancer. Before other therapies were developed, castration was sometimes performed to arrest prostate cancer on the theory that there is a link between the cancer and testosterone.

The bitter fact that the Heaven's Gate members--whose philosophy was a mixture of out-of-kilter Christianity, UFO enthusiasm, and themes from "Star Trek"--would commit mass suicide during Christianity's Holy Week was not lost on religious leaders across the country. Many incorporated references to the incident into their Easter sermons.

At an open-air gathering at a high school football stadium, the Rev. Bob Botsford, pastor at a nondenominational church on the outskirts of Rancho Santa Fe, told 300 worshipers: "Jesus Christ is the gate, he's the only way. There's no UFO waiting behind a comet."

In Washington, with President Clinton and his family in attendance, the Rev. J. Philip Wogaman, senior minister of the Foundry Methodist Church, sought to differentiate between the story of Christ's death and resurrection and the suicide of cultists who believed they would come back to life and live forever.

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