The 39 men and women who died in a mass suicide here left behind mystical computer postings and matter-of-fact videos explaining that they were ready to graduate from their human shells and ascend into heaven - transported, they hoped, by an alien spacecraft tucked behind the comet Hale-Bopp.
Authorities investigating the case said Thursday that the victims, who ranged in age from 20 to 72, had planned their deaths meticulously.
They wrote out recipes for lethal drug overdoses to be swallowed with pudding or applesauce and washed down with a swig of vodka, though the group preached abstinence from alcohol. They also donned matching black outfits of pants, oversized shirts and brand-new Nikes. And they delegated two of their colleagues to remain alive long enough to clean up after everyone else.
Packed flight bags or suitcases stood at the foot of every mattress, and many of the victims carried $5 bills and rolls of quarters.
The bodies were in various states of decomposition; the house reeked of rotting flesh, officials said.
A 15-member team from the San Diego County medical examiner’s office worked throughout Wednesday night and Thursday morning removing the bodies in white body bags and hauling them away in refrigerated trucks.
Later, sheriff’s officials released an eerie video of the bodies before they had been removed, lying on white comforters, some with eyeglasses folded neatly on the pillows.
The deceased belonged to a group called Heaven’s Gate, which appears to be the successor to a 1970s cult known as the Overcomers or the Human Individual Metamorphosis which flickered in and out of vogue over the past two decades, preaching a philosophy that blends biblical teachings about Jesus with dire warnings about satanic angels taking over the Earth.
One former member who left Heaven’s Gate just six weeks ago, and who identifies himself as Rio D’Angelo, said he believes the group was totally wiped out with the mass suicide, according to D’Angelo’s employer, Beverly Hills businessman Nick Matzorkis.
Based on evidence recovered from the spotless two-story mansion - where the dead bodies lay peacefully on bunk beds and mattresses - San Diego County Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne said he believed the cult split up into three groups to commit suicide.
The first group may have died as many as three days ago. Preliminary autopsy results indicated that alcohol and phenobarbital were involved - a combination that would match the identical recipes that investigators discovered torn up in garbage cans or folded in the pockets of the deceased.
Blackbourne said deputies also found plastic bags tied with elastic bands in the garbage behind the house, which could have been used to suffocate the victims and speed death. Blackbourne speculated that the group members tapped to die in the second or third suicide waves may have removed the plastic bags from the heads of their deceased colleagues, tidied the house and then covered the bodies with silky purple cloths.
The final two to die, he said, were not shrouded in the purple clothes. Instead, they had plastic bags around their heads.
Blackbourne would not comment on whether the Heaven’s Gate members could have pulled the bags on their heads themselves after swallowing the drugs, or whether someone had to have helped them. But Sheriff’s Cmdr. Alan Fulmer said there was no indication that anyone had left the home alive after the suicides.
Because the victims all wore baggy clothes and had severely cropped hair, Fulmer said his deputies had initially mistaken them all for young men. There were 21 women and 18 men in the group.
Most were in their 40s, though two were young men in their 20s and one, a woman, was 72. Fulmer said the deceased included two blacks and a couple of Latinos. The rest were white.
Most of the bodies had identification folded neatly in the pocket of the baggy black shirt: driver’s licenses, birth certificates or even passports. The largest contingents came from New Mexico and Texas, but Blackbourne also identified victims from Washington, Utah, Minnesota, Arizona and Ohio as well as four from Southern California.
As news of the tragedy spread around the world, families with missing relatives flooded the San Diego coroner’s office with anxious calls.
As the grim business of conducting autopsies and notifying relatives continued, several of the Heaven’s Gate members were speaking out posthumously - through a lengthy letter and brief video and through various Internet postings.
One white-haired member of the group appeared on a video addressed to the news media to explain - rather disjointedly - that his senior leader had determined it was time to move onto the “next level.”
A female member cast the suicide in a slightly less mystical tone, saying on the tape: “Maybe they’re crazy, for all I know. But I don’t have any choice but to go for it, because I’ve been on this planet for 31 years and there’s nothing here for me.” The group’s pending suicide appealed to her, she said, because “if that’s what it takes, that’s better than being around here with absolutely nothing to do.”
The group left a similar video - this one bearing farewell messages from 38 of the 39 victims - on a table in a conference room in the sparsely furnished house, Fulmer said.
In what now appears to have been a portent of their suicide, the group last fall sent a video and letter about their plans to depart the Earth for a Kingdom of Heaven to J. Gordon Melton, a nationally prominent authority on alternative religious groups in Santa Barbara. Melton said he received the material in October - the same month the nomadic Heaven’s Gate moved into Rancho Santa Fe - but did not have time to review it in detail.
The Heaven’s Gate members also sent a package to their former brother, Rio D’Angelo, in Los Angeles this week. D’Angelo, who is in his early 40s, said that in the video, members of the group spoke with excitement about “moving forward to the next stage,” Matzorkis said.
According to Matzorkis, the letter stated: “By the time this letter is being read, we will all have shed our containers” - the term Heaven’s Gate members used for their bodies.
After reviewing the material, D’Angelo marched into Matzorkis’ office Wednesday morning, told him he believed a mass suicide had occurred and asked for the day off. Within minutes, the two had jumped into Matzorkis’ car and sped south to see for themselves.
When they arrived at the Heaven’s Gate house, Matzorkis waited outside while D’Angelo went inside for about 10 minutes. “He looked as white as a sheet,” Matzorkis recalled. “He said, ‘They did it. They committed suicide,”’ Matzorkis said.
The two then placed calls to authorities.
Graphic: Mass suicide in Southern California