Like tiny water droplets in an ocean, the messages hardly rated a notice when they were scattered across several religious sites on the Internet last June.
“Heaven’s Gate,” they read. “How and When the Door to the Physical Kingdom Level Above Human May Be Entered - Organized Religions are Killers of Souls - UFOs & Space Aliens - Sorting Good from Bad - Final Warning for Possible Survivors.”
What sounded like the cryptic ramblings of a zealot may have been, in retrospect, a cyber-age suicide note, delivered nine months early. Sometime over the last few days, 39 members of the little-known Heaven’s Gate group took their lives in a posh San Diego area mansion.
It was an end that had been foreshadowed for years by the group in apocalyptic postings on its World Wide Web site, in lectures and even in newspaper ads that intersperse biblical passages, computer jargon and New Age lingo.
“The Earth’s present ‘civilization’ is about to be recycled - ‘spaded under,”’ the group wrote in a lengthy ad it placed in 1993 in USA Today and several alternative newspapers. “Its inhabitants are refusing to evolve. The ‘weeds’ have taken over the garden and disturbed its usefulness beyond repair.”
Read an April 6, 1996, posting by the group on the Web: “LIFE. It is nothing more than a spirit, and when its container is discarded, it simply goes into the spirit world, the discarnate world.”
The roots of Heaven’s Gate appear to hearken back to Human Individual Metamorphosis, another cult-like group with a space theology formed in the mid-1970s by Marshall H. Applewhite, a onetime college music professor, and Bonnie Lu Nettles, his former nurse in a psychiatric hospital. Nettles died in 1985, but Applewhite is believed to be the leader of those who died in San Diego.
To their followers, Applewhite and Nettles have been known by different names over the years: The Two, Bo and Peep, The Admiral and the Captain, and Ti and Do.
The basic message, however, sounds like something out of the movie “Independence Day.” Jesus, according to the group’s writings, was part of an “away team” sent to tell earthlings how they could enter “the true Kingdom of God.” But humans, under the control of “Luciferians,” killed their visitors.
Carl Raschke, a cult expert at the University of Denver, described Applewhite and Nettles, as promoters who roamed the country to win over recruits with the message that the planet’s destiny was in the hands of aliens.
“They believed they were sent by space brothers to find lost sheep that had gotten lost,” Raschke explained.
According to group teachings, Applewhite and Nettles were part of an “away team” incarnated again in “containers” of human form appearing to be in their 40s. The two were said to have met up in Texas, not initially understanding their derivation, and drifted. She was charged with credit card theft, he with stealing an auto. After much soul searching, they ended up in California and began teaching their faith.
After recruiting followers, the group was supposedly lifted out of the world for 17 years to be nurtured in isolation and chastity and then sent back to prepare for the final cleansing of Earth.
The sign the group took to commence the cleansing - and the suicide - may have been Comet Hale-Bopp, now lighting the night skies as it passes near Earth.
“Red Alert … Hale-Bopp Brings Closure,” say the opening words on the group’s Web site.
“Our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp’s approach is the ‘marker’ we’ve been waiting for - the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to ‘Their World’ - in the literal Heavens. Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion - ‘graduation’ from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave ‘this world’ and go with Ti’s crew.”
Applewhite and other members of the group made a swing through the Midwest in the summer of 1994.
Cynthia Kisser, a past director of the now nonfunctional Cult Awareness Network, said the group was trying to recruit at the time. “They were not preaching suicide,” said Kisser. “They were just trying to get to this higher level.”
At the time, Rob Balch, a University of Montana sociologist who had studied the group and even briefly infiltrated it, said he did not find it dangerous.
“It is not in the mold of the Charles Manson family, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple or David Koresh’s Branch Davidians,” Balch said. “It does not have a violent history.”
His words proved dramatically wrong.