Several of the male cult members who committed suicide believing an alien spaceship would transport them to heaven had been castrated, including the white-haired leader whose body was among the 39 found Wednesday in a cavernous mansion, authorities said Friday.
The revelation that some of the men had been castrated reflected the cult’s belief in celibacy. Members told people their bodies were mere “containers” or “vehicles” that they would shed like a winter coat in springtime before embarking on an intergalactic journey to a better place.
The surgical incisions were completely healed and most had no scars, suggesting they were performed years ago, said San Diego County Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne. He did not specify how many of the 18 men who died had been emasculated.
Even as authorities notified the victims’ families who had lost track of their relatives years before, the voices of the dead poured out over the airwaves Friday in a videotape the members of the Heaven’s Gate cult made to explain why they decided to commit suicide.
“We have no hesitation to leave this place, to leave the bodies that we have,” Marshall Applewhite, the former music teacher who mixed Scripture with science fiction in the cult he led, said on the video.
No evidence has emerged to suggest anything other than willful suicide, by overdose and self-inflicted suffocation. A note found in the million-dollar mansion where the group lived underscored the meticulous planning with which the 39 cult members killed themselves, apparently beginning as early as Saturday and finishing on Monday or Tuesday.
In a blue spiral binder, a note titled “The Routine” confirms the medical examiner’s initial conclusion that the group died in three waves: “15 classmates need assistance.” Then, “15 more need assistance.” Finally, “Help each other.”
By late Friday, officials had completed 21 autopsies. Toxicological tests on three bodies detected lethal levels of phenobarbital, a sedative that was an ingredient in a fatal “recipe” found in the belongings of several victims and in trash cans outside the house. In two bodies, nonlethal levels of the drug suggest the victims probably suffocated from the plastic bags placed over their heads after they had sedated themselves.
Authorities have talked to relatives of 30 cult members, many of whom severed contact with their families long ago. Most of the relatives have contacted police through a toll-free number that has attracted more than 1,000 calls from people believing a missing relative might be among the dead cultists.
Sheriff’s deputies are urging families not to come to San Diego to claim the bodies, but to leave shipment details to local mortuaries. Documents found on the bodies trace the cult members to California, Texas, New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Washington, Minnesota, Utah and Canada.
Many relatives said they were upset at watching a televised video the cult made explaining how Applewhite and his followers would kill themselves believing they would hook up with a UFO they were convinced was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
The cult members spoke to the camera in pairs as they sat on white plastic chairs outside as trees and bushes swayed behind them in the breeze. Most sounded confident, even gleeful in anticipation of their suicides.
“It’s just the happiest day of my life,” said one man. “I’ve been looking forward to this for so long.”
“We’re going to be moving along to the next evolutionary level above human - taking on a brand-new vehicle that we’re going to be using in the next level,” another man said.
But a few appeared to be near tears, even as they professed their delight.
“We’re very happy and proud to have been members of the Heaven’s Gate group and couldn’t be happier about what we’re going to do,” said a woman who appeared to be in her 30s.
“We are all happy to be doing what we are doing,” said a woman who looked to be in her 60s.
The word “happy” was used repeatedly, as cult members insisted they had neither doubts nor regrets.
“We are all choosing of our own free will to go to the next level,” said a woman who beamed.
“We couldn’t be happier about what we’re about to do,” said another woman. “Doubt was never an issue.”
“People who thought I completely lost my marbles, they’re not right,” said one person to laughter from off-camera.
“We take off the virtual-reality helmet. We take off the vehicle that we’ve used for this task,” a man said, an apparent reference to their bodies.
For many relatives, the macabre video was their first glimpse of a missing kin in years. Many told sheriff’s deputies their relative had been in different cults, but they had long ago lost contact.
Louise Winant, Applewhite’s sister, said she had not spoken to her brother for more than 20 years. She said Applewhite, 66, had two children he had not seen in a long time, and he never learned he had grandchildren.
But some of his followers were newcomers who had turned their backs on their families to pursue Applewhite’s vision of science fiction, computers and spirituality.
In Cincinnati, the Rev. H.L. Hardy, spokesman for relatives of victim Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, said she and her husband went West to join the cult only in September. They left behind five children, including an infant.
Hardy had few details but said the couple learned about the cult from the Internet and the husband later returned to Ohio. Hardy read a statement from the family saying: “We appreciate your prayers during this time of tragedy.”
But many apparently had been with Applewhite and his late partner, Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, since they founded the group in 1975. Applewhite likened himself to Jesus Christ, but made no claim to be a messiah. He and Nettles briefly made headlines in the ‘70s as the “UFO Cult,” as they persuaded hundreds of people in California, Colorado, New Mexico and Oregon to leave their families and move to a “Next Level” of existence in heaven. Authorities believe the group may have even been considering branching out. In the 9,200-square-foot rented mansion where they died, one wall held a map with dots placed on cities across the globe. The walls also held at least three photographs of alienlike creatures that Blackbourne compared to aliens in the television series “The X-Files.”