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Internet Caught In Web Of Mistrust

Sat., March 29, 1997

Amid the furor over the deaths of 39 cult members in San Diego, voices of reason are trying to break into the frenzy. This story, they shout as they’re drowned out by television media, is not about the Internet.

“Reporters keep calling me and asking if the Internet is to blame for this,” said Karen Coyle, western regional director for Computer Users for Social Responsibility.

“Of course the Internet isn’t to blame for it - any more than the comet is to blame,” she said from her office in Berkeley, Calif.

Fear of the unknown is only magnifying distrust of cyberspace among computer illiterates, she believes. Many people are afraid that computers, like cults, could somehow control them. Mix the two together and you’ve got a potent combination.

“Less than half of our households have a computer. Only a third of those log on. So most people see this as being mysterious technology,” Coyle said.

And just because Heaven’s Gate published its weird rants online doesn’t mean anyone actually read it.

“There’s between 30 to 40 million Web pages out there. They could have done just as well to go out to the San Diego bluffs and throw a message in a bottle,” said Coyle.

But Internet organizations are being flooded with calls from reporters itching to hype the story, said Lori Fena, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group.

“I’ve gotten calls asking me how do we protect our children from cults. But the story doesn’t makes sense. These people were in their 40s. These were not children. They were adult people who got involved in what looks like a religion that believed in mass suicide.”

Despite television scares that the Web will lure kids into cults, there’s no need to worry, Dixon said.

“Web pages in and of themselves are not capable of some technological mumbo jumbo whereby they grasp control of your mind and take away your thought processes,” she said.

The author, whose home is only a few miles from the house where the 39 cult members died, said she’s been mobbed at the gym by parents who are worried about their children.

“I’m hearing a lot of comments from terrified parents that this is a computer cult. But actually it’s not a computer cult. This is a cult who happened to have a Web site.”

Washington woman among dead

ELLENSBURG, Wash. - A woman who grew up here was among the 39 cult members who committed suicide at a mansion in Southern California, her brother said Friday.

Peggy Bull, 54, joined the cult when it formed in the mid-1970s and had little contact with her family after that, John Bull told the Daily Record newspaper here.

“I thought it was harmless. But when we received a video from Peggy that had (cult leader Marshall Applewhite) declaring himself the second coming of Christ and that he intended to lead his flock to redemption, I got a real bad feeling then,” Bull said.

“We haven’t seen much of Peggy over the years, but she was home three years ago when our mother died,” he said.

“I knew she had joined the cult back when it formed in 1974 or 1975. She told us about its lifestyle, philosophy and pseudo-Christian belief in life after death that they believed would elevate them to a higher plane. But there was no indication from her that suicide was involved.”

Bull, assistant dean for continuing education at Central Washington University, first heard of his sister’s death Thursday. An NBC news reporter called him at home to ask if he had a sister who belonged to the Heavens Gate cult.

The reporter gave him the phone number of the coroner in San Diego, Bull said. When he called, he was initially told the offical had no information for him.

“They called back a few hours later and confirmed that Peggy had been identified as one of the victims,” he said.

Comet’s discoverer not shocked

CLOUDCROFT, N.M. - The astronomer who shares credit for discovering the Hale-Bopp comet said Friday he isn’t surprised it’s linked to the mass suicide near San Diego.

“I fully expected there to be suicides,” said Alan Hale, who discovered the comet in 1995 along with amateur astronomer Thomas Bopp of Arizona.

Cult members left word that they wanted to shed their earthly bodies to rendezvous with a space ship they believed was trailing the comet, which is passing close to Earth.

He also said people historically have linked comets - chunks of rock and ice that periodically pass near the planet - to earthly disasters.

“Score another victory for ignorance and superstition,” he said.

Uhura’s brother a victim

LOS ANGELES - Actress Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek,” said her younger brother, who died with 38 other cult members in Rancho Santa Fe, vanished for two decades before resurfacing recently.

“We hadn’t heard from him in 20 years until several years ago, when my mother died,” Nichols said Friday on “Larry King Live.” “He let us know he was well.”

Thomas A. Nichols, 59, contacted her in 1994 and said his organization “intended to go public, and asked me what I thought would be the best way to let the world know what they were about,” Nichelle Nichols said.

Even then, she said, her brother and several other people he was with were saying the arrival of a comet would be a momentous personal event.

“They talked about the great comet that would come someday,” she said.

“There’s a tragic irony they should choose Hale-Bopp, this wonderful comet, this wonderful celestial event once in our lifetime, that it would be this event that would trigger their decision to leave their bodies, as they called it, to go on another plane,” she said.

Just Do it

PHILADELPHIA - Oh, it would be wonderful to be the advertising agency that handles the Nike sneaker account. A national reputation, spinoff business, all those millions of dollars in commissions….

Unless, of course, your shoes turn up on the feet of 39 religious cultists who have joined in a mass suicide. And the public is barraged by a national broadcast of a coroner’s video showing your shoes in that scene.

“This is a terrible tragedy,” said Lee Weinstein, spokesman for Nike. “What footwear they are wearing doesn’t really matter. We were just as stunned as the rest of the country was when we saw the images … on the news. the court and on the field. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. We can’t control that once (the shoes) are out the door.

“You don’t win every game.”

The last supper

CARLSBAD, Calif. - The call came in on a busy Friday: Could the Marie Callender’s Restaurant accommodate a party of 39 on short notice?

Manager John Raino gave the nod. An hour or so later, 39 of the strangest customers the eatery had ever seen showed up for what now appears to have been their last supper.

From the moment the smiling, austerely dressed group walked through the door, waiter Eric Morales, 24, knew this would be no ordinary shift. He made a harmless joke - nothing derogatory - just a good-natured wisecrack to set the mood.

When he returned to the now-seated group five minutes later, they were still laughing at the same joke.

“You could tell they didn’t go out a lot,” Morales recalled.

All 39 ordered exactly the same thing: turkey pot pie, house salad with tomato-vinaigrette dressing, blueberry cheesecake and iced tea.

Already made for TV

SAN DIEGO - Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite’s life as a cult leader was made into a 1982 made-for-TV movie starring John Forsythe.

Clips from the movie were aired Friday on NBC, showing Forsythe wearing a strange-looking white costume. He was standing in front a white light and preaching to a field of people.

“That is what we offer, our tomorrow, a tomorrow more wonderful than anything you have every dreamed,” he intoned.

The movie was titled “The Mysterious Two.”

The plot concerns two space aliens who try to get mankind to send emissaries into space with them.

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