As a child, he wired together stereos, looked up in the sky for UFOs and pulled down straight As.
As an adult, Gary St. Louis was focused and dedicated, a computer genius. He gave more than 20 years of his life to a cult, and then he gave it his death.
St. Louis left Hayden Lake, Idaho, for the last time five years ago to rejoin his search for a better life.
Last week, the 44-year-old man was one of 39 people found in baggy black clothes and Nike tennis shoes after swallowing a deadly cocktail in a San Diego mansion.
The group, known as Heaven’s Gate, hoped to hitch a ride on a spaceship shadowing the comet Hale-Bopp that would take them to a higher level.
“We all have to respect that these people made their own choice,” said Shelly King, St. Louis’ former girlfriend, who now lives in Coeur d’Alene.
“It wasn’t done with malice. It wasn’t done with intent to hurt anybody.”
A month after St. Louis rejoined the cult, then based in the Southwest, his half-sister joined him. Dana Abreo, 35, of Denver died in the third wave of the mass suicide.
Family members regard the deaths as a personal choice, one they must respect. But that choice still hurts.
“We took a double hit,” said Louis St. Louis, Gary’s father, who lives in Post Falls. “It’s a great loss to the family. They were very intelligent people. That’s the loss right there, what they could have contributed to society.”
Gary St. Louis was known in the cult as “Steele,” derived from the first three letters of his last name. By all accounts, he was a genius. He could build a computer from the motherboard up, fix car engines and take wonderful photographs.
He grew up in Modesto, Calif., twisting wire into circuitry, fooling around with machinery, always experimenting. His father was afraid he’d build a bomb. He was always searching for something out there.
“He was always interested in UFOs, extra-terrestrials, space from the get-go,” Louis St. Louis said. “He’d be going at that like a duck to water. Anything spacey.”
He started studying at the University of California at Berkeley in 1972. Three years later, at age 22, St. Louis hooked up with the precursor to Heaven’s Gate - a group of people calling themselves the Overcomers, or Human Individual Metamorphosis.
Nurtured in an environment of chastity and isolation, members prepared for the earth’s final cleansing. They believed they were chosen to graduate to the Level Above Human, found in the spaceship hidden behind Hale-Bopp.
St. Louis never talked much about his beliefs to family members. He disappeared off their radar for years, until leaving the group between 1988 and 1990.
He moved to Denver, where he met King. He was self-employed as a computer consultant, and she met him at her job in a construction company. They started dating in March 1991.
Three months later, he moved back to the Hayden Lake area, where his father owned land. He rented a home from family friends.
The couple stayed in touch, visiting and talking.
“He was a great guy,” King said. “Compassionate, caring, he was all those things women look for in a male. He was a great listener.”
His family last saw him in Post Falls, on Dec. 28, 1991, when his father married his stepmother, Cheryl St. Louis. A talent at whatever he tried, Gary St. Louis snapped the wedding photographs.
Louis and Cheryl St. Louis returned to Reno for several months, planning to move back to Post Falls.
Meanwhile, Gary St. Louis made a decision. He told King over the phone he was leaving. Late one March night, he called his father and stepmother and said he was leaving in 24 hours to rejoin Heaven’s Gate.
He called once, a few weeks later, then they didn’t hear from him for five years. Last week, they learned that he joined 38 others in the mass suicide.
After spending the weekend in San Diego, visiting the morgue, looking at pictures, the St. Louis family is trying to find connections, explanations for the group’s beliefs. Family members talk about family glue, and about these intelligent people finding that glue in each other.
They look back at family history for portents. The time in June 1989, when Gary St. Louis’ grandmother was dying in Modesto, Calif. Her deathbed wish was to see her grandson, who hadn’t talked to the family in 14 years.
“And all of a sudden, kabango, he calls her and he comes and sees her before she dies,” Louis St. Louis said. “How do you explain that?”
Or last September, when Gary’s brother met with a friend of a friend, a woman who does tarot card and astrological readings. Guy St. Louis told her about his brother and Dana Abreo.
“She said you will hear from them in March 1997,” Louis St. Louis said. “Now how spooky is that?”
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