Welcome to Tell-Tale Crimes, the crime column of the QC. Tell-Tale Crimes will aim to provide a look at both local and national crimes and cases that are sometimes interesting, sometimes relevant, and sometimes both, from the perspective of a true crime enthusiast. So here I am writing scary stories, both local and national, and true ones at that. Be forewarned, the pieces published in this column will contain descriptions of violent crimes or crime scenes. Thank you for reading.
As of this past Tuesday, March 26, it has been 22 years since the massacre of the Heaven’s Gate cult. The Heaven’s Gate cult was … bonkers. I am genuinely unsure if I can completely cover the scope of what they believed, and how they rose in power. Heaven’s Gate came into the public eye as one of the first cults to use the internet as a successful recruitment tool and became particularly famous for a mass suicide that wiped out most of its small group of followers.
A man by the name of Marshall Applewhite founded Heaven’s Gate in 1972 after a near-death experience landed him in the hospital, according to history.com. During that time, he met a nurse by the name of Bonnie Lu Nettles. It is unclear which of the two was responsible for establishing Heaven’s Gate, but each of them contributed to its growth, and they eventually led the cult together. Applewhite and Nettles renamed themselves “Bo” and “Peep” respectively, though some sources report that Nettles was referred to as “Ti.” Applewhite and Nettles recruited 20 followers from a small town in Oregon and preached their message to them in Colorado.
They promised their followers that an extraterrestrial spacecraft would take them all to the “kingdom of heaven.” Applewhite told his followers that he was the reincarnation of Christ, which I personally find to be a little cliché. Applewhite prophesized a specific time when the spaceship would come to collect him and his followers. Spoiler alert: the spaceship never arrived, and the cult numbers diminished. Shortly thereafter, Nettles passed away.
In the early ‘90s, the cult reappeared and Applewhite began recruiting new members. With the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, the cult believed that the alien spacecraft that failed to arrive in the ‘70s was on its way to finally pick up the members. They rented a large mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., where they advocated sexual abstinence, no romantic entanglements, and made their appearances match. Applewhite told the owner of the Rancho Santa Fe property that he and his group were made up of Christian-based angels.
As the Hale-Bopp comet got closer to Earth, the members of the cult drank a lethal mixture of phenobarbital and vodka and laid down to die, as they believed that they needed to abandon their “physical vessels” to enter the spaceship. They died in groups over the course of three days. Applewhite died near the end, but not last. They were all found in matching tracksuits and Nike shoes, with purple sheets draped over them.
Cults are a terrifying concept. The idea that there is a way for groups of people to be coerced and brainwashed — yes, cult recruitment techniques usually do involve brainwashing, such as starving people and cutting them off from their families — into believing anything a person says is unnerving. The thing is, these cults are usually started on some form of goodwill by a group of people who want to change the world, or maybe just change themselves. That goodwill can be seen in the Heaven’s Gate cult’s last meal.
According to Rolling Stone, just before their suicides, the group went to a local Marie Callender’s restaurant and ordered the same food: iced tea, dinner salad with tomato vinegar dressing, turkey potpie, and cheesecake with blueberries for dessert. “They seemed very nice,” a waiter recalled, “very friendly, very polite. No one seemed depressed at all, or anything like that.” They were not upset to be doing something that they believed in, however deviant it may have appeared from the outside.