Comet Hale Bopp had a devastating effect at the end of the 20th century. Within hours of the Hale-Bopp inspired Heaven’s Gate suicide episode, researcher Brad Steiger, myself and others were on the air speculating that the cult, led by Marshall Applewhite, had it origins in “The Two,” the original “Bo and Beep” UFO cult of the 1970s.
The bizarre story of Heaven’s Gate begins in 1972 when Marshall Applewhite met a psychiatric nurse named Bonnie Lu Nettles. She introduced him to astrology, mysticism, and mediation. Over time and in various guises, they take on the different names: as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” in 1973, as “Guinea” and “Pig” in 1974, then later that year as “Bo” and “Peep,” and finally as “The Two” in 1975. Before long, they had gathered a cult around them, but fearing assassination, split up the group and went “underground” in 1976.
That year Brad Steiger’s book about “The Two”, UFO Missionaries Extraordinary, was published. In 1982, a NBC-TV movie was broadcast about Bo and Peep entitled The Mysterious Two, starring John Forsythe and Priscilla Pointer.
Nettles died of cancer in 1985, and five years later Applewhite began to rebuild his group into what would become known as Heaven’s Gate. By the mid-1980s, he was using the name “Do,” and if not already, would soon become a eunuch. A half a dozen of his male followers would follow his lead and get castrated. By 1993, Applewhite (as “Do” or “Doe”) used the media again to gather his flock, placing ads in USA Today. In February 1997, once Hale-Bopp was clearly “speaking” to Applewhite, he and several members of his group showed up at a book signing for Lee Shargel. Applewhite conveyed to Shargel, the author would later tell ABC-TV, that Applewhite thought Shargel’s science fiction novel Voice in the Mirror contained messages from aliens to Applewhite for his group.
On March 22, 1997, 39 members of Heaven’s Gate (21 women, 19 men) consumed phenobarbitol, some suffocating with plastic bags, and all dying by suicide. All were dressed exactly alike in black clothing, down to their black shoes with their ddidentical white Nike check-mark logo. The 39 had packed tote bags and each had one $5 bill and 75 cents in quarters in their pockets. The deaths occurred in shifts, so those that remained could correctly arrange the bodies and place the purple triangular shrouds on the bodies. The police found the corpses at their Rancho Santa Fe, California compound on March 26, after being alerted by Richard Ford, an ex-member who has received a Federal Express package of two videotapes from Applewhite.
When the story broke, the media was in a fog about the cult and were looking for simple answers about “how this could have happened.” But there were no simple solutions to the Heaven’s Gate incident. Reporters jumped from one factoid to another rumor without regard to the complexity of the story or how its various elements tied together. They shied away from the twilight language of dates and astrological connections related to the event that were key to deciphering the clues as to why this happened and when. While many of these little twilight details were conscious on the part of the cult members, others were only known to the leaders, and still a few more seemed to work on a purely subconscious level. More attention to the twilight language involved in such episodes could provide advance warning of future mass suicides and murders.
The Heaven’s Gate cult watched closely for subtle signs from the cosmos. But the moment their suicides occurred was extremely important in Marshall Applewhite’s delusional system. The Hale-Bopp Comet’s closest approach occurred on Saturday, the 22nd of March 1997. For the Heaven’s Gate cult, this was the “marker” they were waiting for. They believed a spaceship was following behind the comet, speculation that had begun to circulate via the Art Bell show and on the Internet previously. (It would later turn out the controversy was begun by photographs that had been faked; there was no “companion” with the comet.)
Heaven’s Gate was not just concerned with spaceships and comets. They were also very attuned to the calendar and March 1997 was a very hot month. There was a solar eclipse on March 9th. March 20th was the Spring Equinox. March 22nd was the closest approach of Hale-Bopp. Then there was a lunar eclipse on March 24th. At the same time, the 23rd was Palm Sunday, the 28th Good Friday, and the 30th Easter Sunday.
One of the Heaven’s Gate relatives explained the “timing” issue. Suzanne Sylvia Cooke was one of the 39 people who died by suicide on March 22. Her husband Wayne told CBS’s "60 Minutes" that he wished he had had the courage to follow the other members of Heaven’s Gate. He said: “They left when a comet came. A comet has significance, historically. They left in the Easter Week. That has significance historically. They left by laying down their bodies, that has enormous impact. Obviously a stage is being set by the next level for this world, for others, to examine this.”
Wayne Cooke’s network broadcast interview was a suicide note to the world but few understood that. On May 6, 1997, Cooke and another ex-member of Heaven's Gate tried to “exit their vehicles” in an Encinitas Holiday Inn Express four miles from the cult's Rancho Santa Fe mausoleum. Cooke was found dead with a plastic bag on his head.
The other former member, Chuck Humphrey of Denver, was found unconscious but alive and was taken in critical condition to Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas. Both two men had been found with small tote bags next to them, dressed in the same black outfits as their Heaven’s Gate mates, wearing black Nikes, with purple shrouds next to them, and a five dollar bill and three quarters each of their pockets. Like those who went before, they both ingested phenobarbital washed down with vodka. Cooke said in his videotaped “exit statement,” which was sent to family members and CNN, that he wanted “…very much to join my classmates and my teachers ... I've never doubted my connection with them.” He concluded his comments by saying “Goodbye” with a smile eerily similar to the expression Applewhite had on his face in a video repeatedly shown by the media after the Heaven’s Gate bodies were found.
At a San Diego news conference after the March mass suicide, Humphrey, 56, said, “I left the group because it had been 15 years, because many of the things we were told were going to happen didn't... I got tired of waiting.” In his “exit statement” he erroneously states: “By now you should be aware that I ... too have exited my vehicle... I do not pretend to have accomplished my task of overcoming this human vehicle and gaining the degree of control I would have liked, but nonetheless, I know who I am and that I must go back with them whether I am ready or not... I'd rather gamble on missing the bus this time than staying on this planet and risk losing my soul.” Humphrey felt like a failure because his exit plan had misfired.
Humphrey and Cooke were not alone. A week after the Heaven’s Gate episode, Yuba County deputies checking out a trailer in a remote canyon near Marysville, California (population 9,900) discovered the remains of a man who had gassed himself to death. The victim was identified as Robert Leon Nichols, 58, a former roadie with the rock band Grateful Dead. Nichols was last seen alive on St. Patrick’s Day. Nichols was lying on his back in bed with a clear plastic bag over his head, and had hung a model spacecraft, made of silver foil, from his ceiling. A hose ran under the bag to a propane tank and a 3-by-3-foot purple shroud covered his upper torso. Nichols reportedly left a suicide note that said, in part, “I'm going on the spaceship with Hale-Bopp to be with those who have gone before me.”
The New York Post pointed out that the Nichols note was dated 10 a.m., Thursday, March 28, 1997, two days after the Heaven’s Gate 39 bodies were discovered but several hours before the public was told how the cultists died and that their bodies were covered with purple shrouds.
On May 7, 1997, as researcher Antonio Mendoza quotes Dick Joslyn of Tampa, a former member of the Heaven's Gate cult, at least six other cultist might also be interested in trying suicide. Joslyn, who had been in contact with Chuck Humphrey, the cultist who survived the latest passage to the “next level,” said his friend had grown frustrated by the lack of attention given to the group's ideas. “He was a little discouraged by the inability to get the word out. He made it clear to me that when his work was done, he would go too.”
Another former member who goes by the name of Sawyer said that Humphrey, one of the brains behind the Higher Source web design team, “was supposed to spread information about the ‘next level’ and maintain the Internet site.” When someone “commandeered” the site and Humphrey could no longer work on it, he tried to kill himself.
The New York Times, meanwhile, was whipping up anxieties by quoting Aaron Greenberg, a former Heaven’s Gate member from Oregon, who said that he knew of 60 to 80 members who might be ready to die by suicide, and that about 1000 people had passed through the cult. The media alleged, through Greenberg and others, that two groups of surviving Heaven’s Gate followers – one from Canada and the other from New York State – were converging on a secret site in the southwest. Greenberg claimed: “This is not a good thing. Remember what they say in the videotapes: ‘Come join us, the time is now, the window is small.’”
On May 16, 1997, Charles Humphrey, fully recovered from his suicide attempt, persuaded a judge to release him from a psychiatric facility so he could write a book and go on the speaking circuit. But Humphrey failed to get the media to pay attention, so on February 20, 1998, Humphrey, who saw himself as one of the remaining Heaven's Gate members on spaceship Earth, died by suicide in a tent in the Arizona desert.
The cultist was found with his head sealed in a plastic bag and pipes running to a car's exhaust pipe and a tank marked “carbon dioxide.” He was dressed in black sweatpants and a black T-shirt with a patch on the sleeve that read “Heaven's Gate Away Team.” Like those who went before him, he wore a pair of brand new black Nike sneakers, kept a purple shroud next to him, and carried a five-dollar bill plus three quarters in his pocket.
On March 22, 1997, just as the Heaven’s Gate 39 were dying by suicide, a documentary film about the Order of the Solar Temple cult aired on French television, and, in what was probably not a coincidence, five members of the Order of the Solar Temple killed themselves that day in a “Christic Fire.” The Order of the Solar Temple, founded in 1986, keyed their suicides to the equinoxes and solstices of the year.
The above is a passage from Chapter 7: "Cultic Copycats" in The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines (NY: Paraview Pocket - Simon and Schuster, 2004).