Episode Three Extra: Heaven’s Gate
Welcome to the first Unexplained Extra.
For the weeks in between Episodes we’ll be taking a look at the stories that for some reason or other didn’t make it into the show.
For this week’s episode, Do You See What I See, we came across a story that demonstrates the sheer power of belief and how one man’s interpretation of the arrival of the Hale Bopp comet led to the death of 39 people.
The story begins in 1972 with a Houston born nurse named Bonnie Nettles. Nettles was in every way the typical suburban Texan, married to a local businessman with whom she shared four children, some might say she had it all. But things, as they often are, weren’t quite as they seemed.
The marriage had begun to deteriorate due in no small part to Bonnie’s insistence that she had started receiving messages from a 19th Century Monk named brother Francis.
Nettles began attending séances in an attempt to converse with Brother Francis and it was at one such meeting that she was given a message that would change her life forever. She was informed that she would meet a mysterious man with light hair and a fair complexion.
Despite clichéd nature of the message, Bonnie became convinced there was a guiding hand at play. Sure enough, a few months later Bonnie did indeed cross paths with a strange and mysterious man. His name was Marshall Applewhite.
True to the message, Marshall was indeed tall with fair hair and like Bonnie he too had sensed a strange connection between them. Convinced of their mutual destinies, the pair agreed to leave behind the lives they’d known and set off on a journey of self-discovery around the United States.
It was on this journey that the pair claimed to have experienced an extraordinary awakening. Suddenly everything became clear. They had been sent to earth by an unknown race of extraterrestrials with a special mission: To ascend to the level above human, and to bring as many other people with them as possible.
The pair changed their names to Ti and Do (pronounced Tee and Doe) and started to refine their philosophy incorporating a fusion of New Ageism, Science Fiction and Christianity.
In October 1975, 19-year-old Californian Daniel Moore and his girlfriend Jana Prucha, came across a strange newspaper article. The heading read, UFO’s where do they come from? And requested the attendance of all who were seeking meaning in their life. The advert was enough to entice the pair to hitch hike al the way to San Francisco to attend the meeting.
Unfortunately they arrived late but were thankful when two members of the group offered to drive them home. During the journey, David and Jana learnt a bit more about the group and in particular their enigmatic leaders Ti and Do. Daniel and Jana had stumbled upon what would become known as the Heaven’s Gate cult.
Intrigued, Jana and Daniel returned the following week and, impressed by the magnetism and message that Ti and Do were preaching, they agreed to join them. And many others followed, all seduced by Ti and Do’s ultimate promise, the granting of entry into the kingdom of Heaven.
Before long, the group had begun to attract considerable attention in the local press, and not much of it good. Fearing the negative attention, Ti and Do decided that in order for the group to survive they would have to cut off all ties with the familiar human world and take the operation under ground. For the group members this meant strict adherence to a number of rules and regulations.
They were ordered to cease all contact with family and friends.
They were to keep to a rigorous program promoting their distinctly separate way of life, with every action regimented from the way meals would be cooked to how a man was to shave himself.
They would be given new names and would henceforth collectively be known as The Class.
As an ex-member of the group remarked: the strict regime was designed to brainwash individuals in order to enable them to commit completely and absolutely to Ti and Do vision. In principle they believed the body was nothing more than a vehicle for the soul.
That the human experience was a temporary existence that ultimately holds us back from our true potential. To this end, every human habit and construction was to be completely stripped away. All understanding of gender, emotion and sexuality was rejected and egos obliterated in preparation for ascension to the next level.
For many of the group, eradicating the sexual urges proved particularly difficult with many of the men committing voluntary castration to overcome their natural urges.
And so the group remained for a number of years until tragedy struck. In 1982 Bonnie Nettles was diagnosed with cancer. After losing an eye to the disease she later died in January 1985 at the age of 58. For Marshall it was a horrific blow but somehow he had found an extraordinary way to rationalize it.
He believed that Ti had not died at all but had instead in the process of passing over, picked up an angelic body with which to continue her life. He knew this, he told the group, because although her body died she had continued to remain in contact with him and that only he alone could interpret her messages.
One such message was that Ti was planning to one day return to earth pick up the rest of the group. It was an idea that became the basis for Marshall’s ultimate plan.
In the mid 90’s the group relocated to 18239 Paseo Victoria, in Rancho Santa Fe. They became self sufficient through a number of small business including intriguingly website design. The group’s website is still viewable online and is a fascinating insight thing to observe.
At some point Do’s health had begun to deteriorate and after witnessing what had happened to Tie he became convinced that he was also dying of cancer. And it was at this point that something changed.
After years of social conditioning all members had come to accept that Do was their literal savior. He had become nothing less than a God. Someone they were prepared to do anything for. But more pertinently, Do was their key, the only man who had the power to grant them access to the next level and ascension into the Kingdom of Heaven.
It became clear that time was running out and things took a sinister turn.
In March 1997 as the Hale-Bopp comet reached peak brightness, Do approached the group with an extraordinary claim. Flying just before the comet, unbeknownst to the rest of the world was a UFO. It was Ti finally returning to collect them all.
The Class knew immediately. This was their last chance to evacuate earth before it was too late. In a remarkable series of videos still available online, you can watch the final messages recorded by the group. One after the other they talk to the camera smiling, relaxed and even ecstatic at the thought of what awaited them.
On March 24th, the group visited a local restaurant for an all American dinner of Turkey followed by Blueberry Cheesecake. It was to be their last outing together.
Two days later the San Diego police Department received an anonymous phone call. It had been placed by a member of the group called Rio di Angelo, formerly known as Richard Ford. He requested the assistance of police officers at a location that was well known to the law enforcement officers: no. 18239 Paseo Victoria.
When the first officers arrived they found a surreal and haunting scene.
Laid out on beds and mattresses throughout the mansion were the bodies of all 39 members of Heaven’s Gate. Each member wore black Nike trainers, and was dressed head to toe in the same black uniform. On each of their left arms a small triangular patch with the notation Heaven’s Gate Away Team written on it. Each member had also been covered with a purple shroud. Included amongst the bodies was that of a 40-year-old David Moore.
All had been found with $5.75 dollars in cash on their person. An old habit they had adopted in case they were ever to get stranded anywhere and needed a bus home.
All 39 members had died after voluntarily ingesting a concoction of alcohol, phenobarbital and hydrocodone. It was the largest group suicide that has ever occurred in the United States of America.
Writing on the subject, in his book Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO religion, author Benjamin E. Zeller, sums up precisely the reasoning of the members.
He believes the members were able to carry out such a harrowing mission precisely because they had so fundamentally convinced themselves that their suicide was not an act of death, but was merely the next logical step.
After all the others had been accounted for, Marshall Applewhite's body was found in the master bedroom, seated at the end of his bed. After examination, it was found that he had not been suffering from cancer after all.
© Richard MacLean Smith
1. Zeller, B. E. (2014), Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, US: NYU Press
2. Inside Story: Heaven’s Gate, Inside Story, BBC, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwSCpn2yEBE
3. Student Exit Statements, Heaven’s Gate Database, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHz9it70TdI
4. Heaven’s Gate Website: www.heavensgate.com