Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite in an introductory video for cult members. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Twenty years ago this week, the world learned of a formerly obscure religious cult and its macabre final act, a mass suicide in a rented Rancho Santa Fe mansion.

On the afternoon of March 26, 1997, sheriff’s deputies responding to an emergency call found the bodies of 39 people on cots and mattresses throughout a 9,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style home in the 18000 block of Colina Norte, just northwest of San Dieguito Reservoir.

All the deceased were dressed in black, including new Nike running shoes, and most had purple shrouds covering their upper bodies.

As news crews from around the globe swarmed over the secluded neighborhood, investigators determined that the dead were members of Heaven’s Gate, a religious group with beliefs centering on extraterrestrials and space travel. They had killed themselves over a three-day period by ingesting phenobarbital mixed with applesauce and washed down with vodka.

Among the bodies was that of the cult’s leader, 65-year-old Marshall Applewhite. He left behind a videotaped message in which he described the fringe sect’s self-sacrifice as a “final exit” that would transport its members to a spacecraft tailing Comet Hale-Bopp, then passing by the Earth, to begin a journey to heaven.

As part of their preparations for death, all the participants in the mass suicide also recorded videotapes in which they bade farewell to loved ones and praised Applewhite, whom they referred to as “Do” (pronounced “doe”).

An ex-Heaven’s Gate member who received a message from members of the cult explaining their plans to do away with themselves discovered the bodies after traveling from his Beverly Hills home to the Rancho Santa Fe manor. He then left and made a call from a pay phone in Carlsbad to anonymously report the deaths.

Several months after the mass suicides, community leaders changed the name of the road where it had occurred to Paseo Victoria. Neighbors eventually banded together to buy the notorious mansion and had it demolished.

–City News Service

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