How ‘Heaven’s Gate’ cult led to 40 deaths

February 18, 2020

By Heather Bernhard

Marshall Applewhite offered followers the promise of heaven —aboard an alien spacecraft

  • Marshall Applewhite was a married man with a normal job before becoming a cult leader
  • He and co-founder Bonnie Lu Nettles believed they were “the two” mentioned in the Bible‘s “Book of Revelations”
  • At its peak, Heaven’s Gate had over 200 members

On March 26, 1997, police entered a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California and discovered 39 victims of a mass killing. The deceased (21 men and 18 women) were all found lying in bed, covered in purple shrouds. Each was wearing an all-black tracksuit and black and white Nike sneakers. There were no signs of violence or trauma.

The members of the Heaven’s Gate cult had taken their own lives at the behest of their leader, Marshall Applewhite. They believed they were destined for another world — and that suicide would allow them to leave their bodily “containers” to enter an alien spacecraft hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet. The deaths continued for weeks after this first event.

Who was Marshall Applewhite?

What does it take to become a cult leader? Surely, there must be some mental illness. Perhaps a proclivity to hurt animals or a compulsion to lie and mislead others. Maybe just a hint glibness — the ability to smooth-talk people into anything, no matter how whacky or off-the-wall. Or maybe, even more frighteningly, cult leaders are just regular Joes, like you and I. That was the case with Marshall Applewhite.

Applewhite and Nettles convinced themselves that they were the two witnesses described in the “Book of Revelation”  — two individuals who will help accomplish God’s work during the end times.

Marshall Herff Applewhite was born in 1931 in Spur, Texas. Before becoming a notorious cult leader, he lived a fairly normal life. He graduated from Austin College in 1952 and got married that same year. He then spent two years in the Army Signal Corps and, eventually, got a job as an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Rumor has it that he was fired from a later job at a Texas university for having a relationship with a male student.

Near-death experience

In 1972, Applewhite found himself in the hospital after a near-death experience — reportedly the result of heart trouble. There, he met Bonnie Nettles, a 44-year old married nurse, and the two formed what would become a lasting relationship. According to Applewhite, they experienced an almost immediate spiritual connection. According to his sister, it was the Nettles who convinced him that he had been “saved” for a purpose.

During his time in the ward, Applewhite and Nettles began to discuss their beliefs. The nurse was a Bible expert with an interest in astrology, while the patient had a proclivity towards gnostic beliefs and mystic texts. Somehow, the two convinced themselves that they were the two witnesses described in the “Book of Revelation”  — two individuals who will help accomplish God’s work during the end times.

Heaven’s Gate is born

After Applewhite met Nettles, the earliest incarnation of a cult began to form. Nettles was the wise mystic and Applewhite the charismatic speaker. Together, they spent months touring the country spreading their message. Believing they were on a spiritual mission and earthly laws didn’t apply to them, they perpetrated a variety of crimes including credit card fraud and auto theft. Applewhite was sentenced to prison and during that time began to refine his beliefs.

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In 1975, the two persuaded a group of 20 people in Oregon to leave their families and possessions behind and move to a compound in Colorado. There, they promised, an alien spacecraft would take them to the kingdom of heaven. By 1985, when the spacecraft still hadn’t arrived and Bonnie Lu Nettles had died of  cancer, membership in Heaven’s Gate began to fall off.

A revival — and the end

Nettles death caused Applewhite to lean more heavily on one particular tenant of the cult’s beliefs: That the human body is simply a vessel carrying them on their journey, and it can be abandoned at any time. In the early 1990s, Heaven’s Gate experience a renaissance of sorts, as Applegate resurfaced and preaching his message with renewed fervor.

Soon after the discovery Hale-Bopp in 1995, Applewhite convinced the cult members that an alien spacecraft was on its way to Earth, hidden in the comet’s tail. The spacecraft was going to be their opportunity to escape the planet and move on to a higher plane (before it was recycled with them still on it). Beginning on March 26, 1997, over the course of three days, all 39 members ate a lethal mixture of phenobarbital and applesauce, followed by a vodka chaser.

[Squirrel_photos]\[Squirrel_photos] via pixabay
The cultists killed themselves in waves, with those still left over laying their dead compatriots in bunk beds and covering their faces with purple cloths. Applewhite was the 37th to die, leaving just two others to prepare his corpse and then kill themselves. Three others connected to the cult later took their own lives, bringing the death toll to 42.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

The Manson Family Murders are arguably the most fascinating series of organized cult murders in California’s history

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Heather Bernhard

By Heather Bernhard

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