In 1997, deputies of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department discovered the bodies of 39 adults in a 9,200-square-foot Rancho Santa Fe mansion as they followed up on an anonymous tip. As the investigation into the horrific scene would reveal, the deceased were members of one of the most prolific American cults known to exist – Heaven's Gate – with early roots of the organization forming in Colorado long before a mass suicide took place that would make headlines worldwide.
Editor's Note: This piece is part of our 'LOOKING BACK' series, which covers various aspects of Colorado's past. Some topics are dark and disturbing, as is the case with this story. Reader discretion is advised. It's also worth noting that this topic has a number of accounts that vary regarding this group's movements. This piece contains details that are based on the most accurate available consensus regarding what happened.
The Heaven's Gate religious group was originally founded in 1974 by two people, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. According to a report from the Estes Park Trail Gazette, Applewhite, originally of Texas, had graduated from University of Colorado Boulder in 1969, eventually meeting Nettles in 1972 after he had returned to Texas.
Becoming close friends, Applewhite and Nettles shared the idea that they had met 'in a past life,' with Nettles believing that extraterrestrial beings had predicted they would meet again.
Nettles broke off a marriage, leaving two children behind, as her and Applewhite started traveling the American West. During this time, they stayed at Bonny Reservoir, which is located in the Yuma County area, near Colorado's border with Kansas.
In short, the two believed that they were gifted with higher-level minds compared to other people, set to die and then – in a way that could be seen by others – be taken away on a spaceship.
Eventually, the two would gain their first follower in 1974, though she would return to a family she left behind after just two months. However, this didn't slow down their motivation to spread their message to others, and in 1975, they would convince 20 Oregon residents to abandon their families and possessions to move with them to eastern Colorado with promises of an alien spaceship that would take them to the 'kingdom of heaven.'
At one point, in the fall of 1975, it is believed that the group waited for a spaceship to pick up members in the area of Grand Junction's Colorado National Monument. Some sources state that this was a group of 400.
Despite the expectations of the group, the spaceship never arrived and Nettles would die of cancer in 1985. This slowed the momentum of the group, as Nettles did not get taken away by an alien spacecraft upon her death, though Applewhite was able to convince members that her non-physical being had.
During the 1990s, Applewhite started recruiting more members again and with the 1995 discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet, Applewhite told his followers that it was being trailed by an alien spaceship that would take them away as it passed by the planet.
At one point, the group was known to be creating a compound near Manzano, New Mexico, but they suddenly vacated this effort in April of 1996, ultimately moving operations to the Rancho Santa Fe mansion in October of the same year.
The group then waited until March of 1997, as the Hale-Bopp reached its closest distance from earth – part of its 4,000 year orbit around the sun.
At that point, members took phenobarbital mixed with either apple sauce or pudding, washing it down with vodka and placing a bag over their heads to result in asphyxiation. This happened in three waves, which living members left behind in each wave performing ritualistic steps knowing that their wave would soon come. They did this believing that a fly saucer would take them away following the act.
In total, six of the members of the group had ties to Colorado, reports the Estes Park Trail Gazette, one of whom was described as "a respected Republican running for the Colorado House of Representatives," John Craig. Craig had been a long-time member, joining in 1975. Another member was a computer trainer from Pueblo, who joined in the late 70s and last communicated with her family in 1989.
The mass suicide is widely regarded as tragic by the public, not only due to the loss of life it involved, but also due to the families and loved ones that were impacted by the act. The act remains one of the deadliest mass suicides to date worldwide and is believed to be the deadliest mass suicide to take place in North America.
Read more about Heaven's Gate here.
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