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Heaven's Gate (Part 16)

  Published Monday, March 31, 1997, in the San Jose Mercury News

  Leader's health tied to deaths Cult members reportedly believed he had
cancer; coroner finds no trace

  Mercury News Staff Writer

  RANCHO SANTA FE -- Christian residents took solace in the Easter promise of
resurrection Sunday even as new facts emerged about the suicide deaths of 39
members of the Heaven's Gate cult.

 CNN and Time magazine reported Sunday that cult members killed themselves
because leader Marshall Herff Applewhite convinced them he was dying of cancer.
Newsweek reported in its April 7 issue that Applewhite may have had only six
months to live, and that he told his followers his body was ``disintegrating.''

 Computer disks sent to the former cult member identified in news reports as
Rio D'Angelo contain a message from an unidentified female cult member: ``Once
he is gone . . . there is nothing left here on the face of the Earth for me. .
. . no reason to stay a moment longer.'' The disks were reviewed by CNN and

 But with all of the autopsies completed, the San Diego County coroner said
that Applewhite, 66, had not suffered from terminal cancer.

 ``Marshall Applewhite has no gross physical evidence and no visual evidence of
cancer in his liver or any other organs,'' Dr. Brian Blackbourne said.

 As for why members committed suicide, Cooke said, ``They reached a point that
the word was given to depart from this world back to the mother ship. To move
into bodies that had been prepared for them, physical bodies of a finer nature
-- androgynous, sexless. It's an evolutionary step.''

 Talking with San Francisco's KQED-FM, Nick Cooke of Sausalito said he was
sorry he left the cult before its journey to eternity and said he is sure his
wife, who remained with the cult, has ``shed her container'' and is now aboard
a spaceship.

 ``I believe they are on a craft somewhere, whether it's behind the comet or
not, I really don't know,'' Cooke said.

 Cult members apparently believed they would be ferried to redemption on board
a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet.

 Twenty years ago, Cooke and his wife, Suzanne Sylvia Cooke, abandoned their
10-year-old daughter, Kelly, to follow the cult, and apparently left her with
neighbors. He left the group three years ago, but didn't say why.

 ``I'm not suicidal. . . . but I have no problem in laying down my shell, or my
body as they did that day. I don't consider it suicide.''

 Cooke was also interviewed by CBS' ``60 Minutes,'' as was his daughter, Kelly.
She said she accepts her mother's death.

 ``My understanding was that it was to go to the next level, to be with God,''
she told ``60 Minutes.'' ``I don't believe she committed suicide. That's a
strong word to use when you consider that . . . this is something she worked
for all her life. . . . She graduated to the next level.''

Opportunity for perspective

  Christian residents of wealthy Rancho Santa Fe, 15 miles north of San Diego,
celebrated their own hopes of resurrection Sunday. At the Horizon Christian
Fellowship Church, sandy-haired Pastor Bob Botsford, 35, saw an opportunity for
perspective that would probably never pass his way again.

 The irony, he told the 900-member congregation gathered in the church
courtyard, was that just as two sheriff's deputies had approached with
trepidation the doors of the cult's mansion before making their horrific
discovery, so, too, had the disciples Peter and John approached Jesus' tomb
fearful of what they might find within.

 The deputies found the stench and rot; the disciples found an empty tomb, and
the promise, as had been foretold, of eternal life, he said.

 ``It was very appropriate to bring up the resurrection story as an anecdote to
what happened,'' said Bill Lehtonen, who lives in neighboring Carlsbad but
commutes weekly to San Jose, where he is operations manager for AMPCO System

 ``Our savior is alive, while 39 people are destroyed,'' said Lehtonen.
``What's sad is that these people (cult followers) did not have hope. They put
their faith in man, make that Satan, who deceived them into believing that they
could orchestrate eternity. . . .

 ``I can't prove they're not on a spaceship somewhere, but my faith tells me
that's not the case.''

 While Christians gave praise, families of the suicide cult members continued
to make last arrangements for their loved ones. Many had been lost to them for
20 years or more, having ended all communication after joining the group.

 Another former cult member interviewed by CBS, who was identified only as
``Sawyer,'' said ``suicide'' was not the proper term for what the cult members

 ``They left their bodies,'' he said. ``It was something they were preparing
for for a long time.

 ``It was not a traumatic thing to them. In my opinion, it was like going to
bed and knowing that they would wake up still alive but not in their bodies.''

 Sawyer said he once believed in Applewhite's message of renouncing human ties
and corporeal distractions to the point that he considered emulating the former
music teacher and voluntarily castrating himself.

 ``I wanted to very badly at the time,'' said Sawyer, who eventually opted
against the procedure. ``I flipped a coin, I lost -- as far as the castration

 Cooke explained the change and $5 tucked neatly inside each victim's slacks.

 ``Whenever we went to a movie or went out for any reason, we always took $5
and change, in case we suddenly needed to use the telephone, we had a quarter
or two in our pocket. We would have $5 if the car broke down and for some
reason we needed a taxi,'' Cooke said.

Concern for property values

  Meanwhile, in Rancho Santa Fe, the impact that the suicides might have on
property values has been a considerable concern. A real estate agent said
Sunday that two wealthy businessmen have offered to buy and raze the cult

 The two businessmen who wish to raze the house ``want to make sure the value
of the property, and of the rest of the Ranch, is not hurt by what happened
there,'' said Steve Leggitt. ``These are very substantial people who want to
turn a negative into a positive.''

 And in another odd coda to the story, a London insurance agent who specializes
in unusual policies said Sunday that the 39 cult members had insured themselves
against being abducted, impregnated or killed by aliens.

 The cult bought a policy Oct. 10 that would pay out $1 million to each
member's beneficiaries, said Simon Burgess, managing director of Goodfellow
Rebecca Ingrams Pearson, an insurance brokerage.

 Burgess told Press Association, the British news agency, that the group paid
$1,000 annually for the coverage.

 The brokerage said it has insured 4,000 people against abduction by aliens.
But ``there has never been a genuine claim for alien abduction,'' Burgess said.


 Mercury News wire services contributed to this report.


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