First autopsies completed in cult suicide
RANCHO SANTA FE, California (CNN) -- At least eight autopsies on victims of the mass suicide in California have been completed and 22 families of the victims have been notified, officials said Friday. (1.1 MB / 33 sec. QuickTime movie of the scene of the mass suicide)
Dr. Brian Blackbourne of the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office told CNN most of the notifications have resulted from calls placed to a hot line set up for victims' families. He urged any person who believes a relative might be among the dead to call 1-800-600-0646.
Investigators believe the 39 dead, members of the Heaven's Gate cult, drank a lethal mixture of phenobarbital and vodka and then settled to die over a three-day period. Twenty-one victims were women; 18 were men.
Authorities worked to piece together events surrounding the mysterious deaths. They were also wrestling with a dizzying onslaught of information about the cult from multiple sources -- the Internet, a book and victims' relatives, among others.
The victims apparently believed their deaths would lead to a rendezvous with a UFO hiding behind Comet Hale-Bopp.
"We've looked at the where and the how and the what of the investigation," said Cmdr. Alan Fulmer, chief investigator in the case. "The why -- as to why they did what they did -- has not been completed."
Officials released the names of three of the dead:
The rest of the victims' names will not be released until immediate relatives have been notified, authorities said.
A check of driver licenses showed that 11 of the victims came from New Mexico, eight from Texas, four from both California and Colorado and three from Arizona, officials said. There were also victims from Washington, Ohio, Florida and Minnesota.
Most of the victims were in their 40s, but their ages ranged from 26 to 72, Fulmer said. The mass suicide was one of the biggest in U.S. history.
The cult members lived in a palatial home near San Diego and ran a successful business designing Web sites for businesses.
The cult published a 4-inch-thick book last year and posted part of it on its Heaven's Gate Web site. It contains a mix of Christianity and UFO preachings.
A writer, calling himself "Do," apparently Applewhite, proclaims: "We take the prize, I guess, of being the cult of cults."
According to Applewhite's sister Louise Winant, the cult leader underwent a "near death experience" while being treated for heart problems during the 1970s. The experience changed his life, she said. (1.4 MB / 38 sec. Quicktime or 5 min. 20 sec. Vivo)
"One of the nurses convinced him that he was brought back to life to serve a purpose in this cult," she said. "She introduced him to it, and he sort of went on from there."
The nurse, Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, later acted as a co-leader of the cult. In 1975, the two persuaded hundreds of people in numerous western states to leave their families and join what was then-called the "UFO cult." Nettles died in 1985.
Winant added that she had not seen or spoken with her brother in more than 20 years, because the cult believed in cutting off ties with family members.
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