Suicide probe focuses on cult's stash of pills
March 29, 1997
RANCHO SANTA FE, California (CNN) -- Investigators are focusing on how the Heaven's Gate cultists who committed mass suicide acquired massive amounts of phenobarbital, the drug they used to kill themselves.
San Diego County Medical Examiner Dr. Brian Blackbourne said a lethal dose of the prescription sleeping pill amounted to 50 tablets for each person. To ensure death, cult members also put plastic bags over their heads secured by elastic bands.
"We're talking probably more than a thousand tablets here," one investigator said.
The members of the Heaven's Gate cult died over a period of days. According to their videotaped suicide notes, the cultists, who ran a successful business designing Web sites for the Internet, believed a spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet would take them to heaven.
Their bodies were discovered Wednesday in the $1.6 million mansion the cult rented in the exclusive San Diego suburb of Rancho Santa Fe, north of San Diego.
By Saturday afternoon, police had contacted 35 families of cult members.
As autopsies were being carried out on the last of the victims, the first family to claim the body of a relative arrived in San Diego from Canada, taking authorities by surprise.
Officials had said earlier they did not expect any relatives to travel to San Diego; they had planned to ship either bodies or ashes from cremation to family members.
A man who gave his name as Ernst arrived at the San Diego morgue Saturday morning and told reporters he had come to claim the body of his daughter. Among those listed as dead was Erika Ernst, 40.
The father was accompanied by his wife and sister and a second man and a teen-age boy. The family arrived in two motor homes bearing Alberta license plates. About two hours later, they left with a police escort, but it's not clear whether they took the woman's body.
Calvin Vine, an investigator with the San Diego County Coroner's office, had said the funerals would take place in the states where the deceased had families. "We have actively discouraged (families) from coming here," he said.
New details emerged Saturday about Marshall Applewhite, the cult's white-haired leader.
The Washington Post reported that Applewhite went to a psychiatric hospital in the early 1970s and asked to be cured of homosexual impulses, after an affair with a male student led to his dismissal as a music professor at Houston's University of St. Thomas.
A former school president, the Rev. William Young, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that St. Thomas officials had denied firing Applewhite for a "morals problem."
Long before the suicide, Applewhite and other cult members had been castrated, said San Diego County Medical Examiner Dr. Brian Blackbourne after finding the scars.
Cult members had been trying to make a movie in the months before their deaths in a bid to spread their views, according to two film producers.
Alex Papas, a Phoenix producer who met the group when they were living in Arizona, said they used him in late 1995 to launch the project, which was based on their beliefs about life on Earth and moving on to the "Kingdom of God."
Rick Singer, a Los Angeles television and movie producer and Papas' partner, said Saturday he got a call from one of the cult members two weeks ago and was stunned when he learned of their mass suicide.
"I was shocked," he said. "They were a little weird the way they looked and dressed, but they were so eager and so enthusiastic."
Papas said the group gave him a 223-page screenplay after learning he was a movie producer.
Entitled "Beyond Human: Return of the Next Level," it featured motherships, alien abductions and clashes between bad reptile-like aliens and benevolent ones for control of the Earth. It told of the ability to rise up to a level several flights above humans.
Applewhite led his followers around the country for more than two decades, and they abandoned their families, belongings and even their sexuality in return for salvation from aliens.
Before their arrival in California, the cult lived in a ranch in New Mexico where they were building a so-called Earth ship made from tires and cement, the Union-Tribune reported.
They never finished the fortress-like structure and abandoned it before it could be completed.
Inside the California mansion, investigators discovered pictures of a dome-headed alien that cult members apparently thought they would encounter after death.
Correspondent Rusty Dornin and Reuters contributed to this report.
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