Were cult members misled?
They thought Applewhite had cancerMarch 30, 1997
Web posted at: 9:11 p.m. EST (0211 GMT)
SAN DIEGO (CNN) -- New evidence suggests Heaven's Gate cult leader Marshall Herff Applewhite convinced his followers he was dying of cancer, but the medical examiner said Sunday the autopsy showed no such evidence.
Cult members apparently preferred to face death than life without their leader, according to information from computer discs sent by the group to a former member.
CNN and Time magazine, in a joint investigation for the television program "Impact," viewed information from the computer discs, which included suicide notes intended for Internet posting after the deaths.
"Once he is gone, there is nothing left here on the face of the Earth for me, no reason to stay a moment longer," said a female cult member in a note on the discs.
Applewhite and 38 followers committed suicide at a house in Rancho Santa Fe, California, last week, seeking redemption in a space ship they believed was following the Hale-Bopp comet.
News reports have said members of the religious group had been told by Applewhite that he was suffering from liver cancer. But the autopsy didn't support that.
There was "no visible sign of cancer in Applewhite's liver or other organs at the time of the autopsy," San Diego County Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne told CNN.
The two discs were part of packet mailed to "Rio," a former cult member, according to the CNN-Time report. The packet included the videotaped farewell statements of cult members and an instruction letter about finding the bodies.
Cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick said the discs reveal a "cult of personality." In such situations people may not be responsible for their actions, he said.
"That was no suicide, that was murder," Patrick said. " ... Any time you hypnotize a person to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, or kill your family, or kill yourself or anybody they tell you to kill, and they do it, the person responsible for that is the person that programmed them in the first place."
"Impact" also obtained an excerpt from a videotape shot by "Rio" when he entered the house Wednesday and discovered the bodies. The excerpt showed a purple shroud covering Applewhite on a large bed, with a drawing of an alien-type creature above a nearby fireplace.
Other segments not released show more extensive shots of the bodies. One shroud had dried blood over the facial area.
Police separately shot their own video tape, which showed bodies under purple cloth and white comforters on bunk beds and mattresses on the floor.
The San Diego medical examiner said his office has completed the autopsies on all 39 bodies, and has begun releasing them to local mortuaries for shipment to cult members' families. Only a few families have come in person to claim bodies.
Families had been located and informed of the deaths for all but three of the 39 families, the office said. Most of the families have arranged for private shipment through mortuaries.
Applewhite will be buried in a San Antonio plot next to his father, a Presbyterian minister, said sister Louise Winant.
Across the country, the Christian faithful heard warnings about false messiahs on the Easter holiday.
"Jesus Christ is the gate, he's the only way. There's no UFO waiting behind a comet," Pastor Bob Botsford told 300 Easter worshipers gathered in a high school stadium near where the cult members died.
Correspondents Rusty Dornin and Jim Hill contributed to this report.
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