The Untold Truth Of Heaven's Gate

Heaven's Gate achieved instant notoriety in March of 1997, when the horrific discovery of 39 bodies in a Rancho Santa Fe compound sparked a media frenzy. The baffling willingness of each member to commit suicide and the bizarre ritual around the deaths led many to wonder what drove so many otherwise ordinary people towards this end.

But Heaven's Gate was unlike any other cult anyone had ever seen before. Led by two native Texans, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, their group was comprised of very devout believers of some strange beliefs, which took some aspects of Christianity and married them to themes from sci-fi movies, namely belief in aliens, UFOs, and an ability to transcend their life on Earth by evolving into a more advanced state of being. These followers seemed convinced that Applewhite and Nettles had the answers they were looking for, and were willing to follow their teachings all the way to the very tragic end.

Marshall Applewhite had a religious upbringing

Marshall Applewhite was born to middle-class parents in Spur, Texas in 1931. His father was a Presbyterian minister, and Applewhite was raised in a very religious household. Applewhite never really abandoned his Christian uprising so much as he ended up tacking a lot of additional beliefs onto it. Most notably, he came to believe that God was an alien, heaven was simply the "Next Level," and he himself was the second coming of Jesus, according to Rolling Stone.

However, Applewhite struggled and doubted himself for years before he fully developed his beliefs. He was a bright and charismatic youth, and at first planned to channel his talents towards becoming a minister, before abandoning his seminary studies in the early 1950s to pursue a career in music. Due to his religious upbringing, he struggled to come to terms with his feelings of sexual attraction towards men. In 1952, he married a woman named Ann Pearce, with whom he had two children.

He abandoned his musical aspirations and found work as a teacher. He was employed as an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, but he was terminated after accusations came to light that he was carrying on an inappropriate affair with a male student. The romance and subsequent questions about his sexuality contributed to the disintegration of his marriage. According to Biography, he quit his job and eventually had a nervous breakdown in 1970.

Fortune tellers predicted Bonnie Nettles would meet Marshall Applewhite

Bonnie Nettles, a fellow native Texan, was also experiencing marital problems of her own around the early 1970s. According to Encyclopedia, she was raised as a devout Baptist in Houston. She married her husband, Joseph Segal Nettles, in 1949, and they had four children together.

Nettles attended the Hermann Hospital School of Professional Nursing and found work as a registered nurse. However, she was also in search of something beyond her work and family life. She developed an interest in the occult, and in February 1966 she became a member of Houston Lodge of the Theosophical Society in America. 

As she continued to seek spiritual answers, Nettles became more involved with fringe theories. She started holding seances and consulting with the dead, most notably an entity she called Brother Francis, a 19th-century monk who would offer her guidance. She also frequented fortune tellers, who began to predict around 1972 that a mysterious tall man with fair coloring – much like Applewhite – would soon come into her life, according to the New York Times. Nettles' increasingly obscure spiritual beliefs also began to put a strain on her marriage.

It's unclear exactly how Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite met

When Bonnie Nettles' and Marshall Applewhite's paths first crossed in 1972, they felt an intense – albeit platonic – connection. Although their meeting ultimately set many historic events in motion, the exact record of how they met is unclear. According to Applewhite's own writings, he claims he first encountered Nettles in a hospital where she was employed and he was visiting a sick friend. However, Nettles' eldest daughter insisted that they had actually met at a theater where Applewhite worked as a drama teacher and Nettles' son attended classes, per the New York Times.

Still other reports say that the meeting occurred when Applewhite checked himself in as a patient at a psychiatric institution, where Nettles worked as a nurse, per Rolling Stone. Both Applewhite and Nettles were sure they had already met in a past life, so this wasn't even their first encounter.

They both had in-depth knowledge of the Bible, but Nettles supplemented her Christian beliefs with knowledge of astrology, the paranormal, and the occult. Applewhite had religious visions and was convinced of his own divinity. Regardless of the time and place of their first meeting, they had no doubt it was an act of cosmic fate, and the unlikely pair quickly became inseparable.

The spiritual journey begins

While Bonnie Nettles was still married – albeit presumably unhappily – when she met Marshall Applewhite, that would soon end. The two had began cohabiting, and her husband, understandably displeased with this living situation, divorced Nettles soon after. She also lost custody of her three younger children, and largely cut off contact with her 20-year-old daughter, Terrie.

Still undeterred from their mission, Applewhite and Nettles left their families behind and set off to pursue their spiritual journey together. Hayes Parker, a friend of Applewhite's, told the New York Times he had told him that "a presence had given him all the knowledge of where the human race had come from and where it was going... [Applewhite] was serious. And he didn't seem crazy."

First, the duo opened up a metaphysical bookstore and spiritual center in Houston called the Christian Art Center and Know Place, according to Encyclopedia. They taught classes on religion, philosophy, and the occult, as well as art and music. But the store was ultimately unsatisfying. They decided they wanted to spread their message across the country. On New Year's Day of 1973, they closed the bookstore, and the pair decided it was time to head west.

Marshall Applewhite spent six months in jail

After shuttering their bookstore, Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite began crisscrossing the country, seeking further spiritual enlightenment. But they had no steady source of income, and funds were running low. On August 27, 1974 they were both arrested in Harlingen, Texas – Nettles for credit card fraud, and Applewhite for the theft of a rental car, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune

The charges against Nettles were soon dropped, but Applewhite had rented a Mercury Comet nine months earlier in Missouri and never returned it. He was charged with auto theft. Tim Braun was working as the St. Louis County public defender in 1974, when Applewhite's case came across his desk. "Very seldom do we see a statement that 'a force from beyond the earth has made me keep this car,'" he recounted to People Magazine. Despite that defense, Applewhite was convicted and spent the next six months in a St. Louis jail. Behind bars, he continued to read and wrote a statement of his cosmic beliefs, while Nettles waited for him on the outside.

Bo and Peep

Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles soon came to believe they were none other than the Two Witnesses mentioned in the Book of Revelation, and that they would be taken up to heaven in a flying saucer. Together, they went by many names, including Bo and Peep, and, later, Do and Ti. To many, they were simply known as "The Two."

They traveled across the southern and western parts of the country, eventually ending up in California. They made their first waves in Studio City in May of 1975, when they held a group meetings at the home of one of their first converts, Joan Culpepper, per the New York Times. They shared with the 80 people in attendance that they were "The Two prophesied in Revelation ... God has sent us here as an experiment."

Two-dozen of the members were completely taken by this information. By September, 20 new followers, leaving behind their jobs, homes, and families, made their way to Waldport, Oregon, where they waited for the first expected spaceship, which never arrived. The group then began wandering, drifting between towns and camps across the West before settling down for a time in Bonny Reservoir, Colorado. By 1976, they stopped seeking out new recruits. Former member Dick Joslyn told People, "Sometimes it got pretty boring, especially when you were waiting 10 years for the spacecraft to come down." While members did dwindle as time passed, those that remained were the most committed to the cult.

Life in Heaven's Gate

Marshall Applewhite never seemed to become comfortable with any type of sexuality. According to Applewhite, the sex drive was a base desire that tethered humans to Earth and prevented believers from reaching the Next Level. He preached celibacy to his followers, and eight male members, including Applewhite, even went so far as to undergo voluntary surgical castrations. Former member Dick Joslyn told People it made "perfect sense" for the committedly celibate, saying, "Why not end the battle with the sex drive? I'm real glad now that I didn't do it. But it's not as bizarre as people think it is."

Despite being strongly anti-romance, group members were still assigned a partner, with whom they were meant to carry out their everyday tasks. But to prevent anything too friendly from occurring, the partners were switched around regularly, and "they set you up with the partner you'd least likely be attracted to," former member Leslie Light told People. Some days, they implemented something called "tomb time," when members were forbidden from speaking to each other at all.

Heaven's Gate members also abstained from drinking, smoking, and even flashy clothing. All group members wore identical outfits and haircuts, regardless of gender. All of this was meant to prepare them to shed their human vessel – otherwise called a body – upon the arrival of the Next Level entities who were coming to Earth in a UFO, per Gizmodo.

Heaven's Gate members believed aliens would evacuate them from Earth

The foundation of their beliefs lay in the fact that Heaven's Gate followers believed that Earth was set to be "recycled," via some kind of Apocalypse-type scenario, sometime in the near future. The only way to escape being completely erased would be to achieve the "The Evolutionary Level Above Human." Reaching the next evolutionary level required followers to shed all of their attachments to their earthly life, so that their consciousness could live on in a genderless, bodiless existence in outer space, according to Gizmodo.

Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite had been chosen by these advanced spiritual beings to serve as messengers and guide their flock of believers here on Earth. They were said to be in regular communication with the advanced extraterrestrial beings. The last messenger who had appeared on Earth had actually done so in a human vehicle, in the form of Jesus Christ. God Himself, they believed, was actually a highly developed alien.

When the spaceship finally arrived, it would take the true believers up to a blissful existence on the Next Level, or what others would likely refer to as Heaven, along with the other advanced beings who had already abandoned their earthly vehicles. The nonbelievers left would be completely wiped out, and the Earth would be renewed.

Heaven's Gate members could leave at any time

For all the rigid rules and zealotry, "Bo" and "Peep" were unexpectedly accepting if their follower's experienced doubt. They never coerced anyone into staying if they didn't want to be there. In fact, they seemed to actively discourage participation from all but the truly devout. Unbelievers were free to leave at any time.

Robert Balch, a University of Montana sociology professor, joined the cult to study them in the 1970s, and his findings showed that people joined Heaven's Gate because they really wanted to be there. "Bo and Peep were good salesmen, but people shopping for new cars routinely encounter much more pressure and manipulation. People joined the UFO cult with virtually no pressure to convert, and they enthusiastically adopted group norms even before the socialization process began," Balch said, via Gizmodo

Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles were empathetic with their followers, seeking to form an emotional bond with them rather than assert dominance and control. Heaven's Gate members weren't dumb, either, nor were they society's outcasts. Most of them were just normal, ordinary people, like bus drivers and computer programmers. Joan Culpepper, a former member of the cult, recalled "many of these people weren't losers with low self-esteem. Applewhite's message connected to some belief in them... Most cults want to sweet-talk you, draw you in and make you feel loved. These guys weren't like that," via People. They were looking for answers to life's big questions, and to some, Heaven's Gate seemed like it was able to provide them.

Bonnie Nettles died in 1985

Life in the group passed fairly uneventfully until the early 1980s, when Bonnie Nettles' health began to fail. Per the New York Times, she had been diagnosed with cancer, and it was spreading. In 1983, she lost an eye to the disease, and it eventually moved to her liver.

Nettles finally succumbed to cancer in 1985. Her death devastated Marshall Applewhite, but it also complicated some of the group's most foundational beliefs. Applewhite and Nettles had told their followers they would need their earthly bodies in order to board the spaceship. But if Nettles had already left her vessel, how would she board the UFO to reach the Next Level? And if Nettles was supposed to be an advanced messenger, how could she have died such an ordinary death? 

After some time, Applewhite was able to explain away her death by saying that it did not matter when or how someone left their earthly vessel, so long as their consciousness left their body and ascended to the Next Level. He explained that she had simply left behind her "broken-down vehicle," saying she "experienced no symptoms prior to the week she left her vehicle, and for the most part, her vehicle slept through the transition. We're not exactly sure how many days it might have taken her to return to the Next Level," via the New York Times. This shift towards believing it did not matter how they left their earthly vessel would ultimately lead to a tragic end for the group members.

All 39 Heaven's Gate members committed ritual suicide in 1997

In July 1995, scientists announced the discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet. Per History, the comet would pass close to Earth in 1997, as part of its 4,000-year orbit of the sun, a once in 200-years event. Heaven's Gate members became convinced that their long-awaited spaceship would be hidden in Hale-Bopp's trail, on its way to Earth to pick up their souls. In preparation for its coming, they rented a mansion in the Rancho Santa Fe suburb of San Diego in October 1996.

Marshall Applewhite had determined that in order for their souls to be free to board the spacecraft, they needed to leave their earthly vessels. In March of 1997, when the comet was closest to Earth, members of the group put on identical black outfits, black and white Nike Decades athletic sneakers, and armbands reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team," and committed mass suicide.

Applewhite orchestrated a carefully laid out plan, in which the 39 members conducted ritual suicide over the course of three days. The first group ate applesauce mixed with barbiturates, washed it down with vodka, put bags over their heads, laid down and died. The next day, the second group cleaned up after the first, removing the bags from their heads, positioning them in bed, and covering them with purple shrouds. They then repeated the process. The third group was composed of only Applewhite and two trusted followers. He consumed the drug-laced applesauce first, and his followers arranged his body before committing suicide themselves.

The Heaven's Gate website is still active

On March 26, San Diego police discovered the 39 bodies after receiving an anonymous tip. News of the mass suicide shocked the public, and many wondered how so many ordinary people become so deeply entrenched in the group's beliefs.

Heaven's Gate was one of the first groups to use the new technology of the internet to connect with potential believers. Per Rolling Stone, the group earned money by designing web pages under the business name Higher Source. One of their main recruitment tools was their website, www.heavensgate.com, which they launched by the mid-1990s.

The website remains up to this day, still manned by four former Heaven's Gate members, who told Vice they "joined at the beginning, in 1975, and have been with them for 45 years. There are us two here in Arizona and a couple more around the country.” There are four people left, and though they no longer view themselves as members of anything, saying "The Group came to an end in 1997. There are no members or anything to join," they remain Heaven's Gate believers. They continue to maintain the website, keeping up the archive and responding to emails. Not only is the website live, it is still attracting followers. The remaining members still receive regular requests from around the world, explaining: "We have told four today alone that they can't join, because the group ended in 1997... We average about five or so a day that want to join."