THOUGH EERIE, THERE MIGHT HAVE BEEN SOMETHING almost reassuring about the image of bug-eyed fanatics ranting about UFOs, the Next Level of existence and the comet Hale-Bopp. If nothing else, it would have conformed to the stereotype of what members of a doomsday cult should be like. But sort through the lives of the 38 people who committed suicide with Marshall Herff Applewhite at the Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., mansion of the Heaven’s Gate cult, and the stereotypes slowly begin to unravel. Though some of those who joined Heaven’s Gate had obvious emotional problems, most seemed disarmingly ordinary—businessmen, mothers, students—all consumed by nothing more exotic than a desire for spiritual enlightenment. “Many of these people weren’t losers with low self-esteem,” says Joan Culpepper, an original member of the cult who later became an outspoken foe. “Applewhite’s message connected to some belief in them.”
It was, to be sure, a very strange message. The group first came together in the spring of 1975 in Los Angeles, where Applewhite, a onetime choirmaster from Texas, and Bonnie Lu Nettles, a former nurse, regaled a group of meditation enthusiasts with their belief that spaceships would someday arrive to carry away their spirits. Applewhite and Nettles, who went by the droll nicknames Bo and Peep (at various times they were also called Do and Ti, or simply the Two), exhorted their prospective flock to give up sex, alcohol and tobacco and leave their families behind. “Most cults want to sweet-talk you, draw you in and make you feel loved,” says Culpepper, 62, a former advertising executive. “These guys weren’t like that.”
If the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, as poet William Blake once claimed, the road of abstinence led in this case to a series of scruffy campgrounds. Applewhite and Nettles first set up headquarters on the Rogue River in Oregon, with 20 to 30 followers who brought only a few personal belongings. Among them were people who had left their children, some of them just toddlers. Within a few weeks, the cult began to wander, staying in such out-of-the-way places as Medicine Bow National Forest, Wyo., and Bonny Reservoir, Colo. When not camping in the countryside, they would settle for a time in towns where they earned money working as waitresses or store clerks. Sometimes they would seek support from local churches. Over time the cult, which went by different names—Human Individual Metamorphosis and Total Overcomers Anonymous—before settling on Heaven’s Gate, managed to save enough from wages and money brought in by new members to afford several expensive campers for their travels. Though they constantly proselytized, they generally did so discreetly, mainly to avoid the desperate relatives of recruits who often came looking for their vanished loved ones.
At its peak, in the late ’70s, the cult had several hundred members, and Applewhite was strict in enforcing group discipline. Members had to sign out to get their driver’s license and car keys before they could leave the compound. For a while, Applewhite and Nettles would impose something known as “tomb time,” during which members could not speak to each other for days on end. Occasionally, tuning forks would be tapped on cultists’ heads in an effort to dispel human thoughts. Nettles was determined to impose order, insisting that daily routines be spelled out to the minute. “It was like the military,” says Dick Joslyn, 48, who was a cult member for 15 years, starting in 1975. “There were all these procedures that drove some people crazy.”
Above all, the members were assigned partners with whom they were supposed to do everything—eat, sleep and work—during the day. To ensure that no one got too friendly, to say nothing of becoming romantically involved, the leaders rotated partners regularly. “They set you up with the partner you’d least likely be attracted to,” says Leslie Light, now 48 and a therapist in Fallbrook, Calif., who was in the cult briefly in 1975. “They put me with this crazy street person.”
Yet Applewhite eschewed some of the cruder methods of mind control. One time early on, he and Nettles, who died of cancer in 1985 at 57, had called a meeting, which several members failed to attend. Rather than browbeat their recalcitrant underlings, the Two announced, sadly, that they were going to leave the group for a time to meditate on why they had failed in their leadership. When they returned hours later, members wept with shame and relief. “There was a bonding with them,” says Joslyn. “It wasn’t like a commander saying, ‘You’ll do this’ or ‘You’ll do that.’ ”
As for the attempt to suppress sexual desire among recruits, that took on a kind of perverse logic all its own. Joslyn insists that for the eight men in the cult, including Applewhite, who submitted to surgical castration, the decision made perfect sense once they had firmly decided to become celibate. “Why not end the battle with the sex drive?” he says. “I’m real glad now that I didn’t do it. But it’s not as bizarre as people think it is.”
Perhaps shrewdly, Applewhite was flexible in some elements of his doctrine. Over the years he often saw various natural disasters—the eruption of Mount St. Helens and various earthquakes—as portents of the moment at which he and his followers would ascend to the Higher Level. When that didn’t happen, he and Nettles would acknowledge with disarming candor that they had goofed. Indeed, Applewhite often reminded his flock that they were free to leave any time they wanted. In the case of 72-year-old Jacqueline Leonard of Des Moines, Iowa, who was among the dead at Rancho Santa Fe, the cult allowed her to bend the rules and stay in regular touch with her family. (“They told her, ‘Jackie, do what you have to do,’ ” says her daughter Chris.) And for those who did stay, Applewhite made it a point to provide numerous, if carefully chosen, opportunities for relaxation and entertainment. Most of the television shows the cultists watched and the movies they attended had mystical or science-fiction themes: Star Trek, The X-Files, Cocoon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars. Joslyn concedes that though he enjoyed himself as a member, it was not always the most stimulating experience. “Sometimes it got pretty boring,” he says, “especially when you were waiting 10 years for the spacecraft to come down.”
Which is why, seven years ago, he elected to drop out of the group. Like other apostates, he was treated with respect, not scorn. He was given a bus ticket home to Florida and a soothing word from Applewhite, who said he understood. Certainly he understood that whenever someone left, there always seemed to be a new recruit available for initiation. Recently the cult, which had taken to wearing similar loose-fitting, androgynous attire, had moved to Rancho Santa Fe and achieved a steady income by designing Web pages for the Internet.
But it is clear now that Applewhite was determined that his earnest, gentle flock not go soft. At the Rancho Santa Fe headquarters, police discovered that the place for food items had been carefully labeled in the refrigerator, and there was a seating chart for members watching television on the 72-inch set. In much the same way, Applewhite apparently wanted to leave nothing to chance when it came to Hale-Bopp and the UFO supposedly trailing behind that was to transport him and his flock. This time he would seize the portent before it fizzled. “I still get teary-eyed when I think about it,” says Culpepper. “When I think of [them] lying in bed as bags were being put over their heads, I could almost hear them say, ‘I’ll see you on the spaceship.’ ”
Marshall Herff Applewhite 65, music teacher turned cult leader
Missouri prosecutor Tim Braun never forgot the car-theft case that came his way in 1974, when he was a novice St. Louis County public defender. “Very seldom do we see a statement that ‘a force from beyond the earth has made me keep this car,’ ” he says. The defendant: Marshall Herff Applewhite. The sentence: four months in jail.
His early life offers few hints of what led Applewhite—son of a Presbyterian preacher and his wife—to abandon his career as a music professor for a life chasing alien spacecraft. Married with two children, he seemed the devoted family man. But his marriage broke up in the mid-’60s, and he moved to Houston, where he ran a small Catholic college’s music department and often sang with the Houston Grand Opera.
A sharp dresser whose taste in cars ran to convertibles, and in liquor to vodka gimlets, he became a fixture of Houston’s arts scene—and, less overtly, its gay community. “Everybody knew Herff,” says Houston gay activist and radio host Ray Hill. But in 1970, Applewhite left the college, apparently after allegations of an affair with a male student.
Soon afterward, Houston artist Hayes Parker recalls, Applewhite claimed to have had a vision during a walk on the beach in Galveston, Texas. “He said he suddenly had knowledge about the world,” recalls Parker. Around that time he met nurse Bonnie Nettles, with whom he formed an instant bond that became the basis of a 25-year cult odyssey. They wandered the country, gathering followers and attracting so much curiosity that by the mid-’70s he had been interviewed by The New York Times. “Some people are like lemmings who rush in a pack into the sea,” Applewhite said of other alternative lifestyles. “Some people will try anything.”
Cheryl Butcher 42, computer trainer
Butcher was a shy, bright, self-taught computer expert who spent half her life in Applewhite’s orbit. Growing up in Springfield, Mo., she was “the perfect daughter,” says her father, Jasper, a retired federal corrections officer. “She was a good student. She did charity work, candy striper stuff.” But according to Virginia Norton, her mother, she was also “a loner. She watched a lot of TV and read. Making friends was hard for her.” That is, until she joined the cult in 1976. “She wrote me a letter once,” says Norton, “that said, ‘Mother, be happy that I’m happy.’ Another time she ended a letter with ‘Look higher.’ ”
David Van Sinderen 48, environmentalist
“When I was 4, he saved me from drowning,” says publicist Sylvia Abbate of her big brother David. The son of a former telephone company CEO, David became an environmentalist. ” ‘Don’t be hurt, I’m not doing this to you,’ ” Abbate says he told his family after he joined the cult in 1976. ” ‘It’s something I have to do for me.’ ” Visiting his sister in ’87, he puzzled her with his backseat driving, then apologized, explaining that cult members drove with a partner so they would have an extra set of eyes. Says Abbate: “That’s the kind of care they had for one another.”
Alan Bowers 45, oysterman
Bowers had spent eight years with the cult in the ’70s before returning to Fairfield, Conn., in the early ’80s to work as a commercial oysterman. In 1988 his life derailed when his wife divorced him and his brother Barry drowned in a boating accident. Bowers, who had three children, moved to Jupiter, Fla., near his stepsisters Susan and Joy Ventulett. “He came down here to make a new start,” says Susan, but he could never quite get it together. Then in 1994, Bowers, while working for a moving company, ran into someone he knew from Applewhite’s legions at a McDonald’s in New Mexico. “He felt it might have been destiny,” says Joy. “He was a little vulnerable. He was searching for peace.”
Margaret Bull 54, farm girl
Peggy Bull, among the cult’s first adherents in the mid-’70s, grew up on a farm outside little Ellensburg, Wash. Though shy, she was in the high school pep club and a member of the Wranglerettes, a riding drill team. Later “she belonged to all the intellectual-type groups,” says Brenda McIntosh, a roommate at the University of Washington, where Bull earned her B.A. in 1966. “It was sometimes hard to talk to her because she was so smart.” Recalls English professor Roger Sale: “She was a open and ready intellectually.” Her father, Jack, died less than three weeks before Bull’s suicide, says Margaret’s childhood friend Iris Rominger, who assumed that Bull had left the cult. “I guess it’s kind of a blessing.”
Alphonzo Foster 44, bus driver
On the surface he was full of promise. Intelligent and handsome, he devoured books on philosophy and spirituality. But, says James Hannon, who roomed with Alphonzo Foster in Minneapolis in the ’70s, “he didn’t do so well on the practical details of his life.” A free spirit who was rarely able to hold a job, Foster sank into a deep depression after his mother died in 1980. Hannon wasn’t surprised when Foster joined Heaven’s Gate in 1994 after talking on the phone with Applewhite for 20 minutes. “He didn’t like much about life in this dimension,” says Hannon. “He wanted to go beyond.”
David Moore 40, computer ace
Moore was angry, often emotional 19-year-old with a shock of dark, wavy hair when in 1975 he stumbled on a cult meeting in a park near his home in Los Gatos, Calif. He disappeared soon afterward, and for 21 years his mother, Nancie Brown, tried to track him down and organized parent support groups. Finally, after seeing him twice over the years, she accepted his choice and even became proud that he had become a certified computer network engineer. But his long absence didn’t diminish the pain when she learned of his death. “It’s been, I’d say, 21 years of losing,” she told The Washington Post. “It doesn’t end.”
Julie LaMontagne 45, nurse
Raised by a foster family, LaMontagne spent much of her childhood studying and eventually got her nursing degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, graduating cum laude in 1974. Shortly afterward she saw her best friend drown and her birth father, Jules, with whom she had remained close, die of cancer. The deaths “just made her collapse,” says her brother Andrew. “We could never get her back after that.” She drifted through a series of New England communes until she stumbled on Heaven’s Gate in the late ’70s. She soon became Applewhite’s personal nurse.
Darwin Lee Johnson 42, musician
A firm believer in UFOs and space aliens, Johnson had briefly joined Heaven’s Gate in the ’70s. But he appeared to have found a new home as guitar player and lyricist for the Utah-based rock band Dharma Combat. Then, in 1994, according to the band’s then-producer, Joe Clarke, Johnson saw an ad for a Heaven’s Gate seminar. Two days later he was gone. Says Clarke: “He told me he was removed [earlier] because he couldn’t measure up to their standards. He always felt bad about that.”
Robert Arancio 45, artist
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Miami, Arancio had studied architecture at two Florida colleges before moving in the mid-’70s to Berkeley, Calif., where he met the cult leaders then known as Bo and Peep. “He felt he had a purpose, he was part of a community,” sister Joanne Bosma, 40, says of his decision to become part of the group. After joining in 1975, Arancio, an artist, returned to his parents’ Florida home only twice—for two-day visits in 1984 and ’87—each time alerting them just a day before he arrived. Though he told relatives he had considered leaving the cult in recent years, he never acted on the impulse. “We’re grieving the loss of my brother,” says sister Joanne. “But we’re also grieving the loss of our hope that he’ll ever come home.”
Gary Jordan St. Louis 43, computer programmer
Dana Tracey Abreo 34, paralegal
Even as a child in Modesto, Calif., Gary Jordan St. Louis was asking the tough questions. Like: What am I doing here? Are there spaceships? And why does Mom drink? “He would drive my mother nuts, and my mother was half nuts already,” recalls younger brother Guy of the tense times after their parents divorced and the two boys went to live with their mother, Carolyn. “He was always searching for answers to questions that had no answers.”
Gary’s relentless queries eventually wore down Carolyn—who had remarried, given birth to daughters Erin and Dana and divorced again—and at 10 he rejoined his father, Louis, a general contractor. Handsome and bright, he earned straight As at Downey High School in Modesto, where he was junior class president and devoured books on astrophysics and extraterrestrial life.
His family had great expectations when he entered the University of California at Berkeley on scholarship in 1972, but he dropped out within a year, disillusioned by the impersonality of the place. Back in Modesto he worked as an engineer and married receptionist Carol Schaeffer. Then, visiting Berkeley in ’74, he encountered Heaven’s Gate. “They said, ‘We’re all caterpillars right now,’ ” recalls Guy, who had gone with his brother. ” ‘But we have the ability to develop into butterflies.’ ”
And Gary was ready to take off. His family didn’t hear from him for the better part of 14 years, until he resurfaced in 1989, just in time to say goodbye to his dying mother. (His wife had filed for divorce soon after he left.) For the next three years he lived outside the cult, struggling with the issue of celibacy, his family believes. During that time he worked as a computer programmer at Denver’s Stapleton Airport. At the same time he drew close to his half sister Dana, who had moved in with him while working as a paralegal. And he became deeply involved with two different women.
In the end, though, Heaven’s Gate held him in thrall. Leaving devastated girlfriend Shelly King in February 1992, he told her, “I want to join my heavenly father and my classmates.” One of them would be Dana. “Most people don’t try to make things more complicated than they are,” says King, musing about the path chosen by her former boyfriend and his half sister. “These people were so smart they thought the world must be more complicated.”
Ladonna Brugato 40, computer consultant
Al Wallace was fixing his tenant’s bathroom faucet in Englewood, Colo., in 1993 when he discovered she was a New Age devotee. “On the four corners of the bed there was a chiffon canopy running up to a crystal in the center, like a pyramid, and on each corner there was a pyramid crystal,” he recalls. Crystals and candles also decorated an altar beside the bed of Brugato, a divorcée who had recently moved to Englewood from the Northwest with her young daughter Jacqueline. In 1994 the friendly but private Newberg, Ore., native sold all her belongings and left town, telling neighbors she was off on a “religious hiatus.”
“If you met her on the street,” says Wallace, “she would have been the girl next door who was simply trying to get by as a single mom. You never would have imagined that it could have gone this far.”
Joel Peter McCormick 28, Trekkie
When Joel McCormick was 6, he climbed behind the wheel of his mother’s car, turned on the ignition and started to drive. The strong-willed boy didn’t get very far. “He had no sense of fear,” says Geoff Van Valkenberg, a stepbrother, who recalls that when older kids went out at night to catch frogs with flashlights, Joel had to go too. After graduating from high school in Madison, Wis., in 1986, McCormick, an ardent Star Trek fan whose parents had divorced when he was 2, moved to Seattle “to sort out the direction he wanted to go,” says his father, James, a Ford Motor technician. By 1994, having trouble finding work as a masseur, he made a decision to join the UFO cult. His mother, Megan McCormick, was beside herself. He wrote to reassure her: “Trust me. I’m doing fine and continue to grow toward the future.”
Gail Maeder 27, boutique owner
However far Gail Maeder wandered from the comfortable home where she had grown up in Sag Harbor, N.Y., her parents always hoped she would find her way back. “We hoped she’d marry and settle down—give us some grandchildren,” says her father, Robert, a design engineer for a manufacturing company. But Gail had never done the expected thing. Even as a skinny teenager she had gone her own way at Pierson High School. “I hate to say she was a hippie,” says her mother, Alice, a homemaker. “She was more a bohemian.”
Before she could complete her fashion-design degree at a local community college, Gail moved to California in 1991 with her boyfriend Chad, a construction worker. They settled in a forest cabin outside Santa Cruz, where, with $5,000 from her father, she opened a small boutique selling clothing and jewelry. But in 1993 she broke up with her boyfriend—”Chad said she seemed to be searching for something,” Robert recalls—and soon afterward traveled with a friend to the Southwest. There she started chatting with some friendly people in a passing van—members, it turned out, of the Heaven’s Gate cult. “Gail wasn’t street smart,” says Robert. “She just got sucked in and couldn’t get out.”
From then on the Maeders would hear from their daughter only occasionally, primarily in cryptic letters, each from a different location. “Knowing you’ve taught me good judgment in choosing what’s best for myself, I hope you will respect this learning I’ve decided to pursue,” she wrote in April 1994 from Arizona. “I really want you to be aware that I’m doing exactly what I want, and it makes me very happy,” she wrote in August 1995 from Lubbock, Texas.
Gail telephoned out of the blue in the fall of 1994. Robert, taken by surprise, offered to send her a plane ticket home (she declined), then suggested she visit if she was in the area. “Maybe that might be arranged,” she said. But it never was. The next time the Maeders heard their daughter’s voice was on the cult’s farewell video. Gail, looking older and weary, said to the camera, “What we’re about to do is certainly nothing to think negatively about.” That did little to soothe her parents or her brother Danny, 20, a Florida college student. “It was like a fatal disease,” says Alice. “She was a victim. We just thought eventually she would wake up and say, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ ”
Thomas Nichols 58, dreamer
Long ago, Nichols confided to his older sister Nichelle that he was awaiting a rendezvous with a comet. Ironically, as Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, it was Nichelle who played the communications officer torn between earthbound domesticity and a career on the starship Enterprise. On Larry King Live, she said that until their mother died in 1992, “we hadn’t heard from [my brother] in 20 years.”
John Craig 62, developer
Mary Ann Craig’s husband, John, had spent several days working late in his Durango, Colo., real estate development office. Then, one hot July morning in 1975, Mary Ann packed their six kids, ranging from 8 to 18, into the car to attend an out-of-town swim meet. When she returned later that evening, she found a note from her husband outlining his business dealings and finances. Just like that, John “Mickey” Craig had disappeared, taking only pocket cash, a change of clothes and his four-wheel-drive Chevy Blazer. “This was a real switcheroo,” says Mary Ann, now 61. “I’m the one who likes to read Stephen King.”
Born in Evanston, III., Craig moved to Albuquerque with his parents when he was 15, acquired an out-doorsman’s skills and, by the mid-’60s, was running one of Colorado’s premier dude ranches. He so looked the part that he was cast as an extra in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
When Craig’s University of New Mexico fraternity brother Dale Mackey visited in 1975 and talked all night about his recent immersion in a UFO cult, Mary Ann, the high school sweetheart Craig had married in 1954, paid little heed. But after Mackey left, Craig told her he had a meeting in Denver and drove to Stapleton Airport to meet Bo and Peep.
Within a week he was gone. At first a shocked Mary Ann—a registered nurse who had to go back to work—believed Craig would grow disillusioned. Instead he became the ethereal Brother Logan, the cult’s second-in-command. The Craigs divorced in 1977 without ever speaking again.
Craig did contact his children, though. Shortly after his departure, he invited his oldest child, Cathy, a college freshman, to a recruiting session in Denver, but she wasn’t impressed. A decade later, he arranged to meet all six children at a Durango resort. “Some of my brothers and sisters didn’t even remember him,” said Cathy Craig Murphy, now 40. Craig will be cremated and his ashes spread over the San Juan Mountains by his children when the snows melt this spring.
Margaret Richter 46, computer whiz
Class of ’69 valedictorian at Las Plumas (Calif.) High School, award-winning orator and drum majorette of the marching band, Margaret Field was “successful at everything she tried,” recalls a teacher. “We expected her to become governor or President,” says classmate Fred Carion. But her 1969 marriage to Berkeley classmate David Richter fizzled after just a few years, leaving her shattered. “That’s what changed her,” says her father, Emery, 76. Though she earned a master’s degree in computer science at UCLA, she seemed to be losing interest in life in 1975, when she encountered the cult. She wrote her family that May: “Here’s hoping I get a UFO trip for Christmas.” After 21 years of little contact with her daughter, her mother, Virginia, concludes, “If you’re going to change the world, you stay here to change it.”
Susan Elizabeth Nora Paup 53, editor for a computer company
As an English major at Berkeley in the late ’60s, Paup was spirited and outgoing, recalls her brother Bill Jenkins, who would bring her along on motorcycle-club outings. “We’d ride and stop for beers,” he says. “Everyone loved her.” She later found work as an editor and took a job with an L.A. computer company, where a colleague told her about the UFO cult. She traveled with her second husband to Oregon in 1975, where the couple split, Paup remaining with the group. “Susan couldn’t have kids, and she was deeply disturbed by that,” says her mother, Jane Bradford, who saw her just twice in 22 years. Adds Bradford of the cult’s separating members from loved ones: “To them, it sounded kind of Christian. But it’s not a Christian act to renounce your family.”
Michael Barr Sandoe 25, ex-paratrooper
A UFO sighting might not have been much more startling to residents of rural Abingdon, Va., in the Blue Ridge foothills, than news that one of their own was among the Heaven’s Gate dead. Sandoe, son of an evangelical minister, had been decorated for his service as an infantry paratrooper in Desert Storm in 1991, and friends remember him as a popular senior class president. “He seemed carefree, wanting to have fun,” says Patricia Pasco. ” ‘He was always the class clown.” To Sandoe’s family, word of his suicide came as a double shock. “The other families seemed to know their son or daughter was involved [in the cult],” says half brother James. “We didn’t.”
Norma Jeanne Nelson 59, artist
Even at the Dallas apartment complex where she and her motorized wheelchair were a familiar sight from 1990 to ’94, artist Brandy Nelson kept her private life private. Though making no secret of her disdain for men or estrangement from her ex-husband and three children, Nelson, who told people she was a polio victim, was tight-lipped about her many mysterious visitors. A few days ago, former neighbor Patty Falkner says she finally learned who they were—members of Heaven’s Gate.
Suzanne Cooke 54, drifter
When they first attended a local meeting led by Applewhite 20 years ago, Cooke and her husband, Nick, were living in a community of bohemian houseboat dwellers in Sausalito, Calif. Not long afterward they gave their 10-year-old daughter Kelly cassette tapes explaining their departure and left her with friends. “It happened all very, very quick,” Kelly told 60 Minutes. “My understanding was [they left] to go to the Next Level to be with God.” Former neighbors remember Suzanne as a gentle, quiet woman, fascinated with computers and space. “She was very low-key and always in the background,” recalls Sausalito harbormaster Ted Rose. Nick, an artist, quit the cult, but Suzanne stayed for what Nick described as “the final leap of faith…. I think she’s probably on the mother craft somewhere.”
Jacqueline Leonard 72, medical assistant
In the Des Moines home where Leonard and her husband, Charles, an optometrist, raised their three children, conversation about religion and serving God was commonplace. That deep sense of spirituality was what enticed Leonard to leave her family—including mother Neva Garrity, now 94—to join Marshall Applewhite’s group in the mid-’70s. But she remained so torn over the decision that she was among the few members who kept in regular touch with relatives. She last showed up three years ago with seven other cult members for a brief dinnertime visit. “I’ve been luckier than some,” says daughter Chris, 43. “I’ve had a lot of time to sort some of these things out.” Over the years she had taken that time to learn about the cult’s philosophy, which did not equate suicide with death. Says Chris: “Mom always said she would leave in a beam of light.”
Susan Strom 44, outdoorswoman
An aspiring botanist and frequent summer-camp counselor, Strom was just shy of graduating from Oregon State University in 1975 when she left with Applewhite’s people. “I guess this group just came around with flyers and she decided to join,” says her father, Lyle Strom, a senior U.S. district judge. Unlike many other parents, Strom and his wife, Regina, received occasional letters and phone calls from Susie, the second of their seven children. “I always considered it a cult,” says her father, who encouraged her to come home. “But she always seemed happy. She had plenty of opportunity to leave.”
Judith Rowland 50, homemaker
Heavy-machine operator Bob Rowland returned to his Ventura, Calif., home after work on April 10, 1975, to find a note from Judi, his wife of nine years. The mother of their two children Cindy, then 8, and Joey, 6, wrote simply, “I went to walk with the Lord.” A former model, Judi was recruited into Applewhite’s fold by her mother, Lorraine, who claims they were his first followers. After joining, the pair rarely spoke. “We had to break through all that humanness,” explains Lorraine, who left after five years. Says a bitter Bob Rowland of his wife and former mother-in-law: “They had a meeting behind my back and [Applewhite] got hold of her mind.”
Yvonne McCurdy-Hill 38, United States Postal Service employee
The nightmare began for Eartha Hill last August, when her son Steven and his wife, Yvonne, invited her to their Cincinnati home and told her they were forsaking everything and everyone—including their newborn twins and three other children—to be with God. “He said, ‘Mom, I love you so much. But I have to go away,’ ” says Hill. Then he played a song about friends and relatives meeting again after death. “I’d never felt that kind of fear,” says Hill. “It just drained me.”
Steven, an inspector at a tile company, was the first to learn about Heaven’s Gate, pulling everything he could off the Internet. But Yvonne, a mail sorter at the post office, turned out to be the true believer. Apparently, Applewhite was careful to keep the two apart once they had joined. While Yvonne responded to the regimentation, Steven soon rebelled. “He saw something was wrong in there,” says Hill. “He said they were bickering inside the cult.”
At first, Yvonne was going to leave with her husband. But Steven was sent on an errand, and while he was gone, Applewhite persuaded her to stay. Once he’d left, Steven, who made no effort to reunite with his children—now being raised by family members—was obsessed with getting Yvonne back. Up to the end, he kept in contact with cult members over the Internet. “He thought she would come out,” says Hill. “It’s so sad. [When he heard she was dead] he just broke down.”
Denise J. Thurman 44, seeker
The long and winding road from affluent Locust Valley, N.Y., to Rancho Santa Fe began in 1973 for Thurman, a once-vivacious high school cheerleader. Midway through her junior year at Boston University, where she had been majoring in psychology, she dropped out and took off with her boyfriend for a West Coast commune. “She was deeper than most people at 17 or 18 can be,” says her college roommate Sandy Nash, now a theater producer living in Garden City, N.Y. “Denise was into a less materialistic way of life; she was a hippie, but didn’t go overboard. The last birthday card she gave me said something like, ‘Dear Sandy: There is no purpose to friendship other than the deepening of one’s soul.’ ”
Lindley Ayerhart Pease 41, car salesman
As a boy in the seaside resort town of Hampton Beach, N.H., Pease dreamed of starting his own business, following the example of his parents, who owned a restaurant and hotel. Though recruited by Applewhite and Nettles in 1978, during his third year at Plymouth State College, he left the cult in the early ’80s, earned a management degree, married and worked as a car salesman. But by 1994, his marriage ended and both parents dead, he dropped out of touch with his sister Sylvia Pease, a Christian Science nurse. “I had no idea he was back in the group,” she says, “until I learned he was dead.”
Jeffrey Howard Lewis 41, masseur
A Lubbock, Texas, native who spent a decade in the cult after serving in the Navy, Lewis left, then returned 12 years later after working as a masseur in San Antonio. “I told him he should think about anything that requires you to give up your friends and family,” says his friend David Tayloe, “but he said he wanted to go back.” Lewis’s brother Jerry told the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, “He felt he didn’t have the meaning he had when he was in the group.”
Erika Ernst 40, cult accountant
Independent and an inveterate traveler, Ernst, who grew up in Calgary, Alberta, had been dating Frank Ly-ford for two years when the pair, recently back from a six-week sojourn in Europe, came across Applewhite and Nettles during a 1975 Oregon camping trip. Soon afterward they sold their belongings and left home—though Lyford defected in 1993. “I made my choice,” he says. “She made the choice to stay.” Says Ernst’s sister Heidi Sherrington: “They wanted to see the world. I wish they had done that on their own. She would still be here.”
Lucy Eva Pesho 63, computer trainer
As a kid in Pueblo, Colo., Pesho hated wearing dresses, had a paper route and was the best marble player on the playground. She was a real tomboy, says older sister Jean, and “told all the kids at school her name was Tommy.” Always shy, even when she moved to Los Angeles and began working for Packard Bell, “she didn’t have too many friends,” says her brother Joseph. In the late ’70s, she found some in Heaven’s Gate. The last time she called Jean, in 1989, she had a simple message: “I’m alive—and I’m happy.”
Joyce Skalla 58, local TV personality
Raised in Minnesota, Skalla married a Navy officer and once won a base beauty contest. Living first in Denver—where she gave birth to twin daughters—the family later settled in Tulsa, Okla., where Skalla earned a journalism degree in 1975. She was working on-air for a local TV station when she took off, two days after attending a cult seminar. “Joyce was always a real ’50s-type wife,” says a family friend. “Then she did a complete change.”
The mysteries inside the enigma
Even a week after their deaths, seven members of the Heaven’s Gate cult (not pictured above: Terry McCarter, 41, from Nashville) remained somewhat shadowy figures. In the case of Betty Deal, her family had hired a private detective to locate her after she vanished from the Seattle area in 1975, abandoning her four children. Last week it turned out that she had gone under at least seven names over the years. Gordon Welch, like many of his fellow cultists, used a post office box for receiving his mail. “He was generous and kind and a great worker,” says a former employer in Encinitas, Calif. “[But] he told me he was a monk and that his private life was private.”