Frank Lyford looks back on his decision to leave the the Heaven's Gate cult, whose members were all found dead wearing matching Nike sneakers in a 1997 mass suicide

By Chris Harris
June 17, 2019 11:59 AM

More than 22 years after leaving, there’s still a point every day when Frank Lyford reflects on his time with the Heaven’s Gate cult.

All these years later, Lyford tells PEOPLE, he hasn’t fully recovered.

“Being in the Heaven’s Gate cult was an experience in which I gave my power away on all levels,” Lyford, 65, says. “I had to wake up to the fact that I had given that power away before I could wake up to the fact that I could take it back.”

Lyford defected from the cult in 1993. But his girlfriend, Erika Ernst, remained and died in the cult’s mass suicide in 1997. Speaking ahead of the next episode of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, which airs on Investigation Discovery on tonight at 9 p.m. ET., Lyford says Ernst visits him in his dreams.

He also says he’s still tormented by the memories he has from his time with the suicide cult — and the pain he has carried with him since the day police found 39 bodies inside the cult’s Rancho Santa Fe compound. All of the deceased wore black track suits with matching Nike sneakers and had plastic bags over their heads. Purple shrouds had been draped over their bodies, and cash and I.D.s were found in their pockets.

Frank Lyford
Lucky8 TV
Erika Ernst
Lucky8 TV

RELATED: Heaven’s Gate, 22 Years Later: Remembering 38 People Who Died With Cult Leader

All 39 of the dead — including leader and self-described prophet Marshall Applewhite — had willfully ingested apple sauce laced with barbiturates, which was consumed with vodka.

Through systematic brainwashing, Applewhite concocted a narrative convincing the group they needed to free their mortal souls to board a spaceship flying in the wake of the Hale-Bopp comet. The ship would transport them to an androgynous alien planet known as “The Next Level.”

• For more about the dangerous abuses of the Heaven’s Gate cult, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now. 

Marshall Applewhite
Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma/Getty

The end goal of Heaven’s Gate, Lyford explains, “was, in effect, ascension to a higher level of existence.” Applewhite — or “Do,” as he was known to the group — led classes Lyford now likens to “astronaut-training,” noting the lessons were designed to help the cult’s members “transform onto a different world, where we would have more awareness.”

RELATED: Heaven’s Gate Survivor Desperately Tried to Pull Girlfriend Out of Cult Before Mass Suicide

Lyford says when news of the largest mass suicide in United States history reached him, he was heartbroken.

“It was a very emotional time for me — feeling the loss of all of my friends, who I’d been with for 18 years, and the loss of Erika,” says Lyford, who also lost his cousin, David Van Sinderen, to Heaven’s Gate. “I’d known him virtually all my life.”

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He continues: “My initial response was, ‘Okay, they’ve gone and done it.’ My thought was, ‘Okay, this is the group I was a part of and they finally pulled the trigger on their decision to leave.'”

People Magazine Investigates: Cults airs on Investigation Discovery tonight, June 17, at 9 p.m. ET.

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