WASHINGTON, February 26, 2018: How many people today remember “Heaven’s Gate”? The climax of the strange and tragic event bearing that name occurred nearly 21 years ago in California. But to understand this incident better, we will first need to travel back in time.
Eighteenth century French astronomer Charles Messier was a frustrated comet hunter. Many of the fuzzy objects he saw through his telescope were no more than dense groups of stars called globular clusters. To exclude these objects from his comet searches, Messier began to map and catalog them.
Today, they are known as Messier Objects.
A new comet is discovered
In 1995, amateur astronomer Thomas Bopp looked through a friend’s homemade Newtonian reflector telescope and noticed something strange near M70, which sits in the constellation Sagittarius.
This glowing unknown presented him an opportunity to report it to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams (CBAT).
As it turned out, professional astronomer Alan Hale beat Bopp in reporting the newly discovered comet by a few minutes.
CBAT decided the pair should not only share the glory of the discovery, but that the comet would share their names.
Two years later, I stood in the Arizona desert under a star-filled night sky with Thomas Bopp himself to view the comet. It was, by then, visible to the naked eye even during daylight hours. But little did we know that 355 miles west of us, near San Diego, California, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult excitedly awaited comet Hale/Bopp’s closest approach to Earth on March 22, 1997.
That’s when they cast off their mortal “vehicles” and moved to the “next level” of existence, believing their spirits would beam aboard the mother ship that followed in the comet’s wake.
The way they solved this cosmic and spiritual challenge would be the largest mass suicide in American history.
Today: The “Heaven’s Gate” podcast
It is this same Heaven’s Gate cult that is the subject of a fascinating 10-part podcast that explores the events leading to the tragedy.
As the “Heaven’s Gate” podcast begins, Nancy Brown, mother of cult member David Moore, watches a video of her son and his friends as they happily cook a Christmas dinner in 1996.
“This is the fun part,” says Brown. “The cook’s in the kitchen… quite a feast they’re making there. Lots of hugs all around.”
But as narrator Glynn Washington explains, “The people David is cooking with are not his family. Not officially. In fact, Nancy and David’s brothers, and the rest of David’s family, they weren’t in the room that day. They weren’t welcome.”
In the podcast, we soon discover why.
All in the family
Long before Heaven’s Gate cult members ended their lives, they ended virtually all contact with their loving but worried families. The need of Heaven’s Gate members to connect with something greater than themselves, to fill a void that troubled them nearly all their lives, was much, much stronger than a mother’s embrace or the bonds built around a sibling’s secrets.
“It’s fun to see how they celebrated the holidays,” says Nancy Brown. “So, you see them not as cultists, you know, but enjoying each other as people. I’m glad to know that he had these things in his life, ‘cause I know that he was loved and that he loved others. And, so, what more can you wish for your children… that’s so important to me.”
Four months later, everyone in that video consumed a poisonous cocktail of phenobarbital, apple sauce and vodka, the first step on their cosmic journey.
Looking for something more
These suicidal Heaven’s Gate pilgrims were not desperate and destitute souls. They were men and women who had been regarded as “curious, smart, accomplished. Former pilots and housewives and students. Computer programmers and nurses. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters,” the narrator insists.
Their last home, a rented mansion in the wealthy enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, California, cost the cult $7,000 a month.
Frank Lyford, who was a member of Heaven’s Gate for more than twenty years, says:
“I remember growing up – when I would look across the landscape or experience the world around me – even as a child it seemed like there’s got to be something more to this. This [existence] seems so flat and dingy, almost.”
Another former member recalls, “I was experimenting with psychedelic drugs, you know, looking at altered states of consciousness. I was interested in that. I was interested in philosophy and religion. And I was also extremely interested in UFOs and extraterrestrial life, and had been for quite some time.”
That shouldn’t be surprising.
Cult leaders Marshall Applewhite (“Do”) and Bonnie Nettles (“Ti”) were fans of Gene Roddenberry’s late 1960s television series “Star Trek” as well as director George Lucas’s “Star Wars” franchise.
In fact, the cult leaders’ belief system was an amalgam of New Testament scripture and the ideas proffered by author Eric von Daniken in his book “Chariots of the Gods.” In his book, von Daniken theorizes that extraterrestrials visited Earth in the distant past to advance ancient humans genetically and spur the development of their technologies, as witnessed in such structures as Britain’s Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.
It was Applewhite’s contention that Jesus Christ is an extraterrestrial bound to return to Earth in a spacecraft to retrieve the faithful.
According to the podcast, those faithful – members of the Heaven’s Gate cult – eventually numbered in the hundreds. But ultimately, Applewhite’s totalitarian control over cult members, coupled with the group’s steady evolution into a death cult, caused all but the most devoted members to leave.
A parent’s worst nightmare
Although the group’s wild religious ideology and its continuing appeal for remaining members of the cult is compelling, it’s the story of surviving relatives that is the most gripping element of the podcast series.
Alice Maeder, mother of cult member Gail Maeder, recalls the time she was pregnant with her now deceased daughter:
“I wanted this little girl so desperately… I said, ‘God, just let me have a little girl, then you can give me ten more, all boys… I want this little girl.’ And didn’t have her long enough.”
A little more than a week after her death, Gail’s cremated remains arrived at the home of her grieving parents. “She came home parcel post,” recalls Robert Maeder, Gail’s father.
“That was a mass murder,” he says angrily, “It wasn’t a suicide.”
All the blame, he says, rests with “him,” the wild-eyed cult leader from Spur, Texas.