Heaven’s Gate is best — and almost exclusively — known for being the UFO cult where all the members, freshly castrated, committed ritual suicide in 1997 to hitchhike onto a spaceship tailgating the Hale-Bopp comet. (Though the webmasters of the Heaven’s Gate site told the Mirror, “It is not a religion, it is more like an unproven scientific theory.”)
They were not a new cult. In 1975, The New York Times reported that an attendee to one of their meetings said that he got the feeling that “in order to get there … you probably would have to give up everything.” In 1994, LA Weekly said that the “Total Overcomers,” as they were known then, planned on “departing” that February.
The only hitch in this narrative of a suicide cult is that all the members didn’t die after ingesting barbiturate filled applesauce and pudding, then putting bags over their heads. Depending on when you asked, the 39 who did, including the cofounder Marshall Applewhite, made up barely a tenth of the members.
If you live in California or Arizona, there is a small chance your middle manager belonged to a cult that, according to Applewhite’s final video, “in all honesty, hate[d] this world,” according to Investigation Discovery.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Wait, they didn't all die?
The Two, as founder Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles called themselves, were not looking to preside over a massive group. Some cults want to expand rapidly for the power of numbers (and more chance at child brides), but Heaven’s Gate was always on-brand. The human world is literally Hell, according to Last Podcast on the Left, and there is only beauty in being a Gray alien.
Even in the religious tumult of the 70s, the Two’s message of being the incarnations of Jesus and God — both who had been aliens to begin with — was a tough pill to swallow, and most people attending one meeting would not bother with another. But they still gathered a nucleus of hundreds at different times, meeting in campgrounds by word of mouth. The Two would decide who wasn’t a good fit for the group and go so far as to buy them bus tickets to get rid of them. Nettles, called Ti (among a few other names), referred to this as making “clear the butter,” according to Newschant.
It must be a slap in the face to be dumped by a cult, but not committing suicide with 38 of your best friends is likely a good salve.
The ghosted 19
One of the ways The Two would dispose of unwanted members was to send them to beg food throughout the country. (Since they rejected sex as a desire of their “vehicles” — what they called their bodies — they would pair up proselytizers who were attracted to one another and send them off into the world to not have sex, as a test, according to Last Podcast on the Left.)
According to Benjamin Zeller’s book, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, years after their founding, Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles decided that 19 of their flock were not as devout as they might be and sent them to Phoenix, Ariz., to get jobs to support the cult, with promises that they would soon be in touch with orders. Applewhite contacted them a couple times, then forgot about them. This being the 1970s and the cult having no fixed location, these 19 people were at a loss, eventually drifting off to lead lives among the Luciferians. (The Luciferians were anyone who didn’t want to be aliens.) It was passive-aggressive but effective.
If you wouldn’t see the cult through to the end — which was always becoming an alien in space but, before Nettles’ death, didn’t involve abandoning your vehicle, according to Zeller, speaking to the Chicago Tribune — they would cut you loose.
Missed the ship
Some form of the cult existed since the early 1970s when Marshall Applewhite met Bonnie Nettles in a hospital where she was a nurse, deciding they were soulmates. (This should not be construed as sexual. In the HBO documentary, Heaven’s Gate: Cult of Cults, Alabama Life quotes an unnamed former member — “Marshall Applewhite didn’t like his homosexuality, so he created a myth around that piece that he didn’t like.” He did have a wife at one point but lost teaching jobs owing to affairs with students, according to the The Washington Post.) With a mishmash of Christianity by way of science fiction, the cult gathered members at a steady rate.
Not everyone who was part of the initial cult was intentionally ghosted or overtly asked to leave. Some just got lost. Having been sent into the world to test if churches were holy enough to give them food and shelter, the members were expected to rely upon word of mouth or short-term post-office boxes to know the next meeting location.
The post office boxes would be left to expire or would never be checked. Word of mouth was prone to misinformation, so pilgrims would meet at campgrounds in California and New York, only to discover that they had followed a rumor without substance, according to Last Podcast on the Left. If they missed a meeting, they had no way of knowing where the next one would be. Some were just abandoned by a game of telephone gone wrong.
Putting aside those dropped from the class owing to non-attendance, some cult members remain who left months or weeks before they “graduated.” (“Heaven’s Gate” was the name of their website. They called themselves the Class or the Group.)
Rio DiAngelo told the Kitsap Sun in 2002, “I’m really the only one left.” Then called Neody but born Richard Ford, DiAngelo left six weeks before the suicide. He knew something was up, though he swears that he didn’t think it would be evacuating their vehicles. He told Marshall Applewhite that he felt he had some other purpose outside the house they rented in the suburb of Rancho Santa Fe. Discarnate Luciferians were pulling him to this fate. Applewhite was convinced, giving DiAngelo train fare, a camera, a computer, and $1,000 to get his new life started.
Days after the mass suicide, DiAngelo received a package from Applewhite containing the pre-suicide interviews (which are heartbreaking and bizarre and available to watch on YouTube) and a note telling him that he had done it. DiAngelo, not having a car, convinced his boss, Nick Matzorkis, to drive him to the house, where he filmed a 90-second video of the discovery. When he exited, the Escondido Grapevine reported that DiAngelo called the police, saying, “This is regarding a mass suicide. I can give you the address.”
According to LA Weekly, his press kit now includes the slogan, “Glad to be alive and planning to stay that way!”
Sawyer, dubbed Swyody by the cult but born Steve Havel, left years before the end. He considers himself a failure who should and would have graduated with his class. He told the Escondido Grapevine that he had achieved the rank of “overseer” in his 18 years with the cult, leaving in 1994. What broke him from the promise of eternal life in the stars?
MTV. He turned that on, saw beautiful women, and just needed to masturbate, according to Loudwire. Understanding that he could not bend to the whims of his vehicle — and not wanting to get neutered as between six to eight of the final members did (not all, despite what you’ve heard) — Sawyer left the group. Loudwire further quotes Sawyer as saying in the documentary, Heaven’s Gate, “I told Do, ‘I feel like I need to leave the group.’ He got me a plane ticket and gave me $600. I’m really kind of a pitiful person, really.”
Sawyer wrote a book about his experiences with Heaven’s Gate, titled This “Little Book” Provides the “Backside” Evidence Showing How All Jesus’ Prophecy Revelations … [123 words later] …To Graduate Into the Next Level Kingdom In the Literal Heavens. With a title that would put Fiona Apple to shame, it is no surprise that it is a breezy 900-plus pages long. In it, he talks about how he helped hide the evidence of the castrations, including throwing testicles off a pier.
Decades after the suicides, Heaven’s Gate still has an active website. Granted, it has not been updated, but someone is paying hosting bills, and it is not Rio DiAngelo or Sawyer.
Benjamin Zeller’s Heaven’s Gate explains that Marshall Applewhite told two members, Mrcody and Srfody, to postpone ascending for a few thousand years so that the cult could still have a presence among the Luciferians. They are now called Mark and Sarah King and, depending on who you ask, are married. To the Mirror, they explain they are “task partners” and that “our day-to-day lives are working regular jobs, taking care of household chores and maintaining the website, emails and the other physical and intellectual property issues that arise all the time.”
They collectively call themselves TELAH (The Evolutionary Level Above Human) after a part of The Two’s gospel and, fittingly, have dubbed their task partnership “the TELAH Foundation.” News.com.au reported that they were among those of whom Walter Cronkite said in 1976, “A score of persons … have disappeared. It’s a mystery whether they’ve been taken on a so-called trip to eternity … or simply been taken,” as mentioned in an archived article from The New York Times.
When asked how many members remain of Heaven’s Gate, they told Vice, “None. The Group came to an end in 1997. There are no members or anything to join.”
In the immediate aftermath of the suicides, several members remained. The Seattle Times reported in 1997 that a few, including a man named Chuck Humphrey (called Rkkody), conducted an informational session for the media. (Newsweek reported that Humphrey also had trouble handling his “vehicle’s” sexual urges and floated in and out of the class.) They were not there to recruit members or advocate suicide. Janja Lalich, an expert on cults, said after the session, “[Humphrey]’s romanticizing and glorifying these deaths, and then he’s making a couple bucks on the side.”
According to The New York Times, six weeks later, Humphrey and another former member, Wayne Cook, attempted suicide, wearing the same Nikes and purple shrouds as the original suicides — among those Cook’s wife. Humphrey survived, but only barely. Cook did not. CBS News reported that, nine months later, Humphrey killed himself. He was carrying a $5 bill and quarters, “bus fare” like the dead 39 had.
In addition, the North County Times reported that Robert Leon Nichols killed himself in a way approximating the mass suicide, leaving a note reading, “I’m going on the spaceship with Hale-Bopp to be with those who have gone before me.” Nichols had never belonged to any version of the cult.
According to DiAngelo in an interview with LA Weekly, their suicides didn’t “make sense … Unless you know what they knew. And what I know … That Do was the second coming of Jesus Christ.”
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Then there is Crlody. He was 25 when the suicide happened. He conducted the informational session with Chuck Humphrey, though most people covered it for prurient reasons and not because they cared about the philosophy of a UFO cult.
The Seattle Times reported that Crlody had only been a member of the cult for three months in 1994, and that he considers leaving the cult a “mistake.” In a 2020 blog entry, Crlody stated that Heaven’s Gate “allowed individuals to come and go as freely as the class did,” ergo it could not possibly be a cult. That same entry shows that Crlody is still salty about what Janja Lalich said in 1997.
Crlody detests the joke the cult became in the aftermath. The only thing he seems to resent more is Mark and Susan King, as the subtitle of his blog is “Exposing the TELAH Foundation’s lies.” He had declared that spreading the word was his full-time job, but Marshall Applewhite handed the keys to the kingdom to the webmasters. Aside from a WordPress blog, Crlody often goes ignored in the story of the survivors, particularly when the media is looking for former members to interview.
If Sawyer was saved by his desire to masturbate, Frank Lyford was rescued by abuse, but a part of him never escaped. In People Magazine Investigates: Cults, he makes plain that, contrary to what the other survivors say, Marshall Applewhite was verbally abusive, so much so that Lyford has a speech impediment to this day. As he told People, “Being in the Heaven’s Gate cult was an experience in which I gave my power away on all levels.”
Lyford had to leave behind the love of his life, Erika Ernst, and his cousin, David Van Sinderen, along with the people he considered family for 18 years. According to All That’s Interesting, Ernst called him two days after he left, asking him to rejoin the cult. He begged her to leave. She refused utterly. How could she choose the love of a man over her family in the cult?
Ernst and Van Sinderen were among the 39 members who committed suicide.
The root of all evil
After the suicides, Rio DiAngelo was irate that the police had released his video, which he intended to sell, according to LA Weekly. Nick Matzorkis, his then-boss, declared himself DiAngelo’s agent. He sold the film rights to his life for an undisclosed amount. DiAngelo also self-published Beyond Human Mind: The Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate. Accord to Newsweek, DiAngelo enjoyed the big dinners and luxury suite his fame afforded him. In 2002, the Kitsap Sun reported that to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the suicides, DiAngelo auctioned the cult’s van on eBay, asking $39,000.
Though Sawyer gives away copies of his book, it is still on sale. He also charges for interviews. He said on his blog that TELAH does not represent Heaven’s Gate, and that Mark King was kicked out of the class — he did not leave voluntarily.
Mark and Susan King negotiated to buy the cult’s writings and artwork for $2,000, according to the Escondido Grapevine. CBS Las Vegas reported in 2012 that TELAH had sued to stop Chuck Humphrey from selling unauthorized Heaven’s Gate merchandise. TELAH are the only ones legally empowered to work in the cult’s stead.
Wayne Cook’s daughter told The New York Times after her father’s suicide, that “[t]here was a lot of infighting over various things, with everyone grabbing onto money and not looking at a purpose, if there was any.”
Speak no evil
Almost all the survivors do not have an unkind word for Marshall Applewhite. Sawyer still maintains that Applewhite was Jesus. Rio DiAngelo remains a true believer, saying to the Kitsap Sun, “If he is just a gay music teacher from Texas how he could teach all these advanced ways of being that really work?” Mark and Susan King find purpose in keeping the site running, stating to The Mirror, “Do will return to this planet … He has been here many times before, pushing mankind along.” To News.com.au, the Kings said The Two were “very level-headed and very wise in the way they performed and spoke.”
None of them consider what happened in 1997 to be mass suicide. Their friends ascended to the next plane. Remaining on Earth is suicide. In their interview with News.com.au, the Kings said of the suicides, “Everyone was quietly happy and fulfilled in that they were finally graduating into the Next Level.” Loudwire quotes Sawyer as saying, “I could have graduated with them, I had the capacity to do that. I believe that 100 percent.” Newschant reported that Sawyer said, “Ti and Do gave us the instruments to brainwash ourselves, actually wash out our humanness from our mind.”
However, the AP reported Bonnie Nettles’ daughter, Terrie, received letters while her mother was leading the cult, telling her daughter to have a normal life. Perhaps even Nettles wanted out before she died of cancer in 1985.
Lil Uzi Vert
But what would the story of a mass cult suicide be without a rap beef? While the cult general allows people to think what they will about Heaven’s Gate — or will at least not fight it hard — they draw the line at copyright infringement, as the case with Chuck Humphrey shows (and he was at least a former member trying to proselytize).
The Complex reports that, in 2018, Lil Uzi Vert put out album art on his Instagram to tease a forthcoming project titled Eternal Atake. The art was clearly influenced by the Heaven’s Gate website and late-90s aesthetics, replacing “Ti, Do, and Jesus” with “Luv, Rage, and Uzi.”
Mark and Susan King threatened to sue him, saying to Genius.com, “He is using and adapting our copyrights and trademarks without our permission and the infringement will be taken up with our attorneys. This is not fair use or parody, it is a direct and clear infringement.”
As reported by the San Diego Tribune, Vert backed down, possibly unaware that there were still members alive enough to sue. He replaced it with a second option, though he had Marshall Applewhite as his Instagram picture for a little while.
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