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Heaven's Gate (Part 15)

From Time Magazine Daily on PointCast:

  A Long Journey to Death

 RANCHO SANTA FE, California: Seeking to unravel the events leading to the
group suicide and to understand the reasons that the members of Heaven's Gate
came together, attention has turned to the cult's leader, Marshall Herff
Applewhite. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Applewhite was leading an
apparently unremarkable life as a highly talented baritone, a husband, father
of two, and a professor of music at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. In
the early 1970's, Applewhite was granted a leave of absence from the university
to deal with emotional problems. According to The Washington Post, he left the
university amid a scandal over an affair with a male student. Within a year he
left his wife and children, and was later hospitalized for heart trouble.
During this time he had a "near-death experience," according to family members,
that would change his life. At the hospital, he was convinced by a registered
nurse named Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles that he had been saved for a higher
purpose. According to the Christian Research Institute, Nettles and Applewhite
immediately felt strongly connected to each other. Both had recently undergone
"severe upheaval and personal confusion," which they later interpreted as their
bodies' responses to being taken over by another being from the "Next Level."
Just nine months after they met, the two set out together, Nettles leaving
behind her husband, four children, and a small astrology practice. Shortly
after that, Applewhite told his family he would never see them again. For the
next six weeks, the two endured painful soul-searching in a Texas country ranch
house. They said later that it was difficult to concentrate on their developing
beliefs that UFOs would come one day to take them to a higher world. But the
retreat gave them a new understanding of their calling, and the two embarked on
a long journey of proselytizing. The pair, who went by many names - "Him and
Her," "Bo and Peep," "Doh and Ti" - gathered "sheep," as they called new
recruits, by traveling to small t owns throughout the West. In the 1970s, the
UFO cult gained much notoriety around the country. The cult's ranks reached
about a thousand members, as hundreds of people were persuaded to leave behind
their belongings and families and prepare for a UFO trip to the land of God.
Members lived by new rules: no drinking, sex or contact with family or friends.
Some even chose to be castrated. (Law enforcement officials in California
reported Friday that about six of the males who committed suicide at Rancho
Santa Fe, including Applewhite, had been surgically castrated some time ago.)
Nettles died of cancer in 1985. By the late '80s, the cult had lost a slew of
members. This was when Applewhite turned to the Internet to gather a new flock.
One of the newest converts was Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, a 39-year-old Cincinnati
woman. She left behind five children in September to join the cult and was one
of the 39 who used pills, alcohol and suffocation to end their lives.

Next: Heaven's Gate (Part 16)