26 March

Heaven’s Gate was an American UFO religious Millenarian group based in San Diego, California, founded in the early 1970s and led by Marshall Applewhite (1931–1997) and Bonnie Nettles (1927–1985). On this day in 1997, police discovered the bodies of 39 members of the group who had committed mass suicide in order to reach what they believed was an alien space craft following Comet Hale–Bopp.

On 19-20 March 1997, Marshall Applewhite taped himself speaking of mass suicide and asserted “it was the only way to evacuate this Earth”. After claiming that a spacecraft was trailing Comet Hale–Bopp, Applewhite persuaded 38 followers to commit suicide so that their souls could board the supposed craft. Applewhite believed that after their deaths, an unidentified flying object (UFO) would take their souls to another “level of existence above human”, which he described as being both physical and spiritual. This and other UFO-related beliefs held by the group have led some observers to characterize the group as a type of UFO religion. In October 1996, the group purchased alien abduction insurance to cover up to 50 members at a cost of $10,000.

The group rented a 9,200-square-foot (850 m2) mansion, located near 18341 Colina Norte (later changed to Paseo Victoria) in a gated community of upscale homes in the San Diego–area community of Rancho Santa Fe, from Sam Koutchesfahani, paying $7,000 per month in cash. Thirty-eight Heaven’s Gate members, plus group leader Applewhite, were found dead in the home on 26 March 1997. In the heat of the California spring, many of the bodies had begun to decompose by the time they were discovered. The bodies were later cremated.

The members took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and washed down with vodka. Additionally, they secured plastic bags around their heads after ingesting the mix to induce asphyxiation. Authorities found the dead lying neatly in their own bunk beds, faces and torsos covered by a square, purple cloth. Each member carried a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets: the five dollar bill was to cover vagrancy fines while members were out on jobs, while the quarters were to make phone calls. Members kept these in their pockets at the time of death as a sort of dark humour. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike Decades athletic shoes, and armband patches reading “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” (one of many instances of the group’s use of the Star Trek fictional universe’s nomenclature). The adherents, between the ages of 26 and 72, are believed to have died in three groups over three successive days, with remaining participants cleaning up after each prior group’s deaths. Fifteen members died on 24 March, fifteen more on 25 March, and nine on 26 March. Leader Applewhite was the third to last member to die; two women remained after him and were the only ones found without bags over their heads. Among the dead was Thomas Nichols, brother of the actress Nichelle Nichols, who is best known for her role as Uhura in the original Star Trek television series.

Only one of the group’s members, Rio DiAngelo/Richard Ford, did not kill himself. He videotaped the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe; however, the tape was not shown to police until 2002, five years after the event. The mass death of the Heaven’s Gate group was widely publicized in the media as an example of mass suicide. Two former members of Heaven’s Gate, Wayne Cooke and Charlie Humphreys, later committed suicide in a similar manner. Humphreys survived a suicide pact with Cooke in May 1997, but ultimately killed himself in February 1998.