What is Heaven's Gate?

TWENTY-FIVE years ago, police responded to a 911 dispatch in what became the largest mass suicide to occur in the US.

A new documentary special, The Cult Next Door: The Mystery and Madness of Heaven’s Gate, airs on March 10, 2022, and will explore never-before-seen footage found in the investigation.

What is Heaven's Gate?

Marshall Applewhite was an average person before he co-founded Heaven's Gate, according to his sister.

He was an excellent singer and performed in musicals and was the choir director at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas.

Applewhite was born in 1931 to a presbyterian minister who moved the family around every three years to open a new church. Applewhite wanted to follow in the steps of his father, but he pursued singing.

But everything changed when he ended up in the hospital in 1972 for heart issues.


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His sister, Louise Winant, told CNN in 1997 that her brother had a near-death experience while he was in the hospital, "and one of the nurses convinced him it that it was for a very special reason and that he could be used mightily in a group that she knew about."

Winant said the nurse, Bonnie Lu Nettles, "began seeing him and talking him more into joining this group. And then they become sort of co-leaders for a while, but he always considered her the senior leader."

The group was the Heaven's Gate cult, a religious group that believed they were destined to go to Heaven on a UFO.

Heaven's Gate recruited followers, first by word of mouth, then by taking out an advertisement in newspapers.

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In the advertisements, they called anyone seeking to reach the "next level," to shed their earthly and human instincts and move on to enlightenment.

The cult eventually made the news, and Applewhite and Nettles, who had legally changed their names to Do and Ti, whittled down their group to only the most devoted.

For those who followed Heaven's Gate, they had to follow a series of rules including abstaining from drinking, smoking, sex, and in some cases, castration.

Applewhite and Nettles decided to leave their families and cut all ties with them.

"He came to see us in Dallas, where we were living at the time, to tell us that he was going off with this group and we would not hear from him again," Winant told CNN.

"And we, of course, tried to talk him out of it. I told him that this wasn't him, but he said, 'You don't know the real me.'"

What happened to the Heaven's Gate cult?

Police responded to a 911 call to the San Diego Dispatch Center on March 26, 1997.

“This is regarding a mass suicide. I can give you the address," the caller said.

The house was located in an exclusive neighborhood in Rancho Santa Fe, California but when police entered the home, they found 21 men and 18 women dead.

Each person was found wearing Nike sneakers and covered in a purple blanket in what was defined as the largest mass suicide the US had ever seen.

The toxicology results showed that each member of Heaven's Gate had drunk a lethal cocktail of phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and vodka.

Phenobarbital is a drug used by doctors to slow down the activity in your brain and nervous system and is generally used to treat people who suffer from seizures, or as a sedative to help you relax.

Investigators found Applewhite among the deceased and later found a video he recorded prior to their deaths. The video showed some of his followers including one who smiled in front of the camera and said, "39. Beam me up."

In the video Applewhite shares an ominous message. "They’re about to leave and they’re excited to leave," he says.

What did Marshall Applewhite tell his Heaven's Gate followers?

Marshall Applewhite was left on his own to lead Heaven's Gate after Nettles died in 1985 from cancer.

For several years he mourned her and pulled back from Heaven's Gate, but in the late 1980s, he started amassing followers once more.

His final advertisement was put in USA Today in 1993 – 'UFO Cult' Resurfaces with Final Offer, the headline read.

The Hale-Bopp comet was discovered two years later and Applewhite came to believe that it was a signal from the aliens that they were coming for them, in other words, it signaled the "next coming."

By the end of 1996, Heaven's Gate was continuing its outreach. The cult had secured the house in Rancho Santa Fe and had an online business where they posted videos telling people it was their "last chance to evacuate Earth before it's recycled."

Heaven's Gate believed that by rejecting their human form they would become extraterrestrial beings and would ascend to Heaven on a UFO.

Retired San Diego County homicide detective Chuck Curtis told San Diego 7 News in 2017 that when he arrived on the scene and the body count piled up, it was unlike anything he had ever seen.

"As they went in they kept finding more bodies and more bodies,” Curtis said. “It was an astonishing thing to them that they thought, ‘Is this ever going to end?’”

What is the Heaven's Gate 20/20 special?

The new 20/20 special, The Cult Next Door: The Mystery and Madness of Heaven’s Gate, will include never-before-seen home movies and audiotapes, and interviews with two Heaven's Gate survivors.

The special will air on ABC at 9pm ET on March 11, 2022, and will be available to stream the following day on Hulu.

If you or someone you know is affected by any of the issues raised in this story, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or text Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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