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March 29, 1997 – CBS Radio News On the Hour – KCBS-AM San Francisco – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
March 29, 1997 – Three days after the discovery of some 39 bodies, neatly laid out in the bedrooms of a 9,000 square foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, questions over why it happened and who were these people were still took front and center stage in mass media.
The discovery, made on the 26th, prompted by an anonymous 911 call and the horrific odor emanating from the mansion, brought Sheriff’s to pore over the property, looking for clues and finding a stranger-than-fiction story unfolding as they went along.
The bodies were those of the followers of Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, founders of the cult known as Heaven’s Gate and variously identifying themselves as Bo and Peep as well as Do and Ti.
On March 19–20, 1997, Marshall Applewhite taped himself in Do’s Final Exit, speaking of mass suicide and “the only way to evacuate this Earth”. After asserting that a spacecraft was trailing Comet Hale–Bopp and that this event would represent the “closure to Heaven’s Gate”, Applewhite persuaded 38 followers to prepare for ritual suicide so 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. Their preparations included each member’s videotaping a farewell message.
To kill themselves, members took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce or pudding and washed it down with vodka. Additionally, they secured plastic bags around their heads after ingesting the mix to induce asphyxiation. 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 nomenclature of the fictional universe of Star Trek). Each member had on their person a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets: this was in reference to Huck Finn, in which it’s stated that it costs five dollars and seventy-five cents to ride the tail of a comet to heaven. Once a member was dead, a living member would arrange the body by removing the plastic bag from the person’s head, followed by posing the body so that it lay neatly in its own bed, with faces and torsos covered by a square purple cloth for privacy. In an interview with Harry Robinson, the two surviving members said that the identical clothing was used as a uniform for the mass suicide to represent unity, whilst the Nike Decades were chosen because the group “got a good deal on the shoes”. Applewhite was also a fan of Nikes “and therefore everyone was expected to wear and like Nike’s” within the group. Heaven’s Gate also had a saying within the group ‘Just Do it,’ which used Nike’s slogan. They pronounced Do as Doe, to reflect Applewhite’s nickname.
The 39 adherents, 21 women and 18 men 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. The suicides occurred in groups of fifteen, fifteen, and nine, between approximately March 22 and March 26. Among the dead was Thomas Nichols, brother of the actress Nichelle Nichols, who is best known for her role as Uhura in the original television series of Star Trek. Leader Applewhite was the third to last member to die; two people remained after him and were the only ones who would be found with bags over their heads and not having purple cloths covering their top halves.
A lot of other news happened on this day, but it was this story that captured the most attention with a mixture of curiosity and revulsion.
And so it went, this March 29th 1997 as reported by CBS Radio News, broadcast from KCBS-AM in San Francisco.