Sunday, March 18, 2007

US: Heaven's Gate revisited

Ten years ago, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide inside a Rancho Santa Fe mansion. First responders are still haunted by the gruesome discovery.

By J. Harry Jones
March 18, 2007


"We didn't know what to expect going in there," said sheriff's Deputy Robert Brunk, who returned to the site of the now-razed Rancho Santa Fe house last week. He was the first to arrive in 1997.

Ten years ago next week, one of the strangest events in county history exploded into the public's consciousness. For several days, it was the biggest news story in the world.

It began unfolding the afternoon of Wednesday, March 26, 1997, during a period when the Hale-Bopp comet could be seen in the night sky.

Inside a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult lay dead. Convinced that a spaceship was traveling behind the comet and that they would be transported to the vessel to begin a new life “beyond human,” they had poisoned themselves. Twenty-one women and 18 men died by eating pudding and applesauce laced with phenobarbital and other drugs – the largest mass suicide on U.S. soil.

All went willingly under the guidance of their leader, Marshall Applewhite, also known as “Do.”

Their bodies were discovered by a former cult member who had received videotapes in the mail telling him that by the time he watched them, the group would have moved on.

“I don't think anybody really believed what the person was saying,” said Robert Brunk, a sheriff's deputy who had just started his shift at the Encinitas station. “It was an anonymous call to the communications center stating that 40 people had committed suicide and they were cult members. It came out as a 'welfare check,' and they had held the call for a while because it was busy.”

Brunk went to the address, 18241 Colina Norte, which turned out to be a 9,000-square-foot, two-story home up a 200-foot driveway.

“As I'm driving, I'm thinking to myself, 'How am I going to explain to the people that live there the purpose for my visit?' ”

But when he arrived, things seemed odd. All the windows were closed and the curtains drawn. Two vans parked in the driveway were rented, a dispatcher confirmed.

Brunk found an unlocked door on the side of the house. When he opened it, the stench nearly knocked him over.

He shouted that he was with the Sheriff's Department, then backed out and waited for Deputy Laura Gacek, who arrived in a separate patrol car.

“We didn't know what to expect going in there,” Brunk said. “You start thinking of cults and all sorts of things start playing in your mind – animal and human sacrifice, that kind of thing. LINK