When the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department responded to the call to Heaven’s Gate mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, they hardly expected to find 39 dead bodies neatly laid under purple veils and wearing Nike Decades.
It was astonishing to the public as well. No one had ever heard anything like it. The March 26, 1997 event became national media focus, in part thanks to the bizarre reasons left by the cult. Their reasoning? They were abandoning their human bodies to enter heaven as aliens aboard the Hale-Bopp Comet.
While the event and cult leader continues to make news outlets and internet forums every year for the outlandish legacy, not a whole lot is known about the victims.
This is the worst (crime scene) in terms of the numbers of people in one place at one time that I’ve ever seen.
There were 39 victims involved in Heaven's Gate. This number includes the cult leader, who also took his own life at the time of the event. While the subject of whether or not a religious suicide sect can be duped is another topic, we're using the term here to refer to anyone that passed in the event.
The victims of Heaven's Gate includes:
Applewhite, son of a Presbyterian preacher, was a unique cult leader in that he did not share the stereotypical traits of other similar leaders, like Jim Jones. Instead, he was the son of a Presbyterian preacher, was twice a music professor, and faced great adversity by the schools and the public for his open homosexuality.
He faced a divorce during the 60s due to the discovery of an affair with a male student that also caused him to lose his job as a professor. He continued as a music professor for a different college before resigning from the profession entirely due to rejection by a young woman he had been courting.
This led him to move to Houston and become a part of the music scene there. Like Jim Jones, Applewhite had a significant presence in the 1970s Houston arts scene and less ostensibly, its gay community. In 1976, Applewhite met a nurse named Bonnie Nettles, whom he claimed was "his soul mate". It was while walking on the beach in Galveston, TX that the two had the epiphany to form Heaven’s Gate.
The duo maintained a nonsexual relationship touring the US recruiting members. It was during this time that the group made headlines, once for Applewhite failing to return a rental car while traveling across country promoting his religion. He claimed “a force from beyond the earth has made me keep this car.” The second was a national headline for the original members completely disappearing from the public view as part of their initiation into the group.
Rowland was one of the members that had left suddenly, without any warning. Her husband, a heavy machine operator Bob Rowland returned to his Ventura, CA home in April 1975 to find a note stating she was leaving after 9 years. She abandoned her husband and two children, writing nothing on the note other than “I went to walk with the Lord.”
Judith was recruited into the cult by her mother Lorraine. They were said to be one of the first cult members to join Applewhite. Despite joining the cult with her mother, there was no communication between the two. No human connection or expression was allowed within the cult.
They had a meeting behind my back and [Applewhite] got hold of [their] minds.
Bob Rowland, Judith’s husband
Cheryl’s mom described her as a lifelong loner that always struggled to make friends. Her mother remarked that she wrote to her mother asking her to be happy that she was happy. She even ended one letter with, “Look higher”.
Cheryl had been one of the original and longest standing recruitments in the cult, joining in 1976 and spending 25 years of her 42 year old life within the cult.
At 19 years old Moore joined the cult after they had a meeting near his home. He disappeared for 21 years, despite his mom vigorously trying to find him.
She did find him twice, eventually accepting his decision and expressing pride in becoming a certified computer network engineer. His death catapulted her grief. She told The Washington Post “it’s been, I’d say, 21 years of losing. It doesn’t end.”
Another original member, Johnson also joined the cult in the 70s. He had always believed in UFO, space aliens but somehow found his way out of the cult and into a Utah based rock band called Dharma Combat.
In 1994 Johnson found an ad for a Heaven’s Gate seminar and disappeared two days later. Dharma Combat’s then producer Joe Clarke explained Johnson had always felt bad about being removed from the group because he couldn’t measure up to their standards.
Robert’s sister Joanne Bosma remarked on Robert’s instant attraction to the group after meeting the cult leaders in 1975. She once said, “he felt he had a purpose, he was part of a community.”
Robert had moved from Miami, FL to Berkeley, CA, where he encountered the cult. He only visited home twice after that, once in 1984 and another time in 1987. Both visits appeared to be on a whim–only giving his family a day’s notice before arriving. He mentioned considering leaving the cult, although he never actually did.
Like other victim families, his sister Joanne expressed the grief was not only centered around the loss of her brother, but the hope he would return.
Along with other members, Gary always wondered about the deep questions on life, even driving his mother to the point of insanity. Gary’s questioning worsened after their parents divorced and the two moved in with their mother.
Gary was a voracious reader, a straight A high school student, but dropped out of college because he didn’t like the impersonality of institutionalized higher education. After dropping out, he married then divorced once he found Heaven’s Gate.
For 14 years he didn’t see his family at all, only resurfacing to say goodbye to his mother before she passed. Afterwards he did live outside the cult briefly, working as a computer programmer in Denver and living with his half sister Dana before starting a complicated relationship with two different women.
Only a few years later he returned to Heaven’s Gate, explaining “I want to join my heavenly father and my classmates.” He even persuaded his half sister Dana to join the cult, although Dana did not join the group in 1997.
Most people don’t try to make things more complicated than they are. These people were so smart they thought the world must be more complicated.
Shelly King, a girlfriend of Gary's
LaDonna Ann Brugato had disappeared for three years after finding the cult, with her father trying to find her to no avail. With no contact with friends or family, her father had even hired a private investigator to find her. Days after finding her body, her father had remarked they had tracked a private address thought to belong to her 10 miles away from the site, just days before the event occurred.
It turns out she had been living in Englewood, Colorado with her younger daughter Jacqueline. Her landlord had noticed New Age paraphernalia while working in her apartment a few times, but thought nothing of it.
If you met her on the street, she would have been the girl next door who was simply trying to get by as a single mom. You never would have imagined that it could have gone this far.
Al Wallace, LaDonna Brugato's Landlord
Even in his youth, Joel was always known for his bravery and openness to try new things. After his HS graduation in Madison, Wisconsin, he moved to Seattle to find his life direction and grapple with trauma from his parent’s divorce at 2 years old. Always a Star Trek fan, it surprised no one that he was open to joining the cult after facing issues finding work as a masseur in 1994.
In an effort to reassure his completely overwhelmed mother, Megan McCormick, he wrote "trust me. I'm doing fine and continue to grow toward the future."
Originally from Sag Harbor, NY, Maeder’s story supports the fact that the members of the UFO cult were victimized. After several unsettling letters and calls, the last time the family saw their daughter was on their final farewell video. The family pointed out how weary and older she looked and were not at all soothed by her famous “what we’re about to do is nothing to think negatively about” statement.
The most ironic victim to the event might be Thomas Nichols, whose older sister Nichelle played the communications officer Lt. Uhura in Star Trek. Nichelle once said she hadn’t heard from her brother in over 20 years, all up until their mother’s death. In 2022, Thomas' sister Nichelle Nichols passed away due to heart failure.
Craig shocked his wife completely when he left unannounced, taking with him only pocket cash, a change of clothes, and his car. His wife and mother of their 6 children, Mary Ann, didn’t see it coming, “I’m the one who likes to read Stephen King.”
Since he had left primarily to transport their friend, Dale Mackey, an obsessed member of the cult, to meet the leaders at Stapleton Airport, Mary believed he would come to his senses and return home.
That never happened. In fact, Craig became the cult’s second-in-command and divorced his wife without ever speaking to her again in 1977. While Craig did stay in contact with his children, one of his children remarked “some of my brothers and sisters didn’t even remember him” when he met with them at a Durango, Colorado resort.
He was cremated, perhaps fortunately 10-12 years after his parents had been buried.
Valedictorian of her high school class in 1969 and an award-winning orator and drum majorette of her school’s marching band, Margaret Ella Richter was remembered as “successful at everything she tried” by one of her teachers. Classmates close to her even speculated that she would become governor or President.
Perhaps that is why her failed marriage to one of her high school sweethearts caused her to sink into depression. Though she continued her education, even earning a master’s degree in computer science at UCLA, she still continued to lose motivation for life and joined the cult in 1975. She wrote to her family, “here’s hoping I get a UFO trip for Christmas.” Her mother was never impressed by her 21 year absence that culminated in the collective suicide.
If you’re going to change the world, you stay here to change it.
Virginia, Mother of Margaret Richter
Popular among friends, Susan was spirited and very outgoing in motorcycle-club outings with her brother Bill Jenkins. “Everyone loved her,” Bill recalled.
Susan’s life took a turn for the worse when took a job with an L.A. computer company as an editor. There she met Heaven’s Gate members that ultimately recruited her to the cult. Her mother, Jane Bradford, who had seen her twice in 22 years, commented part of the reason could have been because “Susan couldn’t have kids, and she was deeply disturbed by that.”
To them, it sounded kind of Christian. But it’s not a Christian act to renounce your family.
Jane Bradford, Mother of Heaven Gate victim Susan Paup
At 25 years old, Michael Sandoe was Heaven's Gate youngest suicide. Unfortunately, the discovery and identification of Michael's body was shocking for more reasons than just that. Mike Sandoe had never indicated he was involved with the cult. He no issues making friends and even served successfully in the military as an infantry paratrooper in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm. He never spoke about his involvement or was seen with any of the members. His HS teacher offered the only explanation, that something in the military must have changed him.
The other families seemed to know their son or daughter was involved [in the cult]. We didn't.
James, half brother to Michael Sandoe
Most knew of Norma’s mobility issues due to polio. Confined to moving around with a motorized wheelchair around her Dallas apartment complex, she had always kept a low profile. What little was known was that she was estranged from most of her children and ex husband after a nasty divorce.
However difficult, no one knew that her mysterious apartment visitors were really Heaven’s Gate members until after her 59 year old body had been identified with the group.
Like her other “cult classmates”, Cooke discovered the cult when she attended a local Applewhite meeting with her husband Nick in the early 90s. They had already been living somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle together in Sausalito, California, which is the only logical reason beyond the cassette tapes given to their 10 year old daughter explaining “[they left] to go to the Next Level [and] be with God.”
Many in the Des Moines community were familiar with Jacqueline and her husband Charles’ religious devotion. Perhaps it was that deep sense of devotion that led her to join the cult in the 1970s.
Leonard was one of the few members that kept in touch with her family. Her daughter Chris once said, "I've been luckier than some. I've had a lot of time to sort some of these things out." Chris was patient with her mother’s faith in the cult's philosophy, which did not see suicide as death.
Mom always said she would leave in a beam of light.
Chris, Jacqueline Leonard’s daughter
Another student that completely joined the cult after graduating from college was Susan Strom in 1975. Strom’s mother and father, Lyle Strom, a senior U.S. district judge, received more letters and phone calls from his daughter than the other members. Her father was never convinced, however, once stating “I always considered it a cult.” Always encouraging her to come home, his father finally accepted the fact.
She always seemed happy. She had plenty of opportunities to leave.
Lyle Strom, Susan’s father
Yvonne joined the cult with her husband, Steven, leaving Steven’s family in a state of overwhelm and despair. They left their Cincinnati home, newborn twins, and three other children “to be with God.” Yvonne’s husband Steven tried explaining by playing a song about friends and family being united after death, which only rattled his mother more.
I'd never felt that kind of fear, it just drained me.
Eartha Hill, Steven Hill’s Mother
Yvonne’s story was unique and rather tragic. It appeared her husband had been loyal to his wife’s faith to the group, attempting to learn everything he could about it via the internet to support and join her.
But her husband Steven picked up something amiss. Applewhite systematically kept the two separated after they joined. According to his mom, Steven saw bickering inside the cult and began to question. Making the decision to leave was difficult for his wife Yvonne, however, who had been convinced by Applewhite to stay.
Although Steven had successfully left the cult, he made no effort to reunite with his children, instead becoming completely obsessed with getting Yvonne to leave.
He thought she would come out. It's so sad. [When he heard she was dead] he just broke down.
Eartha Hill, Steven Hill’s Mother
Thurman came all the way from Locust Valley, NY to the Rancho Santa Fe mansion in 1973. Her college classmates remarked she always had a modest bohemian life, dropping out of college her junior year to join a commune on the West Coast with her then boyfriend.
Her college roommate, Sandy Nash, now a theater producer living in Garden City, NY, once said of Denise:
She was deeper than most people at 17 or 18 can be. [...] The last birthday card she gave me said something like, 'Dear Sandy: There is no purpose to friendship other than the deepening of one's soul.'
Despite joining the cult in 1978, he left the cult in the early '80s, went back to school, married, and held a job as a car salesman. Pease dreamed of starting his own business after his parents, who owned a restaurant and hotel in the Hamilton Beach, NH area. But he appeared to abandon his dreams by 1994, when he faced a divorce and his parents died. His sister Sylvia Pease, whom he had been estranged from for years, had no idea he had rejoined the group until he was found at the mansion.
Lewis, a Lubbock, Texas native, also joined the cult after serving in the military. After the navy, he spent a little over a decade within the cult before returning to San Antonio to work as a masseur. Friends cautioned him about returning, but he didn’t listen, insisting that he had less meaning when he wasn’t with the group.
I told him he should think about anything that requires you to give up your friends and family, but he said he wanted to go back.
David Tayloe, Jeffrey Lewis’ friend
Much like the Hill’s, Erika Ernst joined the cult with her then boyfriend, Frank Ly-ford after meeting Applewhite and Nettles during a 1975 camping trip. Like many of their “classmates”, the two sold their belongings and disappeared.
Erika’s boyfriend eventually left the cult in 1993, presumably for the same reasons as Steven Hill, stating "I made my choice. She made the choice to stay."
They wanted to see the world. I wish they had done that on their own. She would still be here.
Heidi Sherrington, Erika Ernst’s sister
Lucy was always known as the tomboy kid in her Pueblo, CO neighborhood. Her older sister Jean even said she "told all the kids at school her name was Tommy." She was known for being shy, however, and according to her brother Joseph, didn't have too many friends.
She found friends in Heaven's Gate, insisting "I'm alive—and I'm happy" on the last call she made to her sister, Jean, in 1989.