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Heaven's Gate: An anonymous call to 911 led to the discovery of one of the world's deadliest cults.

Content note: This post contains details about suicide, and may be triggering for some readers.

It was March, 1997 – a Wednesday – when 911 received a bizarre tip from an anonymous caller.

The phone call was made from a payphone, and claimed that dozens of people had died by suicide at a villa in Rancho Santa Fe, San Diego.

The police didn’t take the tip seriously. It took them two hours to arrive at the scene, and what they found would be burned into the eyes of a generation.

Sheriff Deputy Robert Brunk could not believe what he saw. “It doesn’t appear that we have any survivors,” he said over the radio. “Does anyone have the number for homicide?”

Investigators found 39 corpses, a number of which had started to decompose in the heat of Spring. There were 21 women and 18 men, aged from 21 to 72.

At that moment, it was the largest mass suicide to have ever occurred on U.S. soil.

The team who created the Missing Richard Simmons podcast, one of the most successful podcasts of 2017, have embarked on a new project; an exploration of one of the 20th Century’s most infamous cults.

Chris Bannon, the chief content officer of Midroll Media says, “At the center of all this, there’s a great question: what leads people to follow a leader to the point of self-destruction? That seems especially relevant right now.”

Heaven’s Gate was an American ‘UFO cult’ founded in 1974 and based in California.

The image that fronted newspapers worldwide. Image supplied.

The group was developed and led by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles, who met during Applewhite's stay in a psychiatric institution, where he was cared for by Nettles who was a nurse.

They both committed to contacting extraterrestrials, and travelled across the United States searching for followers. Applewhite told his acolytes he was the second coming of Jesus Christ, and they preached that God was an alien.

Both claimed they were from another planet named 'the Next Level', and purported that those who followed them would gain access to a higher evolutionary level.

As Heaven's Gate gained momentum, they became invested in the delusion that Earth was on the verge of being "recycled," and their only chance of survival was to evacuate immediately.

Believers referred to their bodies as 'vehicles', as they were simply vessels to gain them access into the next world.

POST CONTINUES BELOW: The best recommendations from Mamamia Out Loud, including my favourite true crime podcast, Casefile.

In order to be "eligible for membership in the Next Level", adherents understood they would have to "shed every attachment to the planet". Members of Heaven's Gate rejected all basic human characteristics, including their sexuality, individuality,  homes, possessions, jobs, friends, family and money. Eight of the male members, Applewhite included, elected to be castrated as means of enforcing an ascetic lifestyle.


Members would carry only a five dollar note and a handful of quarters at all times, the note to cover any vagrancy fines, and the quarters to make urgent calls from pay phones.

Then, on a Spring day in March 1997, the group decided to rent a mansion inside a gated community in San Diego. Wearing black tracksuit pants, black and white Nikes, Star Trek-inspired arm patches that read 'Heaven's Gate Away Team', and with precisely $5.75 in their pockets, 39 members ate apple sauce laced with barbiturates, and washed it down with gulps of vodka.

They placed bags over their heads, and covered their bodies in purple cloth, believing they weren't killing themselves, but rather freeing their bodies from Earth, and finding a new home in space.

A few days later a former cult member discovered two videotapes in his mailbox. He drove to San Diego, to find the dead sprawled throughout the mansion. He then called the police from a payphone.

Bannon said of the story, “With Heaven’s Gate, we have a chance to talk about the ’70s and the widespread search for meaning that moved away from traditional religions.

“It’s the period in which we became obsessed with UFOs. So there’s this great moment of wonder and possibility — but then, 20 years later, reality has set in, the Millennium is approaching, and none of those wonderful things have panned out. So, to me, it’s also a story about America’s lost optimism.”

The podcast is expected to be released in the coming months.

If you or a loved one is struggling, Mamamia urges you to contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

You can listen to the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here.