Hill Harper tonight investigates the bizarre San Diego-based 1997 mass suicide by UFO religious cult Heaven’s Gate, as part of HLN’s true crime series How It Really Happened with Hill Harper.
The incident took place after cult leader Marshall Applewhite convinced members and adherents that life was over on planet Earth. He and 38 followers — all appearing androgynous and with many of the male members found to be castrated — systematically killed themselves in three waves over three days: March 24, 25 and 26, 1997.
Teaching his followers that God was an alien traveling in a spaceship in the trail of the Hale-Bopp comet, Applewhite and the other Heaven’s Gate members were all wearing black-and-white Nike sneakers when they killed themselves. They did it believing it was an “exit” from Earth to reach the extraterrestrial spacecraft.
The method of “exiting” was a lethal dosage of the barbiturate phenobarbital downed with apple sauce and vodka, aided by plastic bags tied over their heads.
In his wide-eyed fervor, Applewhite, the son of a Presbyterian minister who fought homosexual urges, had convinced his followers he was the second coming of Jesus Christ and that their cosmic existence was meant to be in the “Next Level” inside new bodies.
Cult founders Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles met during a stay in a psychiatric institution. She was also a music teacher like Applewhite and also a nurse, and together they called themselves Bo and Peep, and later on ‘Do’ and ‘Ti.‘ They focused their efforts on creating a religion and establishing a group in Southern California. Nettles died in 1985.
Strangely, in the mid-1970s, some people began disappearing, leaving families worried for their loved ones for decades until March 1997 when the news about the mass suicide hit.
Harper will explore the oddball cult and the origins in an hour-long episode including exclusive interviews with those who were around at the time.
How It Really Happened with Hill Harper airs Sunday at 9pm ET on HLN