rancho santa fe

Heaven's Gate Mass Suicide Remembered 25 Years Later

Bizarre and horrible, the mass suicide inside a Rancho Santa Fe mansion is remembered

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Content warning: This story and the footage in this story are of a sensitive nature and may not be suitable for all readers.

The fascination with Heaven’s Gate continues, 25 years after 39 people killed themselves in a mass suicide inside a Rancho Santa Fe mansion.

The day was March 26, 1997, the Hale Bopp comet was passing through the night skies. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department received an anonymous tip from a former member of the cult. He had received videotapes in the mail telling him by the time he watched the tapes, the group would have moved on.

Retired Captain Don Crist was the department’s public information officer at the time. He remembers driving to the scene.

“I’m approaching the area, I see a glow in the distant and I thought, that’s odd.” Odd because it would be dark, given there is a lot of distance between homes in the Ranch. “I come over the hill and every news truck in the world is already there,” That included crews from Germany and Japan in town to cover the Oscars in Hollywood.

Thirty-nine people had committed mass suicide inside the mansion. 

Each had taken poison, each was dressed in a jogging suit, wearing black Nike running shoes, and covered with a purple shroud. A website described their belief: they would be transported in the back of a passing comet to a better place.

Marshall Applewhite was the leader and can be seen on video saying, “They’re about to leave and they’re excited about leaving.” A member is seen on video saying, "I can hardly wait and I’m ready to go.”

The fascination with Heaven’s Gate continues, 25 years after 39 people died by suicide inside a Rancho Santa Fe mansion. NBC 7's Rory Devine reports.

“Yes, I knew… many of those people, most of them intimately and loved them dearly, had a lot of respect for them. I was sad for their families," said former member Amanda Johnson, who knew those who died.

She said at the age of 19 she signed on for what she called "The Program," then called "The Classroom," for a journey of transformation. She left 17 years later, seven years before the suicides.

“I left when they started talking about different ways of making the transition and different willingness, different levels of willingness to do whatever it takes to make the transition to the next level," she said.

In all, 21 women and 18 men between the ages of 26 and 72 died.

"No way Gail would have taken her own life if she wasn’t in that state, brainwashed state,” said one family member in 1997.

The deaths left behind grieving and incredulous family members, a stunned community, and captured the attention of the world, heightened when media were given unusual access to the video.

“We felt, well, you could describe this all you want but actually pictures are worth a thousand words, and when people saw what they saw, they believed what we were telling them," Don Crist said.

Generally reluctant to release evidence until after the investigation is done, the sheriff’s department made the controversial decision to release the video of the scene the day after the bodies were found, wanting to calm fears in the neighborhood that this was the work of a mass murderer.

“Releasing the video in that big giant room in Crosby Hall, you could hear a pin drop," said Don Crist. “It was pretty amazing. I was watching it and it was dead silence and there were hundreds of people in there.”

Johnson was hiking with friends the day she heard about the suicides.

“I just started trembling and went back to my car, drove home, and turned on the news, and it was like ‘My God, they did it,'" she said.  

Don Crist heard when he got a call from a reporter. 

“When she told me, I said, 'That just doesn’t seem possible,' I mean, it’s just one of those things you don’t believe when you first hear it, and then within seconds, my pager – that’s how old it is – my pager filled up," he said.

Twenty-five years later, and still, nothing makes any more sense now than it did back then.

The mansion is no longer there. It was demolished and even the street name was changed.

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting "Home" to 741741.

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