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Some male cult members, including leader, were castrated

March 28, 1997 GMT

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ The Heaven’s Gate suicide cult not only shunned sex, but some males in the group, including the aging leader, had been castrated in apparent pursuit of their ideal of androgynous immortality, the medical examiner revealed Friday.

Dr. Brian Blackbourne said castrations’ healed incisions indicated the surgeries were done long before the 39 men and women methodically killed themselves in the belief that they would take a spaceship ride in a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

Also, toxicology results showed at least two of the victims took a less than lethal concoction of barbiturates and booze, meaning that they may have been suffocated with plastic bags placed over their heads, he said.

The test results were available on only five of the cult members by Friday afternoon, and of those only three had lethal levels of phenobarbital and alcohol in their systems, Blackbourne said.

Officials also released the names of the 30 dead whose relatives have been notified. Causes of death have not been officially determined for any of them, Blackbourne said.

The cult members _ 21 women and 18 men _ apparently sedated themselves in groups, put bags over their heads and died peacefully. Their bodies were arranged in ritual fashion, arms at their sides, face and chest draped in diamond-shaped purple shrouds.

Cult members had told acquaintances that leader Marshall H. Applewhite, 66, preached celibacy, apparently as a means of denying the body as a disposable ``container.″

Both male and female members affected a unisex look: buzz-cut hair and shapeless black shirts with Mandarin collars. People who had contact with the members said they referred to themselves as monks.

``Some of the men have been castrated. Not all but some,″ Blackbourne said.

Blackbourne also refined earlier descriptions of the meticulously planned suicide. Reading from what he described as a ``little blue binder″ found at the scene, he described how the cult members apparently killed themselves in stages.

``Fifteen classmates, eight assistants, then 15 more and eight assistants, then help each other,″ he read.

In the house, investigators discovered pictures of an idealized, dome-headed alien that the group’s writings suggest they believed represents a higher plane of existence they could attain through suicide.

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``It’s the head of an alien, like you see in ``The X-Files,″ the medical examiner said.

Families of all but nine of the dead have been notified, with the help of more than 1,000 calls to a police line set up for people who think friends or family might be among the dead, Blackbourne said.

For Nancie Brown, the grieving began when her teen-age son went to check out a cult meeting at a park in the San Francisco Bay area. That was 21 years ago.

``It’s been, I’d say, 21 years of losing,″ she told The Washington Post. In the years since, she heard from him just twice. Then came a call that the body of 41-year-old David Geoffery Moore was among 39 discovered in a mass suicide by a cult seeking a spaceship to heaven.

Nichelle Nichols, an actress who played Lt. Uhura on the original ``Star Trek,″ disclosed that she lost her brother, Thomas Nichols, in the mass suicide.

The two were ``not in close touch,″ said her manager, Jim Meecham. ``She did see him just a few years ago.″ He said the actress, who has recently promoted a line of telephone psychics, was shocked and under sedation.

Relatives of the oldest among the dead, 72-year-old Jackie Leonard, planned to come identify the body, according to son-in-law Angelo Bellizzi of Seattle.

Leonard left her Iowa home in the early 1970s, Bellizzi said.

``Grandmothers don’t run away. The kids are supposed to run away,″ he said.

``We are going through a tough time,″ said a statement from relatives of Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, a 39-year-old Cincinnati woman who left behind five children in September to join the Heaven’s Gate cult. The family’s pastor said she learned of the cult from the Internet.

The dead, from at least eight states and Canada, were found neatly clothed in their bunks, driver’s licenses and other ID tucked in their shirt pockets.

In farewell statements on the Internet and on videotape, the cultists said the Hale-Bopp comet, which passed closest to Earth last weekend, was a sign for them to leave their earthly ``vehicles″ or ``containers,″ their term for their bodies. They planned to rendezvous with a spaceship they believed was trailing the comet.

``This is not like Waco or Jonestown. Each one did this of their own volition even though they were in a cult,″ said Dick Joslyn of Tampa, Fla., who was a member of Heaven’s Gate for 15 years. ``Every step of the way (the leaders) gave us the option to go forward with the next step or to leave.″

The dead included Applewhite, the white-haired cult leader who began calling followers in 1975 to leave their families and belongings and prepare to move to a ``Next Level″ of existence in heaven with the ``UFO Cult.″

Applewhite likened himself to Jesus Christ but made no outright claim to be a messiah. He said Jesus also had to leave his body and identity to move on to the ``Kingdom of Heaven.″

Applewhite’s 69-year-old sister, Louise Winant, said on ABC’s ``Good Morning America″ that her brother, a former college teacher, studied at a theological seminary in Richmond, Va., and went on to teach and sing in the Houston Grand Opera.

``He was a very loving, caring person very intelligent and a wonderful singing voice,″ Ms. Winant said. ``Oh, he sang beautifully. He could play almost anything. He was extremely talented.″

The Houston Chronicle reported Friday that Applewhite was fired as a music teacher at the University of St. Thomas, a private Roman Catholic college, for ``health problems of an emotional nature.″

Ms. Winant said her brother was hospitalized in Houston in the early 1970s with heart trouble and had a ``near-death″ experience.

About that time, he met Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, a nurse interested in the occult, Ms. Winant said. Nettles, called ``Ti″ in their students’ writings, is believed to have died a natural death several years ago. The students called Applewhite ``Do.″

Applewhite, who had two children from a previous marriage, never saw his relatives after that time, his sister said.

Little noticed in recent years, the group earned money as a company called Higher Source, which built Internet Web sites for businesses while members studied for ascent to a higher world.

The students also posted their thoughts at the group’s own Internet site, Heaven’s Gate.

In an essay written about a year before the suicide, a student identified as Anlody hinted that the group had already left family behind:

``Survival requires that you allow nothing of this human existence to tie you here. No wealth, no position, no prestige, no family, no physical pleasure, and no religion spouting to hang on to any of the above will enable you to survive. They are only entrapments.″