It was -- and remains -- the largest mass suicide ever on American soil.
On Wednesday, March 26, 1997, an anonymous caller directed police to a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, outside San Diego. Inside were 39 corpses, all of them members of a strange and secretive cult called Heaven's Gate. They had sealed themselves inside and killed themselves one by one.
The chief investigator for the medical examiner's office, Calvin Vine, was one of the first called to the scene -- and now, having just retired, he reveals new details about his discoveries on that bizarre day.
"I walked in and, of course, the obvious odor of decomposed bodies actually hit you as soon as you entered the residence," he remembers. "But there was no mess. There was nothing out of place. There was no trash in the trash cans. Everything was just immaculate. It was pretty surreal when you walk in and see a body dressed in black covered with a purple shroud over the head."
Vine had first been told to expect 10 bodies -- all men. But when he entered the home in Rancho Santa Fe, he found 39 corpses, both men and women, all dressed identically.
He was soon shocked to discover that many of the men had been castrated, and that the cult members had died in the distinct groups over the course of several days.
"The bodies, the various stages of decomposition, indicate that [the first group] probably died like Saturday night, Sunday -- and then the second group probably on Monday, and the third group on Tuesday, and then found dead on Wednesday," he says. "We see people who die in all different stages of positions. Face first down, on toilets. These bodies, after they had died, someone had actually put their hands in the position across their abdomen and chest, and had placed the shroud over their heads."
Vine and the others called to the scene wondered: What on earth could have provoked so many people to take their own lives?
What they would discover was that these shocking suicides were 25 years in the making.
It began in the early 1970s, when two misfits named Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles set out across the American West to find followers for their "religion."
According to their teachings, Jesus had arrived 2,000 years earlier in a spaceship to prepare people for "the next level above human," but he had been crucified before he could complete his mission.
Now, the savior had returned in the person of Applewhite -- and he and Nettles told their followers that their human bodies were nothing more than "vehicles" to carry their souls until they were all ready to ascend to the next level.
Gary St. Louis was one of the members that Applewhite and Nettles "harvested" in a meeting in California in 1975. His brother Guy remembers that, "Gary was always into different avenues than I was. I mean, you know, California in those days, you know, it was sex, drugs, rock and roll, and he was into a better plane of existence. He was a more enlightened human being than I am. So when he said to me, you know, 'I've found the path, I've found the truth, I've found the light,' I thought, 'Hey, good for you.'"
But over the course of several years, events took an ominous turn. Obsessed with dominating his followers, Applewhite demanded that they sever all contact with wives, parents, children and any other earthly connection.