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.
"Heaven's Gate was one of the most extreme cults that I've ever dealt with in my 25 years of dealing with destructive cults in the sense of their extreme isolation," says Rick Ross, founder of the Ross Institute and a cult expert. "I mean, this was a group where families had no idea, most of the time, where their children were -- where their family members were."
Applewhite called it "walking out the door of your life" -- and once members of Heaven's Gate made that choice, they were subject to their leader's stringent and increasingly strange rules. As the group rambled around the countryside, followers had to adopt a similar, somewhat asexual appearance, and all took new names ending in the letters "ody."
"The group became increasingly demanding -- and it was difficult," says Ross. "So Applewhite and Nettles never really had more than 100 followers at any given time."
Taught by Applewhite that a spaceship would one day take them to "the next level above human," cult members roamed the countryside together, studying cloud formations for signs of a cosmic event. They also spent time watching movies like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," and other films that involved humans ascending to the heavens in spacecraft.
Even the death of Nettles in 1985 could not dissuade hardcore members from their mission, and although some left Heaven's Gate, others remained or returned.
Finally, on a July night in the summer of 1995, an amateur astronomer named Alan Hale saw something startling in his telescope. A comet was approaching the earth. One of the brightest in history, it was soon named the Comet Hale-Bopp after the astronomers who discovered it.
It was the sign that Applewhite said they had been waiting for. In his words, he and his followers had to prepare to "exit their vehicles." Then they would be carried to the next level in a spaceship that was hidden behind the comet. His followers, some of whom had been with him for more than two decades, began to make their preparations.
Special uniforms with a patch that read "Heaven's Gate Away Team" were made, and meticulous plans assembled for the mass suicide. Before they died, members recorded videos in which they stated how happy they were to be moving to "the next level."
Then, in March 1997, with the Hale-Bopp comet at its brightest in the skies above, members assembled in the house in Rancho Santa Fe and began to swallow a special mixture of drugs and alcohol. They were scheduled to die in three groups, and as members passed on a shroud was placed over them. A surviving member was asked to call the police after it was all over.
On March 26, as he surveyed the scene, Vine came across the recipe the cult members had used to kill themselves -- and a statement he kept hidden for years, in part because he was worried it might provoke copycat suicides.
"What I found next to their recipe was this, "To Be Released to the News Media," and I started looking at it. It was crazy talk, about leaving their vehicle and shell and going on to the next higher level source. It was pretty crazy talk and I said, 'No, not gonna do it.' So I held it back and never did release that information."
As he moved among the bodies, Vine's fears of being able to identify the victims were quickly alleviated. Most had driver's licenses and birth certificates on them. They also had labeled the individual pieces of luggage next to their cots and beds, so they didn't get separated from their bags in the next life. Although their spirits were gone, their luggage remained.
"You know anytime you go into a death scene, it's quite unusual to try and figure out how people die, but to walk into a magnitude of a scene like this with 39 people, that's overwhelming," says Vine now. "It was very thought provoking. Do I wanna do it again? No."