MARCH 27, 1997
Recent news reports have been filled with the troubling story of a mass suicide involving a computer-related cult. At a mansion outside San Diego, police found 39 bodies dressed in black and covered in purple shrouds. The members apparently killed themselves to prepare for the arrival of a alien space ship they say is hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. After a background report by Charles Krause, Jim Lehrer leads a discussion of the suicides with a panel of cult experts.
CHARLES KRAUSE: A phone call to the San Diego Police Department last night led officers to the scene of what appears to be one of the biggest mass suicides in the nation's history. It had taken place in a million dollar mansion, where bodies of 39 men and women were found scattered in various rooms throughout the home. San Diego County Sheriff's deputies later described the scene to waiting reporters.
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March 27, 1997
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ALAN FULMER, Commander, San Diego County Sheriff's Department: What they discovered was 39 deceased persons that were in the residence throughout the house, in different rooms. They're all in a prone position, on their backs, with their arms at their sides, all deceased, all appearing as if they had fallen asleep. They're all either on a mattress, a bed, or some sort of a cot.
CHARLES KRAUSE: The men and women were apparently members of a religious group called Heaven's Gate. It appears they lived and worked in the rented mansion where the bodies were found, 20 miles north of San Diego in an affluent enclave called Rancho Santa Fe. According to police there was reason to believe the mass suicide had religious overtones.
SPOKESMAN: They were all covered with a purple-colored shroud, covering their face in a triangular shape down the front, across their chest.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Trucks from the Los Angeles coroner's office arrived early this morning to begin removing the bodies. Police officials said they'd be taken to the San Diego coroner's office for examination.
The cult reportedly ran a business out of their Rancho Santa Fe headquarters creating Internet Web sites for a variety of Southern California companies. The group had its own Web site which related strictly to its business activity. But another site called Heaven's Gate was also linked to the cult, and it's here that clues to the group's thinking may have been found. The second site indicates the cult believed it was time to shed their "containers" in order to rendezvous with a UFO they apparently believed was hidden behind the Hale-Bopp Comet. Currently passing near Earth, the comet is now visible after sunset. The first indication of what might happen came from a former cult member who received videotapes from the group earlier this week telling him of the plan for a mass suicide. Nick Matzorkis, a Beverly Hills businessman who employs the former cult member, also saw the tapes.
NICK MATZORKIS: They pretty much believe that their souls are eternal and that they are just temporarily here on this Earth in this body, and that it was time to shed their containers and by the time this video was seen that they would no longer be on this planet.
CHARLES KRAUSE: After watching the tapes Matzorkis says he took his employee to Rancho Santa Fe, where the former cult member discovered the gruesome scene. He then called police. In Washington, Attorney General Janet Reno commented on the tragedy at her weekly briefing.
JANET RENO, Attorney General: The FBI is working with local state and local law enforcement in monitoring the situation.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Late this afternoon the San Diego Sheriff's Office held a press conference updating the situation.
BILL KOLENDER, Dan Diego County Sheriff: As we continue to search the records and property obtained in the house, we hope to find out what prompted these people to take such action. We may never really know the question that is on everyone's mind, and that is: Why did they do this? I have the same kind of penetrating questions that you have. Who or what would make 39 people take their life in this manner? While at the scene last night I told myself that the question cannot be answered in terms I think that the rest of us will ever understand.
ALAN FULMER, Commander, San Diego County Sheriff's Department: There is confirmed 39 deceased. Of that 39, 21 were females, 18 were males. All of the individuals were similarly clothed. In fact, it appeared as if it were almost a uniform attire. They had a black long-sleeved shirt on that was outside of the pant, long black pants to match the shirt, black tennis shoes, and they were draped with a purple cloth, about 3 foot by 3 foot in diameter, covering the head and the upper portion of their body. All were either situated on a mattress or a cot, or a bed of some sort throughout various locations in the House. The females and males all had very close cropped hair, very difficult to tell a male from a female in those conditions and the lighting that was in the room, and the conditions of the bodies also. Their ages ranged from anywhere from 20 to 72 years old. There was one individual that actually 72. And the coroner will comment on that a little bit later. They all had identification either on their person or in their belongings.
BRIAN BLACKBOURNE, San Diego County Medical Examiner: We were very fortunate that these people all had identification, mostly in their front pocket of their big black shirt that they were wearing, and included passports, driver's license, birth certificate, and that was very helpful. So we have actually identified each of these individuals to our satisfaction. So that was a big relief for us. The notification of the next of kin is the next step. We have notified one family. That's a family who called our office looking for a missing relative. We have done some preliminary toxicology. It's not complete. It only involves four individuals, but what we have found is alcohol and Phenobarbital.
Of some significance is that in the garbage can out behind the house there are a whole series of plastic bags with elastic bands around them. And it appears that they have been used as a mechanism of suicide. The bodies have been dead for varying periods of time, which is very unique. Some of them look like 24 to 36 hours. Others look like three days, three plus days. And from some paperwork we've identified in the house it appears they were in three groups. And the first group went ahead with this plan, and the second group sort of assisted them, cleaned up after them, and covered them with this, this red cloth after they had died. And the third team helped the second team. And then they were finally down to two people who were not shrouded with these sheets. We believe they were the last ones. They did have plastic bags over their heads. It's commonly known as a mechanism of suicide, some pills and a plastic bag over the head. And it appears that that's going to be what it is.
Many of them little bits of paper with the recipe of what they were going to do, not everyone, but various ones, and it seems at least to be a, sort of, a group decision. And the fact that there were different sort of stages is the plan. This seemed to be very well planned. I mean, they all had their identification in their pockets. The house was immaculate.
All these bodies were just lying on the bed with the sheet over the top of them. The rest of the house was all cleaned. And they'd taken all the trash and put it out behind the house. It was very planned, very sort of immaculately carried out.