Some members of suicide cult castrated
More information sought from computers in mansion
March 28, 1997
SAN DIEGO (CNN) -- Autopsies on those who died in the Rancho Santa Fe mass suicide show that some followers of the Heaven's Gate cult -- including leader Marshall Applewhite -- had been castrated.
At a news conference Friday, Dr. Bryan Blackbourne, chief medical examiner for San Diego County, also said families of 30 of the 39 people who died had been notified.
Autopsies will continue through the weekend, and the medical examiner's office may begin releasing bodies to families late this weekend or on Monday, Blackbourne said.
Investigators reiterated that they have found nothing so far to indicate that the deaths are anything but a mass suicide.
"There's some t's to cross and i's to dot, but at this point, we feel that this is what it appears to be," said Lt. Jerry Lipscomb, a homicide investigator for the San Diego County Sheriff's Department. "There's nothing in this investigation that would suggest anything but."
FBI to help with computer analysis
However, Lipscomb said investigators planned to conduct additional interviews. Next week, with the help of the FBI, they will go through the large number of computers on the property looking for additional information.
Authorities also will try to match bodies with the faces that appeared in a farewell videotape, in which members of the group explained their decision to die.
San Diego County Undersheriff Jack Drown said investigators want to determine what happened and how it happened. "I'm not too sure that we will ever have satisfactory answers to that question as to why 39 people would do something like this."
Among the dead was Thomas Nichols, brother of Nichelle Nichols, an actress who played Lt. Uhura in the original "Star Trek" series.
In an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" Friday evening, Nichelle Nichols said her 58-year-old brother had joined the group about 20 years ago. He had very little contact with his family in subsequent years, she said.
"My brother was a highly intelligent and a beautifully gentle man," she said. "He made his choices, and we respect those choices."
She said that several years ago, her brother and some other members of the group had contacted her asking for information on how to get their message out to the public.
"(They) asked me what I thought would be the best way to let the world know what they were about," she said. "They talked about the great comet that would come some day."
Deputies call death scene 'serene'
The two deputies who discovered the bodies, Robert Brunk and Laura Gacek, also described for the first time Friday what they found when they arrived Wednesday afternoon at the cream-colored mansion in the exclusive enclave of Rancho Santa Fe, just north of San Diego.
Brunk, the first deputy to enter the home, said that when he opened an unlocked door after responding to a call to check the house, he smelled an odor that he recognized as being the smell produced by dead bodies.
The deputies proceeded from room to room, finding 10 bodies. At that point, concerned for their own safety, Brunk said they retreated outside and called for reinforcements. They characterized the ambiance inside the house as "calm" and "serene." It was "almost like it wasn't real," Brunk said.
"Even though we knew entering the building that there was going to be death inside from the smell outside ... we just didn't know the magnitude," Gacek said.
Cult document outlines three-stage suicide
Blackbourne said toxicology tests completed on five of the victims show that three had a fatal dose of phenobarbital in their systems. The other two had the drugs in their systems but not a fatal dose.
Authorities believe members mixed the drug with applesauce or pudding, then washed it down with vodka. Plastic bags may have then been placed over their heads to suffocate them.
Inside the house, investigators found a document that may shed light on the way the suicides, which appear to have occurred over several days, were organized.
Labeled "The Routine," the document outlined a process by which a group of 15 people would kill themselves, assisted by eight other people. Then a second group of 15 would die, also assisted by eight people. Given that 39 victims were found, that would have left a final group of nine.
Cult leader preached celibacy
Blackbourne said a toll-free number set up for people who feared their relatives might be among the suicide victims has received almost 1,500 calls in the past two days. Many of the notifications were made as a result of those calls, he said. Authorities were still trying to reach next-of-kin for nine people.
He said the family members of some of those who died had been "somewhat upset" that the media obtained and broadcast excerpts from the "good-bye" tape, which was mailed to a former cult member.
Blackbourne said none of the castrations on the male victims appeared to be recent.
Both male and female members of the Heaven's Gate group affected a unisex look, with buzz-cut hair and shapeless clothes. This androgynous appearance led investigators to at first mistakenly identify all of the bodies as young men.
Cult members had told acquaintances that Applewhite preached celibacy.
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