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Bodies of cult members released as investigation winds down

April 1, 1997

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ Assault rifles, shotguns and rifles were reportedly found today in two storage sheds rented by the suicidal Heaven’s Gate cult.

Detectives discovered the weapons during a search of the sheds, according to the North (San Diego) County Times. It was not clear how many weapons were found in the storage facility in Escondido, 30 miles northeast of San Diego.

``Several assault rifles, shotguns and handguns were taken from the storage shed,″ an unidentified sheriff’s official told the newspaper.

Detectives would not speculate on why cult members needed the weapons, or whether they had planned to use the weapons in the mass suicide discovered Wednesday in a posh Rancho Santa Fe mansion. Thirty-nine members died.

Lt. Jerry Lipscomb, the sheriff’s lead homicide detective, would not confirm weapons were found but told The Associated Press that any such discovery would not be important.

``At this stage of our investigation, it’s my opinion that any weapons discovered does not have any significance in this case,″ he said. ``Weapons were not used in the death of any members of the cult.″

There was no evidence the cult used weapons ``either for hunting or criminal activity,″ Lipscomb said.

In addition to the weapons, deputies found trash cans, twin beds, exercise equipment and books stored in banana boxes. Everything was taken to a San Diego warehouse, officials told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, authorities said their investigation is winding down and no evidence indicates anything but a mass suicide. On Monday, a forklift hoisted the corpses of the Heaven’s Gate cult members from a refrigerated trailer into unmarked vans for transportation to mortuaries for burial or cremation.

The cult members believed they would be picked up by a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet after they shed their earthly ``containers.″

Sheriff’s Lt. Jerry Lipscomb said authorities have found nothing to suggest that anyone other than the 39 members of the high-tech UFO cult planned to kill themselves.

In 1994, 48 members of the Order of the Solar Temple died in Switzerland. Five more members died that same year in Canada, followed by 16 others in the French Alps in 1995 and five more in Canada as recently as March 22.

Authorities believe there was only one other Heaven’s Gate member, Richard Ford, and he left the cult about a month ago because he didn’t want to commit suicide.

``He was not ready to go to the next level at this time,″ Lipscomb said.

Ford, previously identified as ``Rio,″ received two farewell videotapes on March 25 from cult members describing their death plans. The next day, he and his employer drove to the hilltop mansion, found the bodies and called police. Ford has not talked with reporters.

There was also no evidence to support reports that group leader Marshall Applewhite told his followers he had cancer, Lipscomb said. He said none of the victims had a terminal illness.

Investigators were still trying to determine the source of the drug phenobarbital used in the suicides, but Lipscomb doubted it would lead to charges.

``We’re not going to charge anyone with anything, and who would we charge?″ Lipscomb said.

County Medical Examiner Brian Blackbourne said all autopsies were complete and toxological tests would be finished by Friday. The bodies were also tested for HIV because of interest by relatives.

Applewhite and seven of the 18 men who died had been castrated.

``This is not something they did themselves. This is not something that was done recently,″ Blackbourne said.

Relatives have been located for all but one of the dead. He is Lindley Ayerhart Pease, 41, of Exeter, N.H.

Pease and Alphonzo Ricardo Foster, 44, were the last two names released. Foster was described by a former roommate as a loner who was unhappy with his life. ``I feel like I’m an alien. I don’t feel like I belong here,″ James Hannon recalled Foster as saying.

Members of the group, which made its living working on World Wide Web sites, were found dead Wednesday in the mansion they rented. They were dressed alike and covered in purple shrouds, with packed bags by their beds.

Authorities say the cult members died in groups, consuming a mixture of drugs and alcohol and then placing plastic bags over their heads.

Blackbourne said two vials of Vicodin, a powerful pain killer, were found near two cult members believed to have been the last to die. The drug was also detected in their bodies.

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