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Children of Heaven’s Gate co-founder struggle for answers

March 31, 1997

HOUSTON (AP) _ Twelve years after Terrie Nettles watched her mother leave for good to search the stars for God, she received a final insult.

Still wondering what ever became of Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, Terrie Nettles learned her mother had died just four hours away in a Dallas hospital.

``I felt like somebody had ripped my guts out,″ Terrie Nettles said of her mother’s death in 1985. She said she thought at the time: ``Now the answers are gone.″

But her mother’s memory returned last week with the news that 39 Heaven’s Gate followers committed suicide inside a California mansion.

Ms. Nettles co-founded the cult that evolved into Heaven’s Gate. She and cult leader Marshall Herff Applewhite shared a platonic but close relationship, trekking across the country and gathering followers to take a spaceship to ``the Next Kingdom.″

Terrie Nettles’ wondering began when her mother, a newly divorced nurse, met Applewhite, a music professor. Early one morning in 1973, they went to a nightclub where Terri Nettles, then 19, worked. They told her they were leaving.

``I wasn’t allowed to say goodbye. I wasn’t allowed to tell her that I loved her and hold her hand,″ she said. ``I felt like Herff prevented that from happening.″

That was the last time Terrie and her younger brother, Joe Nettles, saw their mother.

``I remember going down the stairs with her, trying to keep from crying,″ said Ms. Nettles, now 44. ``They just said that God was leading them in a certain direction. They weren’t sure exactly where, or what their mission was. But she said it was really big.″

Seven months after the farewell, the woman who would help stitch mysticism and Christianity into a cult sent a cryptic letter to her daughter.

Relying on a fiery Bible passage _ Revelation 11:3-13 _ Ms. Nettles tried to explain how she and a former opera singer became the center of a new universe, the origin of Heaven’s Gate.

``And I will give power unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand, two hundred and three score days, clothed in sackcloth,″ the passage begins. ``These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks standing before the God of the earth.″

Her daughter struggled to understand.

``That’s when they first realized who they thought they were, as the two witnesses,″ Terrie Nettles said Friday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. ``I had absolutely no clue as to what she was talking about.″

Terrie and Joe Nettles said their mother met Applewhite at the Houston Music Theater Center, where he was a music instructor. They dispute news reports that the two became acquainted at a psychiatric hospital.

After they left Houston in January 1973 to form their own church, communication became infrequent.

In the early 1980s, the letters changed. Terrie couldn’t figure out why.

``I had the feeling that she kind of wanted out. That was my interpretation,″ she said. ``It was the way she phrased things.″

In 1984, Ms. Nettles wrote her daughter again, saying she didn’t know how to get out and that ``there wasn’t a graceful way to leave,″ Time magazine reported in its April 7 issue.

Then the letters stopped. Her children would hear of their mother’s and Applewhite’s exploits from television and newspapers about the ``UFO cult″ and its strange recruiting campaign across the country.

In February 1986, Terrie Nettles, then a student in Houston, tried desperately to reach her mother because Bonnie Nettles’ mother had died.

Ms. Nettles’ followers stonewalled relatives’ attempts to contact her.

``We can’t give her the message unless you tell us what it is,″ the younger Nettles recalled being told. ``Well, I can’t do that because the message that I have is very personal.″

The followers hung up on her.

A few days later, two followers introducing themselves as Dan and Liv appeared at Terrie’s front door.

They delivered snapshots of her mother and said she had died of cancer _ nine months earlier.