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Thumbnail sketches of suicide cult members

March 31, 1997

Thumbnail sketches of suicide cult members:

MARSHALL HERFF APPLEWHITE

Applewhite, 65, leader of the Heaven’s Gate cult, was a native of Corpus Christi, Texas.

Son of a Presbyterian minister, Applewhite studied for the ministry but switched his focus to music, serving at one point as a church choir director and performing in operas.

Applewhite taught music from 1966 to 1970 at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. Various reports said he was fired for having an affair with a male student, but the university said he left to pursue other interests.

At some point, he married and had two children. He divorced his wife about 35 years ago and left his family.

``I am deeply hurt by the knowledge that people have now lost their lives in connection with my father,″ said his 40-year-old son, Mark Applewhite. ``My sympathy and prayers go out to all those who are suffering the loss of loved ones.″

In 1972, the elder Applewhite met the late Bonnie Lu Nettles, a nurse with whom he started the cult that became Heaven’s Gate.

DANA TRACEY ABREO

Ms. Abreo, 35, was a half sister to cult member Gary Jordan St. Louis.

She grew up in Twain Harte, Calif., and moved to Denver after high school to attend paralegal school.

A relative said her half brother persuaded her to join the cult.

``As soon as I heard it, I knew it was them,″ said Guy St. Louis, brother of Gary Jordan St. Louis. ``To them, it was the only way to leave the planet _ to leave their bodies behind and escape.″

RAYMOND ALAN BOWERS

Bowers, 45, of Jupiter, Fla., was ``lost,″ said Karin Nickeson, who befriended him along with her husband, Denny, when they all found a common interest in music.

``He cried all the time,″ Mrs. Nickeson said.

Bowers was 25 when he first heard Marshall Herff Applewhite in 1975 in a seminar on UFOs at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. He became a follower for about eight years but broke away, said his sisters, Joy and Susan Ventulette.

Struggles with divorce, the death of their younger brother, drugs and alcohol drove him back, they said. Their younger brother was killed in 1988 on a lobster boat off Connecticut. At the time, Bowers was in a courtroom, getting divorced and losing custody of his three children.

Three years ago, Bowers moved in with Susan Ventulette in Martin County. He did odd jobs and watched TV, then he ran into a former member of the cult, thought it was ``destiny″ and returned to Heaven’s Gate, his sisters said.

``No one forced him to do this,″ Joy Ventulette said. ``He was with them because he found an inner peace that he could not find in the outside, real world.″

LaDONNA ANN BRUGATO

Ms. Brugato, 40, of Englewood, Colo., was an outstanding violinist and computer programmer, said her father, Joe Brugato of Newberg, Ore.

She was one of nine children born to the real estate agent and former math teacher.

Brugato said he lost touch with his daughter when she became involved in the cult about three years ago and he had hired a private investigator to help him re-establish contact.

``I did everything to find her,″ Brugato said. ``I personally and my family have been searching for her for three years, but always seemed to be one step behind her.″

When Ms. Brugato rented a home in the Cherry Creek School District in Colorado, her landlords noticed unusual behavior.

``She had a canopy bed set up with four diamond-shape crystals on each corner of her bed and one large crystal″ suspended from the ceiling over the middle of her bed, Al Wallace said. ``It clearly left me with the impression that this was some New Age experiential worship place that she used to commune with her gods.″

MARGARET JUNE BULL

Ms. Bull, 53, joined the cult in the mid-1970s after teaching English in Spain for a few years, said her brother, John Bull of Ellensburg, Wash.

She graduated from Ellensburg High and earned an English degree from the University of Washington.

Ms. Bull returned home when her mother died three years ago. At the time, she told relatives that cult members were self-supporting, drove expensive cars, lived communally, moved frequently and were celibate, her brother said.

``I thought it was harmless. But when we received a video from Peggy that had (Applewhite) declaring himself the second coming of Christ and that he intended to lead his flock to redemption, I got a real bad feeling then,″ he said.

CHERYL ELAINE BUTCHER

Ms. Butcher, 43, left Springfield, Mo., in 1976 to take up with a group in Oregon led by Marshall Herff Applewhite. Her mother, Virginia Norton, said she seemed content.

``She didn’t call it a cult. She didn’t consider it as a cult. She was happy,″ Mrs. Norton said.

Mrs. Norton said she had not seen her daughter since 1993, when she visited her in Dallas.

SUZANNE SYLVIA COOKE

Mrs. Cooke, 54, is survived by her husband, Nick, who left the Heaven’s Gate cult three years ago. She also had a daughter, Kelly.

Nick Cooke said he and his wife abandoned their daughter when they joined the cult 23 years ago. He said he was an ``off and on″ member of the cult, was sorry he missed the mass suicide and believed his wife reached her goal of joining a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

``I wish I had the strength to have remained ... to have stuck it out and gotten stronger and continued to be a part of that group,″ he told ``60 Minutes.″

JOHN M. CRAIG

Craig, 63, a onetime political candidate who ran a dude ranch and had a bit part in ``Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,″ left his wife and six young children in Durango, Colo., in July 1975.

``For me, he died 22 years ago,″ said Mary Ann Craig, his ex-wife. ``When we found out he was dead, there was a sense of closure more than anything for us.″

Craig owned the Wilderness Trails Guest Ranch. Former neighbors recalled him as the first horseman out of the boxcar in the famous train robbery scene in the movie.

In 1970, he also ran as a Republican for the Colorado House. He ended up losing the election by fewer than 20 votes.

After his abrupt departure, he contacted his family only occasionally through impersonal letters with no return addresses.

ERIKA ERNST

Ms. Ernst, 40, was described by friends in her native Calgary, Canada, as a good student and a fun-loving teen-ager who liked to travel.

After graduating from high school, Ms. Ernst and a boyfriend began talking about joining a cult. Shortly after, she gave away all her possessions and left Calgary.

Her family, which knew she was with the Heaven’s Gate cult, was vacationing in Los Angeles when they heard of the mass suicide.

``For 21 years, I tried to find them,″ her father, Edwald Ernst, said Saturday. ``We had one visit, maybe one phone call. She told us only that `I’m doing the best; I’m happy.′ But I think she was brainwashed.″

DARWIN LEE JOHNSON

Johnson, 42, played in a band called Dharma Combat, former band manager David Fratt told KTVX, a Salt Lake City television station.

Fratt said the band was playing in several clubs. The band’s lyrics talked about death and aliens.

Johnson was found with a Utah driver’s license.

JULIE LaMONTAGNE

LaMontagne, 45, looked forward to her future when she graduated in 1974 from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst nursing school, but then her father died and her life fell in disarray, relatives said.

``She thought he was her knight in shining armor,″ said her brother, Andrew LaMontagne, of Windsor, Vt. ``When he passed away, Julie just freaked out. And then she met those people, and it was all over.″

Ms. LaMontagne joined the cult as a personal nurse to Applewhite when it recruited in Amherst in 1975, said her stepmother, Theresa Boucher.

Ms. LaMontagne wrote months later that she wanted nothing more to do with her family, relatives said. The family spent tens of thousands of dollars looking for her and she did visit her stepmother’s home in Brooksville, Fla., in 1990. Then she disappeared for good.

``We lost a daughter, but we really lost her 21 years ago,″ Boucher said Saturday. ``This was just the final loss.″

LaMontagne’s brother was angry at Applewhite.

``Look at the guy, he looks like a lunatic,″ he said. ``He’s a monster. He took my sister.″

JACKIE LEONARD

At 72, Ms. Leonard was the oldest among the dead. She grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and raised her two daughters and a son there with her late husband, said her son-in-law, Angelo Bellizzi of Seattle.

Bellizzi said Ms. Leonard ``was always groping and looking for something that interested her.″

In the early 1970s, she moved to Colorado, where she met members of the UFO cult, Bellizzi said. A few years later, she joined the group in San Francisco, he said.

JEFFREY HOWARD LEWIS

Lewis, 41, was a former massage therapist from San Antonio.

Four years ago, Lewis sold his possessions and left San Antonio to join Heaven’s Gate, according to a friend, David Tayloe.

``He told us that he wouldn’t be communicating with any of his friends and to be happy for him, because this is what he felt was right for him,″ Tayloe said.

Lewis, who worked as a masseur out of his house, said he was joining a cult for the second time.

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