Cult or computer experts? _ mystery surrounds suicide of 39
Mar. 27, 1997
RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. (AP) _ The mysterious computer-cult whose members died in a mass suicide left videotapes announcing their plans and may have timed their deaths to the approach of the Hale-Bopp comet, an associate of a former member said today.
The 39 men and women dressed in black, wore their hair in buzz cuts and lived _ dozens of them _ in an antiseptic, million-dollar mansion stocked with bulk food and computer hardware used to create Internet sites.
They sent a farewell videotape to a former member and died in the same mansion, lying in apparent peace on their backs, arms at their sides, each covered across the face and chest with a triangular shroud of purple cloth.
Sheriff's deputies who went to the Spanish-style mansion on a tip Wednesday found the victims of one of the biggest mass suicides in U.S. history. Other than the bodies, they found little but mystery.
``There's no gunshot wounds, there's no knife holes in anybody,'' said San Diego County Sheriff's Cmdr. Alan Fulmer. ``Nothing to my knowledge has been found in the way of poison.''
The home apparently was the center of a thriving business designing Web pages for businesses that want a presence on the Internet. Customers of the company called Higher Source described the home's occupants as cultlike and clannish, but businesslike and proficient.
Nick Matzorkis, a Beverly Hills businessman who employs a former member of the Higher Source group, said today that members sent the employee _ whom he identified only as Rio _ two videotapes this week that described their intentions. He told NBC's ``Today'' show that it was his understanding that they died Monday and used sleeping pills to kill themselves.
Members believed it was time to ``shed their containers,'' perhaps to rendezvous with a UFO they believed was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet, Matzorkis said. The comet is currently visible from Earth.
Rio received the videotapes by mail Tuesday evening, Matzorkis said, and Rio discussed them with Matzorkis on Wednesday. One video was of the group's elderly male leader, he said. The other contained each member's taped farewells.
Matzorkis told ABC's ``Good Morning America'' that they went to the house and Rio went in and found the bodies.
``When he came out he was as white as a sheet. ... At that point no one else in the world essentially knew this had taken place,'' Matzorkis told ABC. He said they then notified police.
A Website that ``Today'' said was apparently designed by Higher Source described the group's desire to leave Earth and rendezvous with a spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
``The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level above human (the `Kingdom of Heaven') has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp's approach is the `marker' we've been waiting for. ... Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion _ `graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave `this world' and go with Ti's crew,'' the Heaven's Gate Website reads.
However, there was no information on the Heaven's Gate Website that connected it to the Higher Source group. There is a separate Website under the Higher Source name. The Heaven's Gate Website said suicide was unacceptable for people who were not part of the group but was an acceptable way for members to ascend to a higher level of life.
Overnight, investigators searched the house and refrigerated vans from the coroner's office stood by. One of the vans, which is capable of holding 20 bodies, pulled away from the home about 5:15 a.m. and arrived at the morgue in San Diego an hour and a half later. Authorities would not immediately confirm whether there were bodies in it.
Members of the cult told the landlord, Sam Koutchesfahani, that they were sent to Earth as angels and met in ``middle America,'' Milt Silverman, Koutchesfahani's attorney, told San Diego radio station KFMB.
Members also said the group has branches in Arizona and New Mexico, Silverman said. He didn't elaborate. In Santa Fe, N.M., police Sgt. Jerry Archuleta said one car parked outside the house was registered to a mailbox there, and authorities knew of no cult branch there.
Silverman told CBS' ``This Morning'' that the group had previously rented from a couple who were doctors and came with good references. ``They seemed to be perfectly reasonable people, always paid their rent on time,'' he said.
Tom Goodspeed, director of the San Diego Polo Club, said Higher Source designed a Web page for the club. He visited the house and described quiet men with buzz-cut hair and stylish, collarless black shirts.
``They had that look about them that maybe they were a little bit strange of appearance, but that they could probably sit down in front of a computer and really get it done,'' Goodspeed told ABC's ``Nightline.'' ``They did a fantastic job for us.''
Goodspeed was one of several visitors who thought of Higher Source as a cult. He and others said the group appeared to answer to an older man known as ``Father John,'' and that a ``Brother Logan'' appeared to be a second in command.
Bill Grivas of nearby Solana Beach said he looked at the home as a potential buyer and heard them referring to themselves as monks.
The Higher Source Website is adorned with pictures of stars and nebulae, but appears largely a straightforward business site, touting the company's abilities and listing satisfied customers.
``The individuals at the core of our group have worked closely together for over 20 years,'' boasts one entry on the site. ``We try to stay positive in every circumstance and put the good of a project above any personal concerns or artistic egos.''
The age of the victims and the neighborhood in which it took place fit the profile of modern cult activity, said Ronald E. Enroth, a professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., and a leading expert on new religious movements.
The case began Wednesday with a pair of anonymous calls _ one to the San Diego Sheriff's Department and one somewhat later to Beverly Hills police. Both suggested checking the house in this wealthy enclave of walled estates and polo fields in the rolling hills 20 miles north of San Diego.
A deputy made his way up the steep, gated drive, went in an open door and found 10 bodies in a room. More deputies arrived, wearing surgical masks against the putrid odor of decaying bodies.
Fulmer said at first that all 39 victims were male between 18 and 24. He later said some were women and some were older, but was unable to provide further detail.
The smell was so bad that officers at first thought it might be poison gas. Later, Fulmer said it was the smell of death, bad enough to indicate the victims had been dead for some time.
There were no marks on the bodies and no suicide notes, Fulmer said. The bodies were lying on cots and bunks throughout the house, each with a 3-foot triangular purple cloth lying over the face and chest.
Investigators discovered that the home had been rented in October. The nine-bedroom, seven-bathroom house sits on 3.11 acres with a swimming pool and tennis court. It was valued at $1.325 million in 1995.
In Washington today, Attorney General Janet Reno said there was no immediate indication that a federal crime had been committed, but the FBI was monitoring the situation and was ready to help local authorities if needed.
Koutchesfahani, the landlord, pleaded guilty last year to tax evasion and fraud after admitting he took up to $350,000 from Middle Eastern students between 1989 and 1995.
Prosecutors said Koutchesfahani used the money to bribe college instructors at three San Diego-area colleges into illegally enrolling students into the schools and certifying them as California residents.
On April 19, 1993, Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and 80 followers _ including 18 children _ died by fire or gunfire, six hours after the FBI started filling their cult compound near Waco, Texas, with tear gas. The government called the deaths a mass suicide after a 51-day armed standoff.