Reaching for Heaven - The Lost Sheep of Bo and Peep
For thirty nine people in Rancho Santa Fe, California the week of March 23, 1997 turned out to be more than just an opportunity to gaze into the sky and view the Hale-Bopp comet. For them, the comet signaled a time to rendezvous with their deceased leader. They believed she was returning to pick them up in her spaceship, which was supposedly hiding behind the comet. It turned out their retrieval was not to be accomplished by transporter beam as in one of their favorite TV shows, Star Trek. Instead their departure was made via a carefully calculated group suicide, orchestrated by their leader.
They viewed their suicide as a graduation, a departing from the Human Level and moving into the Next Level. They gave up all they had, all they were, all they could be, to try and gain the elusive and already oft failed promises of their leaders. Though the circumstances that brought them to the cult vary and though their personal histories may differ, all of their stories end with Marshall Herff Applewhite and Bonnie Lou Nettles.
Applewhite, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was reared in Texas. Perhaps planning to follow in his father's footsteps, he began studying for the ministry. Mid-course, he shifted to music, eventually earning a degree at the University of Colorado. In the early 1960s he was employed as a choral director on the music faculty of the University of Alabama. Though said to be a pleasant fellow, even then he was described by contemporaries as somewhat different, or nontraditional. In 1964 he left the University and began a trek which eventually led to the tragedy of Heaven's Gate.
Relocating to Houston he was employed by St. Thomas University to establish a fine arts program. Career-wise he seemed to be fulfilled, but his personal life was crumbling. Though previously married and the father of two children, Applewhite continued to be involved in homosexual affairs, struggling with his sexual identity. In 1970 further turmoil came when St. Thomas dismissed him following a scandal involving him and a student.
Applewhite described this time as one of "severe upheaval and personal confusion" ('88 Update, document on Heaven's Gate Web site). This fits with reports that he began hearing voices during this time, and checked into a hospital, seeking to be cured of his homosexual desires. Possibly as a result of this struggle, Applewhite eventually had himself castrated, which he believed would be the ultimate freedom from his sexual guilt and desires. It also set the example for those who followed him, to do whatever was necessary to free themselves from the desires of this Human Level.
In addition to this turmoil, he also claims to have had a near death experience after a heart attack. But, according to Ray Hill, who knew Applewhite at the time, this may actually have been a drug overdose (Newsweek, "The Next Level," April 7, 1997). Whether this actually occurred or was simply his own fantasy, it certainly prepared the stage for what was yet to come.
In 1972 he met Bonnie Lou Nettles, a registered nurse who, as Applewhite described it, "enjoyed a small astrology practice" ('88 Update). Nettles was also a member of the Theosophical Society (see Theosophy sidebar, p. 6) and was involved in channeling messages from spirits. After meeting Applewhite, she also introduced these to him, drawing him into their practice, as well.
The two very quickly became inseparable and were convinced they had known one another in previous lives, being somehow linked together. They came to the conclusion they were actually higher beings indwelling human bodies, very much like Jesus. "They consciously recognized that they were sent from space to do a task that had something to do with the Bible" (ibid.).
Nettles soon left her husband and four children departing with Applewhite in 1973 to discover their higher purpose (Robert Balch, "Waiting for the Ships," in The God's Have Landed, ed. James Lewis, p. 142). For the next two years they traveled extensively, supporting themselves by doing odd jobs, all the while continuing to define their message. Interestingly, they also sustained themselves by asking for help from preachers, which Applewhite describes as "a humbling experience for both of them" ('88 Update). Later they sent out their followers, requiring that they, too, sustain themselves by asking support from preachers and churches.
During this time of travel together they came to the conclusion that they were the two witnesses spoken of in the Book of Revelation. They also developed a rudimentary form of their theology that the kingdom of heaven was a physical evolutionary level. From these beginnings grew what eventually became known as "Heaven's Gate."
During this first period of travel they would also experience their first set-back. They were arrested for using a stolen credit card (Nettles) and stealing a rental car (Applewhite). Eventually the charges against Nettles were dropped by the owner of the credit cards. She returned to Houston to work while waiting for Applewhite to serve out a six month jail sentence.
While in jail Applewhite wrote what became known as Statement I, in which he framed their belief in its first written form. Among other things, it stated, "There are two individuals here now who have also come from that next kingdom, incarnate as humans, awakened, and will soon demonstrate the same proof of overcoming death. They are 'sent' from that kingdom by the 'Father' to bear the same truth that was Jesus'. This is like a repeat performance. . ..This 're-statement' or demonstration will happen within months. The two who are the 'actors' in this 'theatre' are in the meantime doing all they can to relate this truth as accurately as possible so that when their bodies recover from their 'dead' state (resurrection) and they leave (UFOs) those left behind will have clearly understood the formula" ('88 Update; emphasis added).
Upon Applewhite's release from jail he and Nettles reunited. After acquiring necessary funds they set out once again, calling themselves "The Two." Applewhite's Statement I was their initial recruiting tool. In March of 1975 it was mailed as a flyer to "ministers, evangelists, and awareness centers far and wide" ('88 Update). After reading it, Clarence Klug, a metaphysical (New Age) teacher invited them to speak before "an awareness group" in Los Angeles to explain Statement I. After the meeting The Two invited those attending to come to Gold Beach, Oregon to hear more.
Many came bringing others with them. Clarence and twenty three others joined. The "UFO Cult" was born. Some of these first recruits stayed with Applewhite all the way to the end, eventually joining him in suicide. At the Los Angeles meeting Nettles and Applewhite had used the names "Guinea" and "Pig," to reflect their understanding they were part of an experiment being conducted by the Next Level. Now that they had a "flock," they took the names "Bo" and "Peep."
In his '88 Update, Applewhite states they "were never pleased with having to use the term 'UFO,' because they felt like 'spacecraft' and 'other flying devices of the Next Level' were a lot closer to proper descriptions." He may not have liked using it but that did not stop him. The poster used to advertise their first public meeting (August, 1975) at Canada College proclaimed: "UFO'S Why they are here." The use of UFOs became a major method of generating interest in his meetings. He continued to use it into the '90s and eventually used it to lure people to the Heaven's Gate Website.
After the success of their first meeting, they next held a meeting in Waldport, Oregon, on September 14, 1975. The press had now taken an interest in them and the reports were not favorable. As Applewhite put it, "bedlam had broken out by now" ('88 Update). They quickly moved on for meetings in Denver, Chicago and Tulsa. Their appeal was to those who had "dropped out" of society, or were seeking their own direction, expressing their own freedom, and many who were going through devastating personal crises.
This was a chaotic time for the group. Bo and Peep, divided their followers into groups comprised of two man teams and sent them out to share the message. Without the presence of their leaders, doubts set in and defections occurred regularly. Many members were also disillusioned because the promised demonstration (death and resurrection) had not occurred. Doubts were openly expressed and discussed. By the end of the year the group had dwindled from an estimated high of 200 to approximately 100 (The God's Have Landed, p. 153-59).
During a 1994 recruiting meeting, representatives of Applewhite said many in '75 were following just to have something to do and still clung to such human level ways as sleeping together, smoking pot, etc. When The Two resurfaced their group lacked cohesiveness and, for the most part, purpose. Bo and Peep reasserted their control by announcing at a meeting in Manhattan College on April 21, 1976, that the "'Harvest' is closed-there will be no more meetings" ('88 Update). Prior to this "closing" more than 130 public meetings had been held throughout the US and in Canada.
Typical of the exclusivity taught by the cults, Applewhite and Nettles had effectively barred all of the world's population except for these, some 100 people, from obtaining the Next Level. Those present must have certainly welcomed their inclusion, but realistically it also made them all the more dependent upon the group. Balch also reports that during the summer of 1976 Bo and Peep took the group to a remote camp in Wyoming and further established their importance and authority by eliminating any possibility of individual revelation.
Prior to this "members believed guidance came in the form of intuitive hunches and flashes of insight." The Two solved this by explaining that "all information from the next level was channeled through a 'chain of mind' linking the next kingdom to individual members through Bo and Peep" (The God's Have Landed, p. 154). If there were any question, it was now clear, Applewhite and Nettles were absolutely indispensable to their followers. At this camp they also provided an explanation for the failed prophecy demonstration. The failure was not due to themselves but to the followers not being ready for the Next Level. They said the members had become so absorbed with "the demonstration" they had not spent sufficient time working on their own growth. This is typical of cult leaders, who quite often excuse or explain away their failed prophecies as due to the members' sin or misunderstanding.
No longer holding public meetings, the group entered a period of seclusion which did not end for about 16 years. During this time membership dwindled to around 30 to 40 members. The members who remained described it as a time of training, and themselves as guinea pigs in the training program. They lived in tents traveling from place to place in a community environment. Their masters constantly experimented on them with diets, work, daily tasks, social patterns, clothing, etc. Supposedly, this was all to prepare them for Next Level living. In reality, it simply brought the members under ever tighter control by their leaders.
Applewhite and Nettles now took the names "Do" (doe) and "Ti" (tea), respectively, like the musical notes. Nettles apparently exercised extraordinary influence over Applewhite and the group. She died of liver cancer in 1985, but not before Applewhite came to the conclusion that she was actually his Older Member from the Next Level. After her death the group's members continued to speak as if she was present with them, while at the same time waiting for her to return in a spacecraft and gather them.
In the '88 Update Applewhite presents the following: "'What has the class been doing for 12 years?' you might ask. They have been tuning their minds with their Older Member's mind [Do], who has been tuning his mind with his Older Member's mind [Ti], and so forth up the ladder" (emphasis, bracketed words, added). In the vernacular of Star Trek, this would be akin to Mr. Spock's Vulcan mind-meld; their thoughts were to become one.
The group resurfaced with a video series entitled, Beyond Human - The Last Call. This was broadcast over satellite TV, during an approximate three-and-a-half month period in late 1991 to early 1992. Applewhite claimd that from June, 1976, to 1992, they did not gain any new members, but did have a few former members return. Most of those who returned did so as a result of the video series.
Applewhite explained what had brought the group out of seclusion: ". . .we began to get clear signals that our 'classroom time' per se was nearly over, but that some involvement with the public was about to begin. So we started the painful and arduous task of trying to figure out how to reinterface, communicate, with a human civilization which by this time had become quite foreign to where our thinking had evolved" (Overview of Present Mission).
On May 27, 1993, they again came forward, publishing a one-third page ad in that day's edition of USA Today. The ad was entitled "'UFO Cult' Resurfaces with Final Offer," and set forth the basic tenets of Ti's and Do's teachings. This was followed by buying ad space in alternative newspapers, weekly newspapers and magazines around the country and overseas where he placed an ad entitled, "Last Chance To Advance Beyond Human." This apparently generated a new interest in the group and paved the way for their final public recruiting foray.
In January of 1994 they sold all their personal items except for a few vehicles and clothing and set out across the country to again hold public meetings, for the first time since 1976. This took them to some 22 states and 63 cities, during which time they offered, "A very accelerated 'classroom' (for incarnating). . . for the third and last time in this civilization. . .. In other words, that first crew is gathering the remainder of their crew - holding meetings as of January '94 - before exiting" (He's Back, Where Will You Stand).
The last such meeting took place in Boston on August 19, 1994. With the conclusion of this meeting they again went into seclusion, claiming these meetings had "nearly doubled" the size of their "class" membership (Overview of Present Mission). If this is true, with only thirty eight members in 1997, their size must have dwindled to some 20, or fewer, people prior to 1994 or else they must have, once again, experienced large numbers of "dropouts" after the 1994 additions.
Except for a couple of postings on the World Wide Web and newsgroups on the Internet in September and October of 1995, they were not heard from again until their 1997 mass suicide brought intense media coverage.
What could have brought about these needless deaths? The answer to that question is found in the teachings of the man known as "Do."
"If you want or ever expect to go to Heaven - here is your window. That window opportunity requires: 1) an incarnate (as human) Representative of the Kingdom of Heaven; 2) that all who hope to enter Heaven become active students of that Representative while the Representative is present; 3) those who endure the 'transition classroom' until it ends (adequately bonding or 'grafting' to that Representative) will go with that Representative - literally LEAVE the human kingdom and earth as He is about to do. Staying behind, for any significant period, could jeopardize that 'graft.' That window to Heaven will not open again until another civilization is planted and has reached sufficient maturity (according to the judgment of the Next Level). . .. If you quickly choose to take these steps toward separating from the world, and look to us for help, you will see our Father's Kingdom" (Do's Intro).
During the early 1970s, Applewhite and Nettles came to believe they had previously been what they called "Older Members" of an Evolutionary/Physical Level above the Human Level. They taught that, "In the early 1970's, two individuals (my task partner and myself) from the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the Kingdom of Heaven) incarnated into (moved into and took over) two human bodies that were in their forties. I moved into a male body, and my partner, who is an Older Member in the Level Above Human, took a female body. (We called these bodies 'vehicles,' for they simply served as physical vehicular tools for us to wear while on a task among humans. They had been tagged and set aside for our use since their birth.)" ('95 Statement by an E.T. Presently Incarnate.)
Much like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or in some other science fiction piece, they had to learn to exercise control over these foreign bodies they now inhabited. Improper behavior or false understandings (such as their numerous failed predictions to be picked up by a spaceship) could thus be explained as simply the result of not having fully connected to their own Older Members. They also taught this was not their first incarnation (mission) but they had been here many times before during the previous 6,000 year history of this civilization.
Ti and Do claimed their purpose and mission was exactly the same as Jesus', of which Applewhite wrote, "The sole task that was given to this member [Jesus] from the Kingdom of Heaven was to offer the way leading to membership into the Kingdom of Heaven to those who recognized Him for who He was and chose to follow Him" (Do's Intro). Jesus, they claimed, had been from the Next Level and the one whom he referred to as Heavenly Father was actually his Older Member.
Ti and Do (Nettles and Applewhite) placed themselves in the position of Deity. They taught their followers that they (Ti and Do) were the first Older Members to incarnate on the human level since Jesus did so 2,000 years ago. In fact, in later years Do would claim he was the one who had previously incarnated in Jesus, and Ti was Heavenly Father. Of His Older Member Ti, Do wrote, "His relationship to this planet is as Chief Administrator, and [He] is the One referred to as the 'True God' in the early stages of this civilization" (Undercover Jesus).
Applewhite and Nettles taught that there was a "Chief of Chiefs" (the Most High God) who created a race of beings who in turn created this human level as a place to conduct experiments. These experiments were designed to see how those of the human level might best progress to the Next Level. The "class" therefore came to view themselves as guinea pigs in a grand, cosmic laboratory experiment. With this mindset the cult members were subject to virtually any form of control the leaders might choose to impose.
As one member put it during the 1994 tour, "Those above have the right to come among humans and do whatever they want no matter how terrible it seems" (Watchman Fellowship staff notes on recruitment meeting, Birmingham, Alabama, 1994). She compared this to human and animal rights. Just as a human has the right to remove a puppy from its mother, so an Older Member has the right to remove humans from their families.
She continued, "We are being brainwashed and would like nothing more than to be brainwashed - to have our minds cleansed" (ibid.). This language is typical of those whose leaders are practicing extreme thought reform techniques upon them. By putting a positive spin on it they don't have to prove it is not occurring. Later she stated they had gained "crew consciousness" rather than "individual consciousness." More than simply "community," the group virtually swallowed individuals. Thinking or making decisions apart from the group became increasingly difficult, almost impossible. These tendencies are still visible in some of the ex-members being interviewed by the media.
Concerning Christ's ministry, Ti and Do taught, "only those individuals who had received a 'deposit' containing a soul's beginning had the capacity to believe or recognize the Kingdom of Heaven's Representative" (Do's Intro. . .). Normal humans are simply "plants" on earth's garden. Some, however, are "tagged" at birth for future use by beings in some stage of progression toward the Next Level Above Human. Only when these "tagged" bodies "are 'old enough' - having grown or matured enough - for self-determination or responsibility" are they given a "deposit" containing souls. These souls then grow, with the goal of eventually totally replacing and discarding the normal "human" mind. At that point the being is ready for the Next Level Above Human, the Kingdom of Heaven ('95 Statement. . .).
Their progress toward that Kingdom might involve many incarnations among humans. During each lifetime they progress to a certain level and then, possibly, are taken aboard a spaceship to await implantation into a new physical vehicle on the human level (reincarnation), for further progress. They do not remember past missions but continue from the level of progression previously attained.
Nettles and Applewhite used this to further tie the "class" to themselves by telling them they had previously been with them, "in class," as Jesus' disciples. "We brought to Earth with us a crew of students whom we had worked with (nurtured) on Earth in previous missions. They were in various stages of metamorphic transition from membership in the human kingdom. . ." (ibid.).
During recruiting periods, prospective members were told that if what they heard seemed to make sense to them, or appealed to them, then they were probably one of the "crew." Likewise, if it was not appealing to them, they were simply not yet "ready" for this instruction. Of course the implication of elite status for believers, and lack or immaturity for unbelievers, provided an incentive toward belief. Thus most of Applwhite's recruits either had a predisposition to such teaching, or a vested interest and will to believe. They could thus more readily be manipulated or brought in as "guinea pigs" of the grand experiment, regardless of their level of intelligence.
As a further means of control, Do and Ti required followers to forsake all ties to the human level: possessions, people (including family), desires, plans, religion, rights, etc. As Applewhite wrote, "literally LEAVE the human kingdom and earth"...including "family, sensuality, selfish desires, your human mind, and even your human body if required of you" (Do's Intro. . .). They then had to "graft" to their "Older Member."
Those who died in Rancho Santa Fe not only believed an Older Member was incarnate here on earth, they believed He was in the person of Do. He taught that only through him could one see the Next Level (Kingdom of Heaven). "As true today as it was 2,000 years ago, no one (of this civilization) gets to my Father or enters the Kingdom of Heaven except through Me. There is no other Son of His, or Representative from His Kingdom, incarnate" (Undercover Jesus). In the end, the "way" to the Father also required willfully discarding their "containers" (human bodies) - taking their own lives.
The group's document, Our Position Against Suicide, expressed the expectation of boarding a spacecraft to depart this world. However, other end-of-life scenarios were anticipated as possible. "It could happen that before that spacecraft comes, one or more of us could lose our physical vehicles (bodies) due to 'recall,' accident, or at the hands of some irate individual." They thought, "Another possibility is that,. . . we could find so much disfavor with the powers that control this world that there could be attempts to incarcerate us or to subject us to some sort of psychological or physical torture (such as occurred at both Ruby Ridge and Waco)" (ibid.).
In media interviews, ex-members indicate the group would often discuss by what scenario the Next Level might want them taken out of this world. One theory was, it might be in the same manner as those who died at Ruby Ridge and Waco. Again, according to ex-members, to this end they had stockpiled a small cache of arms - not to use on others, but as a means by which authorities might be provoked to take them out.
While they hoped for a spacecraft, they were ready for any possibility, including (apparently as early as August 1994) taking their own lives. Their August 18, 1994 poster, The Shedding of Our Borrowed Human Bodies, stated, "they may be required to discard their 'undercover costume' (their borrowed human body) as they depart. . ..If their Father does not require this 'disposition' of them - He will take them up into His 'cloud of light' (spacecraft) before such 'laying down of bodies' need occur." A requirement of physical death seemed even more imminent in 1995: "You may even be faced with the possibility of losing the body you are 'wearing' in the demonstration of your faithfulness" ('95 Statement. . .).
One might expect their document, Our Position Against Suicide, to rule out taking one's own life. However, the document's last paragraph reveals that is not the case. "The true meaning of 'suicide' is to turn against the Next Level when it is being offered." By this definition, what the group did in Rancho Santa Fe would not be suicide. Rather, to not kill oneself, if required by the Next Level, would be suicide. In fact, some ex-members and family members of the deceased have issued statements agreeing with the victims who, in their final statements on video, claim what they are going to do is not taking their lives but simply their chosen method for leaving their human containers.
Despite the smiling faces in these video-taped personal "exit statements," the question remains how much choice did the group's members really have? Was this a case of mind control? (See, "Paying the Toll. . .," p. 7.) However one views the issue of mind-control, surely, putting aside their own definition, this was a case of mass suicide.
All this seems in stark contrast to what Applewhite wrote in his concluding remarks of his '88 Update. "We believe in the reality of God, His Kingdom, and of his Son Jesus Christ. If we are off track in any way, we want it rectified. If we are some well-meaning, misguided, charismatic cult that is full of baloney, we want that rectified." Yet by his isolationist practices and control of the members, Applewhite insured that his followers would not, and could not, be open to honest dialogue and investigation of their group.
Typical of those who practice mind-control over their followers, Do laid down the criteria by which acceptable investigation of his claims could be made. This is evident in his "Undercover Jesus":
"Evidence we speak the truth is:
"A. That our information and our actions match recorded accounts of the presence, conduct, mission, and departure of our previous visitations from the Level Above.
"B. Any soul of this civilization who has known us in previous visitations or has had any genuine (physical or personal) relationship with anyone from the True Kingdom of God, is present now, and is potentially capable of knowing or recognizing us and this information again.
"C. It appears that even the staging of some of the crashed spacecraft (which we suspect some of us arrived in) was in order to help the skeptics realize that they have 'visitors from another world.'"
Of these three standards, A, B, and C, above, C is no criterion, but simply an assertion - and one which presupposes unestablished facts. Where are these "crashed spacecraft" of which he speaks? If these spaceships existed and were made public, that might validate the belief in "visitors from another world." However, it would hardly be sufficient to justify or prove all of Applewhite's doctrines and teachings were true or from God, any more than it would prove true the teachings of the many other UFO groups.
The B standard, particularly, reveals the mind controlling aspect of Applewhite's "evidence" that he spoke the truth. Anyone who "recognizes" or believes Applewhite's message instantly gains the distinction of having had a previous connection to the "True Kingdom of God." Implicitly, any disbelief may be attributed, not to lack of credible evidence, but to the unbeliever's lack of preparedness. Believing means instant status. Once in, disbelieving means instant stigma. By that same stigma, applied to unbelieving outsiders, group members were protected from any influence that could effectively refute Applewhite's claims. Only persons who believed were "qualified" to know whether or not it was true. Setting such a standard clearly invalidates Applewhite's claim that he wanted to be corrected if wrong.
The A standard, above, does offer some room for objective investigation, and Applewhite fails the test. Much could be said contrasting the "presence, conduct, mission, and departure" of Applewhite and of Jesus Christ, of Whom Applewhite claimed to be the latest incarnation. Perhaps the most obvious, and the most relevant, is the fact that when Jesus departed this world, twelve witnesses saw Him ascend into heaven alive in His physical body. Two angels promised that He would return in the same manner as these men saw Him go. That is, His descent from Heaven would be in a visible physical body, and witnessed by others. Applewhite would have the world believe that instead, the Son returned without a physical body of His own, invisibly and without witnesses, and then stole, took over and inhabited a body already existing on the earth for forty years. Tragically, for him and his followers, his and their departure bore no more resemblance to Jesus' departure than had Do's "arrival."
The objective examiner can only conclude that this "false gospel" of Applewhite and Nettles stands in stark contrast to the Gospel of grace purchased and offered by Jesus and proclaimed by the Church throughout the centuries. The real Gospel and its ministers genuinely welcome investigation. Paul wrote to "examine everything carefully" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The Apostle John wrote, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). If Applewhite's and Nettle's teaching were true they would not have had any fear or need to build such controls into their system to stiffle open and honest and examination.
Applewhite's words concerning their involvement in Theosophy and their alleged temptations to assume leadership in Lucifer's camp are very telling. "For us, the lesson gleaned from both these experiences is that it's not what you 'get into' that matters, but what you 'get out of.' Learning from your mistakes is what develops discernment, wisdom, depth and maturity" ('88 Update; emphasis added). Unfortunately for those thirty eight followers who died with him, they no longer have the opportunity to take this good advice and "get out." They cannot learn and mature from this "mistake."