Exactly 20 years ago Sunday, 39 people died in a mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, California. "Heaven’s Gate" made headlines around the world.
On March 26, 1997, a 911 call came into the San Diego Command Center.
“This is regarding a mass suicide. I can give you the address,” the caller said.
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Shortly after, San Diego Sheriff’s arrived to find a grisly scene: 21 men and 18 women were found dead in the residence. They were all covered in purple blankets and all wearing the same black Nike shoes. None of the bodies had any noticeable signs of trauma. Toxicology results showed the victims had drunk a lethal cocktail of phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and vodka.
“As they went in they kept finding more bodies and more bodies,” retired San Diego County homicide detective Chuck Curtis tells NBC 7 of the officers who discovered the scene. Curtis was the first officer to the scene. “It was an astonishing thing to them that they thought, ‘Is this ever going to end?’”
Marshall Applewhite, the leader of Heaven’s Gate, made an ominous video at the time. “They’re about to leave and they’re excited to leave," he said of his followers. Applewhite was found among the dead.
Heaven’s Gate preached that suicide would allow the followers’ souls to be taken to Heaven by a UFO hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
"Every once in a while the topic will come up in conversation," Dr. Jack Baca, pastor of a nearby church tells NBC 7.
The Heaven’s Gate mansion in Rancho Santa Fe has been demolished and even the street name has been changed.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and haven’t seen anything like it since,” Curtis remembers.
Today, Heaven’s Gate lives on with a replica display at the San Diego Sheriff’s Museum in Old Town.
“The locals who come in remember the case,” Curtis says. “They’re all very interested in the case and sometimes express shock or sadness about how people could do this to themselves.”
"I don't know that everyone or anyone frankly ever totally heals from tragic events. There's always a scar left," Baca adds. "There's always an imprint left, and in some ways that's part of what makes us human and gives us a chance to grow."
SUICIDE PREVENTION HELP: The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.