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Marshall Herff Applewhite was the leader of the Heaven's Gate religious group. He was a self-proclaimed prophet. He died in the group's mass suicide in 1997.
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Wanting to share their knowledge with others, Applewhite and Nettles began traveling again. Applewhite did most of the talking during the informational sessions they held while he relied on her strength and spiritual wisdom. People became interested in them and they started to develop a following. In 1975, they attracted around 20 followers after a meeting in Oregon,
which caught the attention of the national news. Applewhite and Nettles were also the subject of a 1976 book entitled U.F.O. Missionaries Extraordinary.
Uncomfortable with increased public scrutiny, Applewhite and Nettles sent their followers to out to travel the country as missionaries while they kept a low profile. At the group's peak, it had about 200 members. Applewhite and Nettles began weeding out their followers, keeping only the most dedicated and obedient members. They spent several years living at campsites with Applewhite and Nettles making sure that their followers kept busy performing tasks for the group or trying to curb their human nature.
The group experimented with several unusual diets and sex, drinking and smoking were forbidden (some male members, including Applewhite, were later castrated.) Lying and breaking the rules were considered major offenses. Uniformity was also important to Applewhite and Nettles—members all wore baggy clothing and had short hair.
In the 1980s, the group moved indoors, renting houses in several regions, including the Dallas area. Some members even started getting jobs in the outside world using fake names. Applewhite suffered a devastating blow in 1985 when Nettles died of cancer. He had lost his partner in his spiritual enterprise and seemed to flounder for a bit.
By the late 1980s, however, Applewhite regained his zeal for proselytizing, starting spreading the word of the imminent end of the Earth. The group made a series of videos called Beyond Human—The Last Call that featured information about the group and the Next Level in the early 1990s, which were broadcast via satellite. The group also took out ads worldwide, including USA Today in 1993. The headline of that ad read: "'UFO Cult' Resurfaces with Final Offer."
The discovery of the Hale-Bopp comet in 1995 drew the interest of Applewhite. He saw the comet as a sign that a spaceship was coming to take them to the Next Level. By 1996, the group was operating a successful computer business and lived in an exclusive neighborhood in Rancho Sante Fe, California. They also produced more videos encouraging others to leave with them, saying it was the "last chance to evacuate Earth before it's recycled."
As the Hale-Bopp comet drew closer to Earth in 1997, Applewhite and his followers prepared to make their exit from this world. On March 21, they ate a last supper of sorts at a restaurant, all ordering the same thing: turkey pot pie, cheesecake with blueberries and iced tea. A day or two later, when the comet was closest to the planet, Applewhite and his followers took their own lives by drinking a mixture of vodka and barbiturates.
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Combine a charismatic personality with fringe beliefs and an appetite for violence, and you get some of history's most notorious cult leaders. Charles Manson terrorized frightened Americans in the late 1960s, convincing his followers to commit heinous murders in his name. David Koresh led the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, leading to a standoff with the federal government in 1993 that resulted in the death of Koresh and 75 of his believers. Learn about these leaders, and many more, who inspired hundreds to follow their unconventional philosophies—often with tragic results.
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