Marshall Herff Applewhite, Jr was born in Spur, Texas to Louise Haecker and Marshall Herff Applewhite, Sr. He had an older sister named Louise Applewhite, who was born in 1924. Applewhite's father was a Presbyterian minister who started new churches and moved from place to place in Texas about every three years. Applewhite hoped to follow in his father's footsteps and become a preacher as well, but his sister and father encouraged him to develop his musical talents. In high school, Applewhite proved more dedicated to music than religion, and joined the school choir. In 1950, at age 19, Applewhite enrolled at Austin College, where he pursued a degree in Music and Pre-Theology at his father's urging.
In college, Applewhite studied voice and education, fueled by his passion for choir singing. In 1954, upon his graduation, Applewhite was drafted into the US Army. He was stationed in Salzburg, Austria, and then White Sands, New Mexico, where he became a Signal Corps instructor. He was drafted a year after the Korean War ended, so he did not go to Korea, nor did he see any action while in the service. According to his sister, he was honorably discharged at the rank of Sergeant in 1956 after two years of service.
After he was discharged, Applewhite became a college music teacher. Later, in his thirties, he led a musical career. He played starring roles in stage musicals in Colorado and Texas, was the choir director at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Houston, sang 15 roles with the Houston Grand Opera, and taught music at the University of St Thomas in Houston. In 1962, Applewhite got married in a Presbyterian church. He had a son named Mark, born in 1963, and a daughter named Mary, born 1968. He was fired from his job as a music professor at the University of St Thomas in 1970. The official reason given by the university was "health problems of an emotional nature".
Bonnie Nettles and Heaven's Gate
In 1972, Applewhite met a 44-year-old nurse named Bonnie Nettles at a Houston psychiatric hospital, where he was in the process of recovering from a heart attack. He saw her again in a theatre and they started courting each other. On August 28, 1974, the 43-year-old Applewhite was arrested in Harlingen, Texas for stealing credit cards.
After Nettles told him that he possessed special astrological attributes, Applewhite declared himself the individual in whose mind was held that of Christ, the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. By 1975 they had begun Total Overcomers Anonymous together, which was eventually to become Heaven's Gate.
In 1975, Applewhite and Nettles convinced 20 people from Waldport, Oregon to join their group. Applewhite told them there would be an alien appearance by means of a UFO, but when the encounter never happened they left the group. However, more people joined and soon the group had 93 members. The cult meetings were held in various locations initially in the Waldport area, but soon spread to multiple meetups at churches, halls, lecture theatres, and new age awareness centres. As the group became more structured, over a 9-month period in 1975 Applewhite, Nettles, and small groups of their followers travelled to nearly all 50 states and even parts of Canada. The mansion at Rancho Santa Fe, California, was the eventual site of the group's mass suicide, however the group moved periodically over the years, preferring to reside in California, Colorado, and New Mexico.
Nettles and Applewhite were nicknamed 'Ti and Do' or the 'UFO two'. Nettles died in 1985 of cancer and Applewhite led Heaven's Gate alone from her death to his suicide in 1997. At some point, Applewhite had himself surgically castrated.1
The Heaven's Gate Mass Suicide
On March 19, 1997, Marshall Applewhite taped himself speaking of mass suicide and believed "it was the only way to evacuate this Earth". The Heaven's Gate cult was against suicide but they believed they had no choice and had to leave Earth as quickly as possible. After claiming that a space craft was trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, Applewhite convinced 38 followers to commit suicide so that their souls could board the supposed craft. Applewhite believed that after their deaths, a UFO would take their souls to another "level of existence above human", which Applewhite described as being both physical and spiritual. Some might consider this comparable to what mainstream Christians envision as Heaven. This and other UFO-related beliefs held by the group have led some observers to characterize the group as a type of UFO religion.
Applewhite committed suicide with 38 other members in Rancho Santa Fe, California by mixing phenobarbitol with applesauce or pudding, then washing it down with vodka. They also placed plastic bags over their heads after ingesting the mix to ensure asphyxiation in case the drugs did not kill them. The cult members, aged between 26 and 72, are believed to have died in three groups, 15 the first day on March 24, 15 the next and nine on the third. Applewhite was the third last member to die; two women remained after him, and when found, were the only ones left without bags over their heads.
In the heat of the California spring, many of the bodies had begun to decompose by the time they were discovered. The corpses in the San Diego mansion underwent autopsies; cyanide and arsenic were found. The bodies were later cremated.
Authorities discovered other curiosities upon investigating the scene: each of the cult members was wearing black Nike sneakers, and six of the male members of the cult had been castrated.
One of the members did not commit suicide; Rio Di Angelo was a member who agreed with Applewhite weeks before the suicides to leave the group so he could ensure future dissemination of Heaven's Gate videos and literature. He videotaped the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe. However, the tape was not shown to police until 2002, five years after the event.