Over the holiday season, many tune in to fuzzy Hallmark romances or Christmas classics. I watch documentaries about cults.
The Heaven’s Gate “UFO Cult” became famous in the 1990s after 39 members quietly overdosed themselves in a California mansion, believing that upon shedding their bodies they would join an alien race on a spaceship four times the size of our planet. To us Earthlings it appears that the cult members committed suicide at the suggestion of their leader, Marshall Applewhite, aka Do.
I knew the Heaven’s Gate cult co-founder Bonnie Lou Nettles, aka Ti, had Dallas roots. She died of cancer in 1985 at Parkland Hospital, under an assumed name, and according to a New York Times article, her family scattered her ashes at a nearby ‘serene lake.’ (Later, her daughter Terri confirmed in a 10-part podcast that it is White Rock).
The NYT piece puzzles over how a couple of middle-aged Texans became “The Two” and gathered hundreds of followers — “old, the poor and rich — a film editor, an accountant, a waiter …”
“Most had already been shopping the counterculture for higher truths … Transcendental Meditation and peyote buttons,” notes the paper.
According to Terri Nettles and various shows on Heaven’s Gate, the members did not consider shedding their vehicles (communally killing themselves) when Bonnie was alive. Many believe that in his grief following his cult partner’s death, Applewhite may have experienced delusional thinking.
The three-part 2020-produced HBO docuseries Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults is heartbreaking in its revelation that at least two more members took their own lives after the highly publicized 1997 mass suicide, believing they could catch up with their cult family.
And those ex members who are still around cut tragic figures.
The last episode — after the eerie footage of the mansion and bodies covered in silky tarps, Nike sneakers poking out from underneath (which I remember seeing over and over again as a college student) — the medical examiner’s notes are shown on screen.
One of the dead is listed as Norma Jean Nelson, or Ann Nelson, according to her AARP card. The address on her driver’s license was 13030 Audelia Road, Dallas, TX, 75243.
Associated Press has reported that Nelson’s neighbors in her “North Dallas” apartment building felt she was a little unusual.
The 59-year-old (at time of death) reportedly told a neighbor she was from Star Trek. “We thought maybe she was crazy,” Cynthia McGowen told the AP in ’97.
She was estranged from her husband and children, and in 1994, neighbors at the apartment complex “noticed multiple visits by strange people,” according to People magazine.