From the Archives: Heaven’s Gate 25 years later

The San Diego Union-Tribune's front page from March 27, 1997 reports on the Heaven's Gate mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe.
The San Diego Union-Tribune’s front page from March 27, 1997 reports on the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe.
(U-T )

Twenty-five years Sheriff’s Deputies responded to an anonymous 911 call reporting a mass suicide in a Rancho Santa Fe mansion.

In all, 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult were found dead.

The cult members had poisoned themselves in an elaborate ritual carried out over several days. They left documentation indicating they had systematically planned their deaths for months. even years. They left behind videotapes that said they were shedding their bodies, which they referred to as “containers,” in order to board a spaceship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

From The San Diego Union-Tribune, Thursday, March 27, 1997:

Mansion of death yields 39 bodies

By Ruth L. McKinnie, Staff Writer

RANCHO SANTA FE — At least 39 members of a religious group, who referred to themselves as angels, were found dead yesterday inside a rented million-dollar-plus estate.

Sheriff’s investigators, who began searching the house only late last night, said the deaths appeared to be a mass suicide. If so, it would be one of the largest such incidents in U.S. history.

The men and women, many between the ages of 18 and 24 but some older, had been dead at least three days, authorities said.

The bodies were found by a sheriff’s deputy sent to the house just after 4 p.m. yesterday in response to an anonymous caller’s tip to check on the welfare of the people inside the secluded house on Colina Norte. A similar call was received by Beverly Hills police and routed to San Diego sheriff’s officers.

The first deputy to enter the home found several bodies and stopped counting at 10. He left the house and waited until another deputy arrived. Together they counted 39 bodies.

The dead were scattered throughout the rambling two-story house, sheriff’s officials said. Some were on their backs on the floor with their hands at their sides, while others were lying on cots or mattresses. Sources said all but two had their heads and shoulders draped with purple, silky scarves, with one corner on the forehead and two corners on the shoulders.

Union-Tribune reporting on the 1997 Heaven’s Gate cult suicide in Rancho Santa Fe

There were no survivors.

Initially investigators thought all of the dead were young men, but they revised that report early this morning.

“They were all in a prone position on their back with their arms at their sides,” said sheriff’s Cmdr. Alan Fulmer. “All appeared as if they’d fallen asleep.”

All the dead were wearing dark trousers, sneakers and light-colored shirts. There were no obvious signs of injury on any of the bodies, and there was no sign of a struggle inside the house, he said.

“This is the worst (crime scene) in terms of the numbers of people in one place at one time that I’ve ever seen,” Fulmer said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” said veteran homicide Detective Lt. Jerry Lipscomb.

There were many computers inside the house. One computer monitor was on with a note indicating that it should not be turned off.

“I’ll bet that’s their suicide note,” a law enforcement source said.

An attorney for the businessman who owns the home said it had been rented in October to a religious group he knew by the name of WW Higher Source. Others said the men designed pages for the World Wide Web.

Realtors said the home’s owner, Sam Koutchesfahani, rented it for $10,000 a month after unsuccessfully trying to sell it for $1.595 million.

The renters “referred to themselves as angels,” said Milton Silverman, Koutchesfahani’s attorney. “They didn’t drink, they didn’t smoke, (they) were celibate. . . .

“They believed they were sent to Earth as angels,” he added. “They met in Middle America, U.S.A.” Silverman said there are affiliates or chapters of their group in New Mexico and Arizona.

The house remained on the market, Silverman said, though the group asked not to be bothered by prospective buyers this week.

“They requested that the house not be shown this week because it was their holy week,” Silverman said. “They appeared to be peaceful, religious people.”

Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ life, started Sunday with Palm Sunday. Purple -- the color of the scarves found on the corpses -- is one of the traditional colors associated with the Lenten season.

Sheriff Bill Kolender, Undersheriff Jack Drown and Gov. Pete Wilson were said to be on their way to the mansion from out of town last night, while as many as 20 sheriff’s detectives waited outside the home for hours until a search warrant was issued.

Investigators also waited until members of the county’s Hazardous Materials Team made sure no toxic chemicals were inside the house. Fulmer said the team detected no gas fumes inside the residence.

The first two deputies to enter the house -- wearing surgical masks -- smelled a noxious, pungent odor inside. The house was completely shut up, with all the windows and doors closed, although the deputies found an unlocked side door through which they entered.

The two deputies were examined at a hospital as a precaution and were discharged.

Last night, a sheriff’s evidence technician in the rear of the home was seen taking numerous photographs of apparent writing on a sidewalk.

As sheriff’s officials began their investigation, seven helicopters and one small plane, all possibly hired by the media, flew low over the house. El Camino del Norte, the nearby main thoroughfare, was congested with interested passersby.

Bill Strong, a Realtor who lives next door to the home where the bodies were found, said the last time he saw anyone go in or out of the house was on Saturday.

Strong said he occasionally saw people coming and going from the home in four large vans with New Mexico license plates. He said he exchanged waves with them, but never words.

“It almost seemed like they were a nonspeaking order,” Strong said. “I never heard a noise from there.”

Strong said he once saw a chalkboard inside the house and used binoculars to try to read what was written on it. He said he saw a list with five columns with three letters written under each column, but he could not decipher the meaning.

Four or five members of the group apparently did computer work for Web Sites Now, which is owned by Interact Entertainment Group in Beverly Hills, according to Lili Ungar, a Santa Monica publicist whose clients include Interact.

One of those members left the group about three months ago and is now employed by the company, she said last night.

Ungar spoke with Nick Matzorkis, Interact’s owner, after learning of the deaths. “He didn’t believe they were part of a cult or anything like that -- they were just people,” Ungar said.

One cult expert said that yesterday’s grim discovery was reminiscent of the ritual deaths of followers of the Order of the Solar Temple, a Swiss-based cult, who apparently believed that by killing themselves they would be transported to a new life in a world called Sirius.

“The M.O. is similar,” said the Rev. Peter Barnes, who became a student of cults and a Baptist minister after leaving a cult.

The fact that the bodies were positioned somewhat alike -- many lying on their backs -- was among the similarities. The bodies found in two 1994 mass suicides, which claimed a total of 53 lives, were found in circles. In a mass suicide ritual within the same cult the next year, the 16 bodies were arranged in a star formation.

The Solar Temple deaths may also have been linked to the position of the sun.

But another expert played down the possible links.

“There’s nothing at this point that appears linked to the Solar Temple,” Mike Kropveld, executive director of Info-Cult, a Montreal organization, told The New York Times. Kropveld said all known Solar Temple members have been accounted for and authorities did not know of any large group of them that was missing.

The 9,200-square-foot house with seven bedrooms and 7 1/2 baths is one of five or six expensive homes on the cul-de-sac. The home sits on a 3-acre lot with a swimming pool, spa and tennis courts.

Koutchesfahani, the owner, recently pleaded guilty to tax evasion and fraud. He admitted that he took as much as $350,000 from Middle Eastern students between 1989 and 1995 and used the money to bribe instructors at San Diego City College, Mesa College and Palomar College to illegally enroll the students and certify them as California residents.

Neighbors Arnie and Claudia Kapan, who moved into their house on Colina Norte in October, said Koutchesfahani joked about renting his home to monks.

Koutchesfahani “was a real nice guy,” said Arnie Kapan, 72. “He said, ‘You are one of the nicest neighbors around.’ He said to me jokingly, ‘I am going to rent my house to some monks.’ ”

“We think we are in paradise,” said Claudia Kapan, 65. “We left L.A. because it was getting gnarly up there. . . . We thought we were moving to a safe utopia. The only exciting thing around here is the ditch they are digging out front to put in a pipe.”

Most homes in the area are behind security gates. Several residents declined to speak to reporters last night, while others expressed alarm.

“I am very shocked something like this would happen on our quiet street,” said Jody Honnen, 63, who lives next to the home where the bodies were found. “Everyone is very respectable. Everyone stays to themselves. And everyone is very nice.”