Del Mar, California -- The 39 cult members found dead in a hilltop mansion apparently died in a carefully orchestrated suicide that involved sedatives, vodka and plastic bags possibly used to suffocate, officials said Thursday.
The victims apparently believed they were going to meet a UFO hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet.
Police said they had gathered little information so far on the background of the group or its leaders, only that they operated a computer Web service called "Higher Source." The name of the cult is "Heaven's Gate," which also has a Web site on the Internet.
The mass suicide likely took place over three days and involved three groups, proceeding in a calm, ritualistic fashion. Some members apparently assisted others and then cleaned up, then went on to take their own dose of the fatal mixture, mixed with apple sauce or pudding.
The last two victims to die were found with plastic bags over their heads.
Lying on cots or mattresses with their arms at their sides, the victims each carried identification.
"It seemed to be a group decision," said Dr. Brian Blackbourne, San Diego County Medical Examiner, at a news conference Thursday. "There were different stages, suggesting it was planned. They all had IDs. The house was immaculate."
Blackbourne said 21 of the victims were women and 18 were men.
Initially all the victims had been identified as men, since deputies found all of the victims dressed alike in black suits with close-cropped hair, making it difficult to determine their sex.
Officials are now trying to notify victims' families and have withheld names until that process is completed.
Authorities Thursday also showed video of the bloodless death scene at an afternoon news briefing. All the victims wore black pants and black Nike athletic shoes, their faces and chests covered with purple shrouds. Their bags had been packed neatly in the dormitory-type rooms. Those who wore glasses had them carefully placed at their side. In a pocket, most of the victims had a $5 bill and some quarters.
"They were at different stages of deterioration," Jerry Lipscomb of the San Diego Sheriff's Department told CNN. "That's the most pleasant way I can put that."
Lipscomb said officials were tipped off to the suicide after videotapes and a letter were sent to an ex-member of the group. No blood was found at the scene, and the only weapon in the house was a 9mm handgun packed in a suitcase.
"What we're finding is that each and every one of the members of the organization, prior to their death, gave a brief statement... The essence of those statements were that they were going to a better place," Lipscomb said.
Most of the victims were in their 40s, but their ages ranged from 26 to 72, said Cmdr. Alan Fulmer, chief investigator in the case.
A check of driver licenses showed that 11 of the victims came from New Mexico, eight from Texas, four from both California and Colorado and three from Arizona, officials said. There were also victims from Washington, Ohio, Florida and Minnesota.
Blackbourne said the victims mixed the sedative phenobarbital in apple sauce, washed it down with a drink of vodka and then were smothered with plastic bags over their heads. The plastic bags were found in trash can behind the house.
"We're not talking about a drug-crazed, party-time situation ...The drugs were taken for a very specific purpose and that was to take their own lives," Lipscomb said.
"It's our opinion that it was their intent -- they planned to do this."
Of the letter written to an ex-member of the group, he said: "Although it is not a suicide note, per se, it does imply that it was their intent to take their own lives..."
The first deputies who entered the home to find the bodies Wednesday complained of a distinctive odor.
Some of the victims had been dead for more than 36 hours before they were found, Blackbourne said. All had been removed from the house and identified by mid-day Thursday.
The Heaven's Gate Web site does not espouse suicide as such but promotes a "willful exit" as the road "entering the Kingdom of Heaven."
The Web site characterized Higher Source as a potential target for law enforcement, making reference to the treatment of the Davidians of Waco, Texas -- killed in 1993 in a fiery confrontation with the FBI -- and the bloody standoff at Ruby Ridge.
"We have thoroughly discussed this topic [of willful exit of the body under such conditions] and have mentally prepared ourselves for this possibility as can be seen in a few of our statements," they said on the Web site.
"However, this act certainly does not need serious consideration at this time and hopefully will not in the future. The true meaning of suicide is to turn against the next level when it is being offered."
Cult expert Robert Balch from the University of Montana in Missoula told CNN Thursday the group bears similarities to a movement started in the 1970s by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. She died in 1985 of cancer. He was known as "Bo" and she was known as "Peep" -- self-described Space Age shepherds on a mission to lead a flock of humans to a higher level of existence. Early Friday morning Applewhite was identified by officials as one of the dead.
Balch said he lost contact with Applewhite in 1994.
The San Diego Sheriff's Department entered the Spanish-style mansion in an exclusive neighborhood of this enclave 20 miles north of San Diego following an anonymous phone tip that a mass suicide had been staged there.
The head of a Beverly Hills-based computer company said one of his employees, named "Rio," a former member of the group, received two videotapes and a letter on Tuesday, alerting him to Higher Source's plans for a mass suicide.
Nick Matzorkis, of the Interact Entertainment company, told CNN Thursday he and Rio went to the mansion in Rancho Santa Fe on Wednesday, discovered the bodies, and notified authorities in San Diego and Beverly Hills.
It's not clear if Matzorkis or Rio was the same person police referred to as an anonymous caller.
Matzorkis said one of the videotapes was "hosted" by the group's leader, known as "Do" (pronounced DOE) and the other had members talking about "leaving this planet."
He says the members were "quite jovial and excited about moving onto the next stage."
Matzorkis said he was told that Higher Source believed a UFO was hiding behind the Hale-Bopp Comet and aliens were planning to take over the planet and could possibly be a contributing factor to their "willful exit."