San Diego County officials say that an agreement with two former Heaven's Gate cult members has paved the way for a public auction of many of the infamous group's belongings.
But under the agreement, which must be approved by a judge, some of the most notable items will go to the couple for safekeeping rather than landing on the auction block.
Mark and Sarah King of Phoenix had threatened to appeal a judge's February ruling that the cult's estate belonged to the county and that the items could be sold at auction, according to Don Billings, a county public administrator. The couple agreed to drop any appeal as part of the deal worked out last week, Billings said.
In return, the Kings will receive religious writings, artwork and more than 20 arm patches embossed with the group's logo, which they plan to keep in memory of the 39 deceased cult members. The couple has agreed not to sell the objects, which include a videotape left behind by the group explaining that they planned to catch a ride on the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet to reach a higher level of consciousness.
The agreement would allow the county auction as early as September. It would include less notorious items owned by the cult, such as furniture, vans and television sets. The proceeds would go to pay $100,000 in claims filed against the Heaven's Gate estate by ex-members' relatives for burial expenses. Because members left no wills, the county has handled the group's estate.
After a series of negotiations with families of several cult members, county officials also agreed that they would not exploit the sale by advertising the auctioned belongings as being from the Heaven's Gate estate, Billings said.
A Superior Court hearing to approve the pact is set for Aug. 6.
In March 1997, cult members committed mass suicide in Rancho Santa Fe, 30 miles north of downtown San Diego, by swallowing a lethal cocktail of applesauce, alcohol and barbiturates.
Their bodies, each covered with a purple shroud and wearing Nike sneakers, were found by two San Diego County sheriff's deputies who were investigating a report of suspicious circumstances at a mansion rented by the group. Members left a videotape with a message saying that they wanted to shed their "earthly containers" and join a spaceship trailing the passing comet.
In February, the Kings--who left the celibate cult 20 years ago so they could marry--produced letters from cult members, along with a map and a pass code to an Escondido storage locker, to show that the group had intended the couple to take possession of the property.
Superior Court Judge Lisa Guy-Schall rejected the Kings' claim and ordered the couple to pay $17,000 in county legal fees for filing a frivolous claim.
After that decision, lawyers for the Kings approached county officials with an offer to drop their appeal if they could gain ownership of certain belongings.
The county turned over some items for free and sold others to them for $2,000, Billings said. Attorneys for the Kings could not be reached, but Billings said the couple still plans to appeal the judge's order that they pay the county legal fees.
Some of the items received by the Kings, including celestial paintings created by members and the patches embossed with the group's triangular logo, could have brought a tidy sum at auction, several collectors said.
"They're worth a ton of money," said J.D. Healy, co-owner of the Museum of Death near downtown San Diego. "They hold significance, if just as historical references."
One of the shrouds believed to have been found at the Rancho Santa Fe mansion is on display at Healy's museum. Billings said he did not know if the shroud is authentic or how it found its way there.
Healy said the shroud was left at his front door with a note from a benefactor. He said the item has attracted interest, but no more than other displays.
"We've got full-size execution devices, antique mortuary apparatuses, the biggest collection of serial killer art on the West Coast and an original set of crime scene photos from the Manson murders," he said. "That stuff blows the shroud right out of the water."
Still, Healy said, personal items associated with the Heaven's Gate cult would be considered valuable. "Owning one of those patches would be like getting a hold of one of John Dillinger's guns. It would be like owning your own piece of American history."