Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. -- The 39 men and women found dead in a mass suicide at a luxury estate here were members of an obscure computer-related cult who left behind detailed videotapes describing their intentions and appeared to believe that the Hale-Bopp Comet now streaking across the sky was their ticket to heaven.
The members of the group, identified by the authorities as Heaven's Gate, referred to themselves as "angels," dressed alike in androgynous black clothes and buzz haircuts, and ran a business, known as Higher Source, that designed commercial home pages for the Internet.
The co-founder of the cult, Marshall Herff Applewhite, 65, was among the dead, the San Diego County medical examiner's office said.
On Wednesday, a former cult member, alerted by two videotaped messages mailed to him in Los Angeles County, drove with his employer to a rented house in this hillside suburb just north of San Diego to find the dead scattered on their backs, purple cloths folded in triangles over all but two of their heads and shoulders like shrouds.
Neighbors and other acquaintances said the group kept quiet and clannish in the seven-bedroom, nine-bathroom house, filled with Spartan-style bunkbeds, plastic chairs, cheap office furniture, bulk food and perhaps 20 computers. The authorities said that the degree of decomposition in their bodies suggested they had died at various times over three or more days, and that there were indications that at least some swallowed a mix of phenobarbital and alcohol and then put plastic bags over their heads, but that toxicology tests could take a week or more.
At first the police said all the victims appeared to be young men, but on Thursday officials described that mistake as a result of dim lighting, the condition of the bodies and the fact that all wore closely cropped hair.
On Thursday, more than 30 detectives and lab technicians combed through evidence and examined the bodies as journalists swarmed around the house in an exclusive enclave that is home to the likes of the diet diva Jenny Craig, the sportscaster Dick Enberg and the actor Victor Mature. The authorities said that the victims all had drivers licenses, passports, birth certificates and other identification on their bodies, but that release of their names was being delayed pending notification of their families.
"We may never really know the question that is on anyone's mind: Why did they do this?" the San Diego county sheriff, Bill Kolender, said at a news conference here on Thursday afternoon, visibly shaken by what may have been the worst mass suicide in U.S. history.
But Nick Matzorkis, the head of Interact, a Beverly Hills company that designs home pages for the Internet and who had contracted out some work to Higher Source, said that tapes sent on Tuesday to the former cult member who discovered the bodies and who now works for him contained a message from the cult leader, identified as "Do," (pronounced DOE). It said the members would be "shedding their containers" and "leaving this planet," and was accompanied by another tape in which members made farewells two-by-two.
A site on the World Wide Web, called Heaven's Gate, and apparently created by the cult, makes repeated references to a Do and his deputy, Ti. In effusive language, the page celebrates the presence of the Hale-Bopp comet as "the 'marker' we've been waiting for -- the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to 'Their World' -- in the literal heavens."
In a videotape broadcast by the CBS network and its affiliates, an unidentified white-haired man believed to be Applewhite said, "You can follow us but you cannot stay here," and he urged viewers to "follow quickly."
Reporters at a Toledo, Ohio, station had obtained the tape from a minister in Adrian, Mich., who also received a note containing a lengthy statement. "By the time you read this," the statement read, "we'll be gone -- several dozen of us. We came from the Level of Above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly task, to return to the world from whence we came -- task completed."
Brian Blackbourne, the San Diego County medical examiner, said at the news conference that there were no indications of foul play but that in the trash behind the house investigators found plastic bags with elastic bands around them and tattered recipes suggesting that members mix bites of pudding or applesauce with drugs, then swallow a vodka mixture and lie back to die. He said it appeared that the members killed themselves in stages -- first 15, then another 15, then nine -- with later victims helping to clean up after those who came before them.
"It was very planned," Blackbourne said, "very sort of immaculately carried out."
At the news conference, officials showed a videotape made Wednesday night by investigators, depicting the bodies, in matching black athletic pants and black running shoes, lying on beds and cushions with hands at their sides. There were 21 women and 18 men, ranging in age from their 20s to a 72-year-old man. Many were in their 40s, officials said. Officials said most of the dead were white, with two blacks and one or two of Hispanic origin.
Commander Alan Fulmer of the Sheriff's Department said all but one of the victims appeared on the farewell videotape, and appeared to have no qualms about their impending fate. One man, in particular, was "very upbeat, very outgoing," and "did not appear to be upset about what they were doing," by "making their final exit, if you will."
Matzorkis said he and his employee -- whom he would identify only by the pseudonym Rio -- had driven here on Wednesday afternoon to follow up on the videotapes and an accompanying letter sent by Federal Express. He said Rio entered the house, found the bodies and emerged "white as a sheet" to place a call to 911 summoning the police.
For all the group's odd ways, neighbors and former clients described them as professional and efficient workers and expressed astonishment at their fate. The police had no record of any previous contact with the group or calls of complaints or suspicious behavior at the house.
"They definitely seemed odd," said Tom Goodspeed, director of the local polo club, for whom the group designed a home page. "But living in California, odd is nothing strange for us. They seemed to me to be well within the norms of being able to handle society."
Cory VanKleeck, manager of the Postal Annex, a private postal company in nearby Del Mar, said that a mailbox had been rented there last October on behalf of Higher Source by a person who identified himself as Alan Schaff. There was no listing for such a person in local telephone directories, and it was not clear whether he was among the victims.
Milton Silverman, a lawyer for the house's owner, Sam Koutchesfahani, who rented it to the group last October, said they had referred to themselves as Christian-based angels sent to earth who met in the Midwest some years ago. He described the leader as a man named Father John, about 70 years old, and said the group had told him there were chapters in Arizona and New Mexico.
Silverman said Koutchesfahani had been trying to sell the house for at least $1.2 million, but failing. When a real estate agent offered the owner a group of clean-cut people to rent the house, he agreed. The group had references from a doctor they had rented from in the nearby community of Fairbanks Ranch, he said, stating that they had left the house in better condition than when they moved in.
The group paid $7,000 in cash each month, Silverman said, and the owner only ever knew their leaders by the names of Father John and Brother Logan. They told him that they came from the Midwest and that they did not believe the government should have any authority over them. They claimed to have no Social Security numbers and did not use bank accounts, Silverman said.
Silverman said his client last saw the tenants on Sunday, when they offered him the gift of a computer for one of Koutchesfahani's children.
The authorities said on Thursday that the victims carried drivers licenses from New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, California and Arizona, for the most part, and that one had a Canadian birth certificate.
But Fulmer said, "We have not had time to pursue the philosophy this group lived by, or the why of the deaths."
President Clinton, speaking to reporters at the White House, called the suicides "heartbreaking, sickening" and added "it's important that we get as many facts as we can about this and to try to determine what, in fact, motivated those people and what all of us can do to make sure there aren't other people thinking the same way out there."
Matzorkis described the cult members as all looking the same, with buzz haircuts, and said they referred to themselves as "monks" living in "a monastery." He said he was initially skeptical when his employee told him the group was planning a suicide and offered to drive the worker here himself.
Rio emerged from the house to say, 'They did it,"' Matzorkis recalled at a news conference outside his office in Beverly Hills. When he asked, "Did what?" Rio replied, "They left their containers, they committed suicide," he said.
Deputy Sheriff Robert Brunk, one of the first two deputies on the scene, said that even before he got into the house, the air conditioner was running and he could smell a noxious odor from inside. He and a partner found 37 people lying with 3-foot by 3-foot triangles of cloth over their faces, and cups with a liquid substance were found.
Officials said that two of the dead had no shrouds, but plastic bags over their heads, and they speculated that these two were the last to die.
"It was just the most bizarre thing," Brunk said in an interview. He recalled turning to his fellow officer, as they viewed body after body, and saying: "The next thing we do, will bring the whole world in on us. You just don't get this kind of call every day."