Editor’s Note — This is the final installment of a three-part series on a religious cult known as Heaven’s Gate, which had a link with Lincoln County. The following information was primarily gathered from archived stories in the News-Times’ 1997 coverage of the event. Certain information from the recent HBO television series on Heaven’s Gate was also used.
On March 28, 1997, the staff of the News-Times held the presses for some unexpected national news.
Authorities had found 39 bodies belonging to members of a group known as Heaven’s Gate in a home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. They had committed mass suicide while following the teaching of Marshall Applewhite, the surviving half of The Two, a pair who had made national headlines when they visited Waldport 22 years prior. Bonnie Nettles, the other half of The Two, died nearly 12 years earlier from cancer.
Applewhite’s exact beliefs had shifted over the years, but as of 1997, he claimed a UFO trailing the comet Hale-Bopp and crewed by extraterrestrials and the deceased Nettles would take him and his followers to a level of consciousness above what they and the rest of humanity were currently experiencing.
Despite earlier beliefs that he and his followers would need to board the UFO alive, Applewhite decided that if his followers were deceased at the time of the passing, their souls would be taken regardless. He organized the mass suicide to happen over the course of several days, and an anonymous caller prompted police to investigate the group’s communal home and discover 39 bodies on March 26, 1997.
Those involved had recorded goodbye messages and were dressed in black uniforms with “Heaven’s Gate Away Team” patches and Nike shoes. Near each body was a bag with identification and several dollars worth of currency.
Leslie O’Donnell, who was the News-Times’ managing editor at the time, said the news broke on the evening of a publication day, and she decided to remove an already placed front-page story to make space for the new story in that edition. She received permission to delay the press a few hours while she tried to get in touch with Robert Rubin, of Waldport, who she knew had first-hand experience with The Two.
The next week was hectic as O’Donnell contacted anyone she could think of who might have a story to tell from The Two’s visit to Waldport 22 years earlier. Along with Rubin, she found several people with something to say, from a local law enforcement officer who investigated the visit, to a local who claimed to have gone “undercover” to make sure someone who had joined was safe.
“We wanted to have the most complete story. We were the local paper,” O’Donnell said. “And in the middle of this the Washington Post called and also wanted a story, and I wrote one for them.”
Back in the spotlight
While the national spotlight brought by the initial visit of The Two to Waldport was little more than a distant memory for most, their history in the area was once again a subject that drew national attention to Lincoln County more than two decades afterward.
Following The Two’s visit, somewhere from six to 34 people were compelled by their lecture at the Bayshore Inn in Waldport to leave their old lives behind, and in the following weeks, they left to seek The Two in Colorado. Most of these people were from other parts of Oregon, but roughly seven were said by former members to have been from Lincoln County.
When news of the suicide settled and those involved were identified, none of the 39 people involved were identified as being from Lincoln County.
Rubin was part of the group that left with The Two after their visit; he returned six months later after he stopped believing in their message. At the time, he was the News-Times’ main source of information on The Two and Heaven’s Gate.
O’Donnell produced several articles for the March 28 and April 2, 1997 editions of the paper, gathering information from Rubin and other sources, as well as from stories from the newspaper’s archives to present to the community.
Two of O’Donnell’s articles describe Rubin’s six months with the group, as well as some of their beliefs.
“They came here and said if we gave up all our material possessions, we could go through what they called Human Individual Metamorphosis, or HIM, to get to a higher level,” Rubin said at the time, likening the description of the process to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.
After leaving Waldport, Rubin went to Eugene and then made his way to Fruita, Colo., with others looking to join The Two. He eventually ended up at a campground near Fox Lake, Ill., and learned how to rely on churches to survive while traveling and spreading The Two’s teachings. He was assigned a partner, and they began proselytizing, traveling to several different states.
As months went by however, The Two’s promise of their “resurrection” didn’t happen, and eventually The Two went underground to avoid publicity. After his time traveling, meeting new people and seeing new ways of thinking, Rubin gradually started having doubts. He realized he was looking for an answer to the age-old questions of “Why are we here? What is the meaning of life?” and The Two were not going to help him find it.
His partner was eventually reassigned, and Rubin was given free reign over a vehicle, which he used to travel to Austin, Texas. There he went to a library to research other gospels. The vehicle was towed, but he was able to reclaim his belongings and, with the help of a friend in Amarillo, Texas, he began hitchhiking home.
“That was a no-no, but I knew I was getting out,” Rubin said.
Looking back, Rubin said he got a lot out of the trip, considered it positive overall and called it “a unique experience.”
Two decades later
After returning to Lincoln County, Rubin managed to reclaim some of the property he tried to leave behind and went on with his life, but he was never shy about his time away. He started a natural foods distribution company and was active in the community.
Two decades later, Rubin was working at Grady’s Market in Waldport as a file management clerk when news of the suicide broke. He didn’t immediately make the connection that the followers of The Two and Heaven’s Gate were the same group.
Not long before the suicide, Rubin said he’d gotten in touch with someone who had been with the group for 20 years, and they had told him the group had eventually settled in a communal house, changed its name, and, with many members working with computers, developed a website, heavensgate.com, which is still up today.
Rubin was on his way back from a business meeting when the story hit national news, and shortly thereafter, he was bombarded with calls from reporters at his workplace and home. He focused on replying to local media first, but he was overwhelmed by the whole affair, and his opinion of the media began to sour over the course of the experience.
He didn’t know any of the suicide victims personally, but Rubin emphasized that when he had been involved, there was never any talk of suicide.
Rubin still lives on the same property in Waldport as he did decades ago. He’d heard about the recent HBO series on Heaven’s Gate, but said he hasn’t seen it yet. His opinion on the group hasn’t changed, though he’s more hesitant to talk to the media these days.
“When you look at it like everything else, all it was was another spiritual, religious opportunity. You can try them all out just to see what works for you,” Rubin told the News-Times in a recent interview. “We were seekers. It’s about why we’re here. What are we here for? What’s our goal? It can’t be to bounce a ball around. It’s gotta be looking for something else.”
Looking back on the investigation
After the suicide, O’Donnell was able to get in touch with local sources who were involved in investigating The Two and where they went after their visit.
This included Ron Sutton, who was the chief criminal deputy for the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office at the time, as well as an unnamed person who went “undercover” to find a missing friend.
Sutton said he’d heard about the meeting at the Bayshore Inn well before it happened, but hadn’t expected anyone to show up. He began to regret not stopping by himself when he’d heard more than 100 people attended and that 10 to 20 left afterward to join up.
From that point on, Sutton spent months trying to investigate Applewhite and Nettles, but he couldn’t turn up any evidence that a crime was committed. There was no fraud or kidnapping — people had willingly given away their belongings and left.
In the meantime, Sutton said he’d been getting calls from people from all over the country who were trying to find family members, but he had few answers for them. Ultimately, he was able to find out the location of one person from Lincoln County, who went unnamed.
Like Rubin, Sutton was also bombarded with media requests when the mass suicide was discovered.
While Sutton did what he could as a member of law enforcement, one Lincoln County resident took matters into his own hands.
The man requested to go unnamed in O’Donnell’s article and said he’d been in the first row of The Two’s lecture in Waldport, but couldn’t believe anyone had taken it seriously. But someone close to him, an unnamed woman whom he’d lived with for several years, did do so and left shortly afterward to follow them.
Fearing for her safety, the man said he and a friend decided to go “undercover” in an attempt to find her. They headed off with nothing but a Colorado zip code to try and locate her. Through what he called a “series of coincidences,” they managed to find a group of followers from Colorado and joined them in a campground in Rockford, Ill.
These two individuals then searched every campground within 150 miles and eventually found the group of recruits from Oregon, as well as the woman they were searching for. However, the woman and everyone else “seemed like themselves” and the searchers returned home satisfied. The woman returned nine months later on her own.