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Alice Maeder lived for years in hope that her daughter would come back home.
Gail Maeder left Sag Harbor, New York at age 21 for California, and after one visit with her parents in her new home, she seemingly disappeared off the map. She had taken up with a strange, cult-like group of UFO enthusiasts called Heaven's Gate sometime in 1993.
“Every day we were wondering about her,” Alice told Oxygen's “Deadly Cults.” “Every day I was praying, 'Dear God, don't let anything happen to her.'”
In a postcard, Gail told her family that she was doing “really great” and had “found a way to make a difference in the world,” but they were concerned and began looking into the Heaven's Gate cult, which had been active since the mid-1970s.
At a Queens, New York convention in 1994, Alice met cult expert Janja Lalich. She knew that the group traveled the country picking up new members and understood a little bit about its leaders, Marshall Applewhite and the late Bonnie Nettles.
Nettles met Applewhite, a man in his 40s struggling with his homosexuality, while they were both briefly institutionalized in the early 1970s, according to Rolling Stone. Nettles convinced Applewhite that they were both descended from a higher species of aliens. They began traveling the country, introducing newcomers to their science fiction-seasoned ideology.
Lalich gave Alice a cult-produced videotape in which Applewhite explained that the planet Earth was “about to be recycled.” As Alice and her family watched Applewhite explain that cult followers needed to “evacuate” the dying planet, she said, they felt sick to their stomachs.
“Is this guy crazy?” Applewhite asks rhetorically in one of the videos, staring into the camera. “Is this a cult? Yes, it is – it's the cult of cults!”
“How can she fall for this?” Alice recalled asking herself.
Gail was far from alone in “falling for” Applewhite's theology, though. Applewhite was “charming and charismatic,” with a calm demeanor, Lalich told “Deadly Cults.”
A former Heaven's Gate follower named Sawyer recalled his first time hearing Applewhite and Nettles speak at a town hall in Oregon in 1975. Sawyer found a flyer advertising an event that promised the truth about UFOs and that attendees would meet two people who weren't of this world, he told “Deadly Cults.” Sawyer saw what he thought was a “haze” in the hall surrounding the cult leaders, and he decided to give his all to Heaven's Gate.
Cult members lived under strict rules, with new names and a strict ban on sex. Many of the men underwent voluntary castration as a way to help rid themselves of earthly desires, according to “Deadly Cults.” For three months in the ‘90s, followers drank nothing but the “Master Cleanse,” a mixture of lemonade, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup, Rolling Stone reported.
They were preparing themselves to eventually shed their human bodies and return to their home in a spaceship, Lalich explained to “Deadly Cults.”
In March 1997, an unusually bright comet was approaching Earth, and scientists and amateur sky-watchers eagerly awaited the show. Applewhite considered the Hale-Bopp comet's arrival a sign. He told his followers that in the comet's tail was a starship, ready to take their souls to heaven. To get a ride, however, they would need to leave their mortal bodies behind.
“Our mission here at this time is about to come to a close in the next few days,” one Heaven's Gate follower said in a farewell video later recovered by police. “We came from distant space, and we're about to return.”
The cult, whose members were living together in a big house in Rancho Santa Fe, California, packed their belongings neatly. On March 24, the whole group treated themselves to a meal at Marie Callender's, where they all ordered the same thing for dinner: iced tea, salads, turkey potpie, and cheesecake with blueberries, according to Rolling Stone.
The next day, 39 members of the cult began their exit from this world. They dressed in black pants and black Nike sneakers. Many of them put $5 bills and quarters in their pockets, CNN reported.
Then began an orderly mass suicide.
Applewhite provided everyone, including himself, bowls of applesauce laced with phenobarbital and glasses of vodka to wash it down. They also had plastic bags on hand to ensure they died, and many members had hydrocodone in their system, former San Diego County Medical Examiner Terri Haddix told “Deadly Cults.”
Police were able to reconstruct roughly how the mass suicide played out. Written instructions told followers to drink some vodka, then eat the applesauce, then drink a little more. Then, they were told to lie down and relax — sleep would come soon.
The followers worked in small groups to assist others' suicides, essentially taking turns. Once their breathing had slowed, plastic bags would be placed over their heads. Once they had died, a purple shroud was placed over their faces.
“These were some dedicated people,” former San Diego County Sheriff's Office Lead Detective Rick Scully told producers. “To stand over the person they lived with for 20 years and watch them die … After they took the poison, that person standing over them would be the only person to know if they had any regrets, or if they had a hard time or struggled. Now, we'll never know.”
Applewhite was the only member with a private bedroom, and his body was the last found by police on March 26.
Scully recalled a “godawful” odor of decomposition when he entered the home that day, after an anonymous 911 tip. It was “like descending into hell,” he said.
Media reports were incomplete at first — there was even confusion over the genders of the victims, due to their shaved heads and the fact that some had self-castrated.
Gail’s brother, Daniel Maeder, heard the first reports on the radio in his car, and he to tell himself that Gail was probably fine because the victims were reportedly all men.
By the time Daniel got home, the reports had changed, including women among the dead. Still, the Maeders tried to keep up hope.
Gail “has more sense than that … she's going to call soon and say, 'Mom, get me out of here,'” Daniel recalled saying to his family.
The Maeders called the San Diego coroner's office, and their worst fears were confirmed. Alice would later watch Gail's farewell video, in which she indicated that her new name was “Yrsody,” cheerfully saying that what she was about to do was of her own free will.
“She could have had anything in this world,” Alice said. “It's an open hole in your heart that's never going to heal … I guess God blinked his eye for a minute.”
The Heaven's Gate cultists weren't stupid people, Det. Scully told “Deadly Cults.” They were good people, and they had something missing in their lives that they were searching for, he explained.
As for Applewhite, Scully was less charitable in his assessment.
“In my opinion, he's the most evil man I have ever encountered,” he said. “In my mind, he's one murderer, and they're 38 victims.”
For more on the Maeders' story and actual videotapes made by Heaven's Gate members before the mass suicide, watch “Deadly Cults” at Oxygen.com. New episodes air Sundays at 7/6c.
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