My Memories of Covering Heaven's Gate -- 20 Years Ago Today

posted by Ted Garcia - 

This is a story I'll never forget. I was a young TV reporter at KFMB and got the call one day to head to Rancho Santa Fe. There were reports of multiple victims inside a mansion. A mass murder? A terrible accident? Turns out it became the biggest story in the country when it was discovered that it was a bizarre mass suicide.

It's now been 20 years since 39 people died in that home. The members took phenobarbital mixed with apple sauce and washed down with vodka. Additionally, they secured plastic bags around their heads after ingesting the mix to induce asphyxiation. Authorities found the dead lying neatly in their own bunk beds, faces and torsos covered by a square purple cloth. Each member carried a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets: the five dollar bill was to cover vagrancy fines while members were out on jobs, while the quarters were to make phone calls. Members kept these in their pockets at the time of death as a sort of dark humor. All 39 were dressed in identical black shirts and sweat pants, brand new black-and-white Nike Decades athletic shoes.

Their leader -- Marshall Applewhite -- convinced his followers they would be taken to heaven by a UFO hidden behind the Hale-Bopp comet. 

I remember standing in front of that house for days. Satellite trucks lined the quiet, tree-lined street. It was eerily quiet out there except for the chatter of reporters, including myself, doing live shots for their own stations and even the big networks.

Reporters, at one point, even interviewed me since I managed to get a quick interview with a family member of one of the victims. That was definitely weird -- seeing myself on TV surrounded by microphones. But at that point, everyone was looking for a new angle.

A few months after the incident, I was invited to tour the house. It was beyond surreal. It hadn't been cleaned yet, so there was still a strong smell of death. Bodily fluids still created ominous and ink blot-like stains on the wall to wall carpet.  It was hard to cover, tough to take in everything I say, but I did my job.

Were you in San Diego when this happened? What are your memories?


Ted Garcia

Ted Garcia

Ted Garcia is co-host of San Diego's Morning News on News Radio KOGO AM 600 in San Diego. Read more

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