By Lyle Lofgren
Southern California, March 1997

Our friend E. recently married and moved into a house owned by her new husband G. They live north of San Diego in Rancho Santa Fe, a community famous because it has the highest per capita median income of any US municipality. We visited them mainly because Liz and E. share a long-standing interest in horses. While they worked with the horses in the backyard riding ring, I soaked up March sunshine. I marveled that the California sky was filled with chiggering helicopters sporting TV station logos. That usually means a big accident on the freeway, but the helicopters were not heading in that direction. G. came out of the house and told us there were news bulletins on TV about something awful taking place less than a half-mile away. We went inside to watch overhead helicopter views of a house and reporters standing in front of a yellow police tape. They reported that there was no news other than that all the people inside the house were dead. As the evening wore on, the body count grew to 39, all young men aged 18-24, all dressed in black pants with black tennis shoes. They had rented a Rancho Santa Fe mansion while it was being offered for sale.

"I'll bet it's a bunch of wetbacks," said G.

"Couldn't be," said Liz. "Mexican immigrants don't rent million-dollar houses, and they don't walk across the desert to commit mass suicide. This is a religious cult, and the millennium is upon us. It's Easter week, and there's Comet Hale-Bopp in the sky."

Liz was, of course, right on all counts. Sure enough, Hale-Bopp was interpreted by the group as a spaceship approaching to pick them up and take them to heaven, which, as any Weekly World News reader knows, is on the other side of the universe from here, so it's a long trip. The News recently reported that the Hubble Space Telescope  took a picture of heaven, shining brightly, but NASA will not release a copy of the photo, for fear of causing street riots.

The morning San Diego Union-Tribune had a monster headline worthy of the Weekly World News:


The poor newspaper reporters, with no facts, had to fill four full pages, so news reports were often corrected in the next few days. Even by that morning, for example, 21 of the young men had become women, and some of the people were in their 70s. The group was named "Higher Source" or maybe something else.

The newspaper reporters were interviewing any neighbor who would talk to them:

  • "Things like that don't happen here," said a middle-aged man who hurried along a village road, late for a seminar on finances. He looked relieved when told that the victims were renters. "Oh, then they're not really people from the Ranch -- real people from the Ranch don't commit suicide."
  • A woman who lives on top of a hill near the house said she heard screams coming from the house late at night over the past couple of weeks. "Up on the hill, you hear things," she said, adding that she had dismissed the incidents after her husband said she always makes too much out of nothing. "I wanted to call a friend in the FBI," she said. "I would hear things in the distance and it gave me an eerie feeling. It gave me the creeps, but my husband says I'm silly about things like that, and so I didn't."
  • A realtor who lives next door to the house where the bodies were found said that the last time he saw anyone go into or out of the house was last Saturday. "It seemed almost like they were a non-speaking order," he said. He once saw a chalkboard inside the house and used binoculars to try to read it. He saw a list with five columns, with three letters written under each column, but he couldn't decipher the meaning. (I can relate: I've been in lots of meetings like that.)
  • "They seemed odd," said a member of the Rancho Santa Fe Polo Club, which had contracted with the newcomers to design a web site, "but, living in California, odd is nothing strange to us."

A few days later, the newspapers reported that the group was really named "Heaven's Gate." "Higher Source" turned out to be an advertising slogan about their expertise in designing web sites. The error was discovered when media reporters finally found someone who knew how to surf the World Wide Web. Reportedly, is now getting a lot of hits.

The Cult Experts materialize on TV every time something like this happens. They all have two things in common: they're against cults, and everything they say about cults applies equally well to organized religions. A few months ago, a friend who was preparing a meditation for a church event asked us, "If someone comes up to you on the street and says, 'drop everything and follow me,' how do you respond?" After much discussion we couldn't think of any way to distinguish a False Messiah from the True Messiah. Cult Experts don't have such a problem, because they don't need to distinguish between the two.

It's clear in Southern California, so every evening we go outside and marvel at Hale-Bopp in the western sky. At its closest, it's over 100 million miles from us, yet responsible for 39 deaths, perhaps the same number as would have been killed if it had struck the earth. I maintain that you have to be able to see a comet to be affected by it. Back in Minnesota, it's cloudy, so no cults are dressing all in black for the trip across the universe. Even if it weren't cloudy, no one there could see the comet. We've added mid-block street lights in the city because the public fears crime. Most crimes are committed at night, so if you make night like day, criminals will not be able to ply their trade. You can't even go to the country to see the comet. Farms now have yardlights that automatically light at dusk and stay on all night. So Minnesotans needn't worry about either Crime or a Comet Cult.

Unless criminals are like viruses, mutating to commit crimes both night and day. And 39 is just about half the number of people killed every day in the US by the Automobile Cult.