Suicide Cult's Possessions Auctioned Off
New York Times Published: November 22, 1999
SAN DIEGO, Nov. 20— Many of the items on the block were ordinary enough -- a plastic laundry hamper, card tables, camping gear, clothes, tools, cookbooks, a sewing machine. Only a few -- a voluminous collection of books about U.F.O.'s, 20 metal-frame bunk beds, a pair of black Nike sneakers -- offered a hint of their macabre origins.
The items auctioned by county officials today were the last earthly possessions of the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult who killed themselves nearly three years ago, in hopes of boarding a spaceship that they believed was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. The mass suicide was one of the worst in United States history.
The belongings on sale today offered no insight into what led their former owners to a point in life where they believed the path to the heavens began with a lethal mix of barbiturates, vodka and apple sauce. There were 183 lots in all, which also included television sets, videocassette recorders, a camcorder and three cars.
About 375 people came to bid on the items with a mix of gallows humor, indifference and ignorance. Their reasons for bidding included basic need, morbid curiosity and commercial intent.
''I've got to go; this is not for me,'' said David Sauceda, a 40-year-old construction worker who was looking for tools when he was told the source of the items.
The curators of the Museum of Death, which is expected to open in Hollywood in January, bought a bunk-bed frame to be used in a display about cult deaths.
Ken Powell, 34, and his wife, Laura, 29, bought seven bunk beds that they said they intended to sell for a profit on the Internet.
''They might go for a couple grand each,'' Mr. Powell said. ''You don't know. There are some weird people out there.''
The bodies of the cult members were discovered on March 26, 1997, in a seven-bedroom house in an affluent suburb, after the cult's leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite, had sent several people a videotape in which he said the members would be ''shedding their containers'' and ''leaving this planet.'' A videotape of the scene made by investigators from the Sheriff's Department showed the cult members uniformly dressed in black track suits and black Nike sneakers, covered with purple shrouds.
The auction was delayed by a probate battle involving two former members of the group, Mark and Sarah King, who wanted control of the estate. Though they ultimately lost, the county agreed to sell them the ''intellectual property'' in the estate -- manuscripts, artwork, computers and the like, as well as patches bearing the cult's logo -- for $2,000. Kent W. Schirmer, the chief of San Diego County's property division, said the Kings wanted to keep the materials out of the public realm.
Proceeds from the auction will be given to families of the dead to cover the cost of burial. Mr. Schirmer said that the crowd was not much larger than it is for most such auctions and that the bidding amounts were average. By the end of the day the items had fetched nearly $33,000.
Bidding was heaviest on the books and on the bunk-bed frames, which generally sold for $110 to $130.
Few in the crowd of bidders shared the cult's beliefs or acknowledged a fascination with death. A man and woman dressed completely in black and gray determinedly bid several hundred dollars for most, if not all, of the books in the estate, but would not speak with reporters afterward.
Julie Stangeland, a collectibles trader who holds a certificate in mortuary science, said she bought one of the bed frames because she was fascinated by cults and the power their leaders exert over members. But she added: ''I don't want to sound morbid because I'm really not. If God would alter the universe so people could live forever, I'd be kicking my heels up.''
Edward C. Songer, 66, a federal telecommunications worker, said he bid on boxes of crimping tools, wires and phone cards because he was able to pay $60 for items that would normally cost about $200.
''It's just for my occupation; it's for my life,'' Mr. Songer said. ''It doesn't bother me where they came from.''
Some voiced discomfort with the origin of the items.
Mike Benavides, 25, said he wanted to buy a VCR, because his had broken down, and maybe another piece of memorabilia as well. But his wife, Jennifer, 21, said she was unsure whether she would allow something like that in the house.
Most people said they bid in the hopes of owning a novel, if grim, piece of Americana.
''It's an odd piece of San Diego history, but it happened here nonetheless,'' said Andrew Shaw, a 27-year-old college student who also bought a bed frame. He said he would put it in his guest bedroom.
But would he sleep on it? ''Absolutely not,'' he said.
Photos: Bunk-bed frames were among the items once belonging to members of the Heaven's Gate cult that were auctioned off in San Diego on Saturday. Their house was the site of a mass suicide in 1997. Also on the block: books about U.F.O.'s and a pair of black Nike sneakers similar to those worn by the 39 people whose bodies were found in the cult's house.
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