SAN DIEGO (AP) - For months, the 39 members of Heaven's Gate climbed a sci-fi stairway to Paradise, step by faithful step.
Up before dawn, they prayed and then trained a telescope on the sky to look for the UFO they believed would whisk them away from Earth's tribulations.
In March, as the Hale-Bopp comet swooped to within 122 million miles of Earth, they got the signal: Time to go.
Suddenly, their daily regimen switched from holistic hokum to recipe for destruction as they leaped into the void fueled by a cocktail of pudding, sedatives and vodka, confident to the end that cosmic salvation beckoned.
"We know whatever happens to us after we leave our bodies is a step forward" - videotaped message by Marshall Applewhite, glassy-eyed leader of Heaven's Gate.
Last October, the group known as Heaven's Gate moved into the sprawling mansion that would eventually become their high-priced mausoleum.
There, according to people who knew them through their business incarnation of Web site designers Higher Source Contract Enterprises, group members followed a schedule of almost military precision. They got up at 3 a.m. for prayers, searched the sky at 4 a.m., ate a communal meal at 5.
The rest of the day it was work and more work, interspersed by breaks for fruit and a lemon-cayenne pepper drink reminiscent of the faddish '70s purge known as the "Master Cleanser."
They wore black and kept their hair trimmed to Marine recruit length. They didn't drink alcohol. They didn't do drugs. They didn't have sex. Some of the men had taken celibacy to the extreme: castration.
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"I have the same kind of penetrating questions that you have: Who or what would make 39 people take their life in this manner?" - Sheriff Bill Kolender at a news conference describing the deaths.
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In mid-November, a rumor began to circulate that there was a spaceship lurking behind Hale-Bopp.
On their Web site, cult members made references to the ghost ship. But they said it was irrelevant, because the comet signaled it was time for "the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to `Their World."'
In March, the group started winding down their business, telling some clients not to call them until after Easter. One company tried to hang on to their services, recalled an employee who knew three cult members by the names of Jeff Moore, Nora and Golden.
"They became indecisive. It was like part of them didn't want to leave," the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the The San Diego Union-Tribune.
On Friday, March 21, the group went out to lunch at a Marie Callender's restaurant in suburban Carlsbad.
Typical of their contact with outsiders, they were friendly, polite - and a little bit strange.
They asked for so many lemons that the restaurant went through three deep-dish casserole pans of quartered lemons.
"They kept asking for lemons for their ice tea; we couldn't keep up," waiter Jeff Mercier told The North County Times. "They were just sucking them down."
On Sunday, house owner Sam Koutchesfahani paid a visit. His lawyer would later say the group seemed fine and gave him a computer for his son to use in school.
That night, the ball of frozen gas and dust known as Hale-Bopp made its closest pass to Earth.
The Heaven's Gate Web site was updated one last time at 10:26 Pacific time.
In its final version, the page carried a flashing logo borrowed from Star Trek.
"Red Alert, Hale-Bopp Brings Closure to Heaven's Gate."
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"Take the little package of pudding or applesauce and eat a couple of teaspoons. Pour the medicine in and stir it up. Eat it fairly quickly and then drink the vodka beverage. Then lay back and rest quietly" - suicide instructions as read by the medical examiner.
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Notes, a trash can full of plastic bags and medical evidence indicate the final hours of Heaven's Gate was a calmly choreographed dance of death.
Members put on a uniform of long black pants, oversized black shirts and brand-new black Nike sneakers emblazoned with the shoe maker's cometlike white "swoosh" trademark.
All but one of the group had left a final message on videotape.
"I am doing this of my own free will," said one man. "It is not something someone brainwashed me into or convinced me of or did a con job on."
Most tucked identification into their shirt pockets along with a $5 bill and some quarters. They packed suitcases or canvas grips and stowed the luggage neatly at the foot of their beds.
Then they settled themselves on the white and yellow comforters with a plastic container of pudding or applesauce, a dose of phenobarbital and a vodka drink.
The first group, probably 15, spooned up the drug and drank, and then plastic bags went over their heads, suffocating them. Eight assistants arranged the corpses, cleaning up the trash and draping a 3-foot-square piece of purple cloth over head and torso.
A second group followed.
Finally, they were down to two. Two last doses, two final plastic bags.
Heaven's Gate closed.
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"The window to Heaven will not open again until another civilization is planted and has reached sufficient maturity (according to the judgment of the next level)" - posting on www.heavensgate.com.
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On Tuesday, March 25, a former cult member known as Rio DiAngelo got a letter and two videos at his new job in Beverly Hills.
On Wednesday, he showed his boss, Nick Matzorkis, the package with its ominous message that the cult had "shed our containers."
Within minutes, the two were making the drive south to Rancho Santa Fe.
At the house, Matzorkis waited in the driveway while Rio went inside.
Ten minutes later Rio came out, his face white as a sheet.
"They did it," he said.
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