Cult's last member still keeps faith five years later

Wednesday, March 27, 2002

SAN DIEGO -- Rio DiAngelo walked away from the regimented life within the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997 after three years, but a message from cult members drew him back a month later to the group's rented hilltop mansion.

There, on March 26, 1997, he uncovered the worst mass suicide on U.S. soil. The 39 cult members killed themselves, believing they were shedding their earthly "containers" to catch a ride on a spaceship trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet.

Five years later, DiAngelo still sees himself as its messenger.

"I'm really the only one left," the 48-year-old Los Angeles resident said.

Interviews with news organizations five years ago left DiAngelo angry, but he agreed reluctantly to an interview with The Associated Press last week.

Little remains from the group whose androgynous-looking men and women downed a lethal concoction of pudding or applesauce spiked with vodka and barbiturates. They sealed their fate by placing plastic bags over their heads.

The group's possessions have been auctioned off. The 9,000-square-foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, one of San Diego's northern neighborhoods, was sold for a fraction of its value.

'Level beyond human'

Clad in black outfits with "Away Team" patches and Nike tennis shoes with their trademark comet-like swoosh, each packed a small bag and carried identification, $5 and some change for their journey toward what they believed was a "level beyond human."

"They weren't trying to kill themselves because of a crazy idea, although some people saw it as a crazy idea," DiAngelo said.

DiAngelo said cult leader Marshall Applewhite, 66, known as "Do," was from another planet and taught DiAngelo to be more aware, honest and sensitive to the world around him.

At the same time, DiAngelo, is not sentimental about the past. A tabloid offered him $1 million for exclusive rights to his story five years ago, but he refused. Today, he said, he'd take the money.

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