Marshall Applewhite, with his piercing, wide-eyed stare, looks like a man who was destined to lead a doomsday sect. He was the leader of Heaven's Gate, a cult founded in Texas during the early 1970s. The group soon moved to the American southwest where Applewhite began to preach about a spaceship that would spare true believers from the apocalypse and take them to the heavenly "Level Above Human." After two decades proselytizing in the desert, Heaven's Gate moved to California where they started a Web consulting business called "Higher Source" to fund their activities. There they lived in a sprawling Spanish-style house and reportedly watched episodes of "X-Files" and "Star Trek" religiously.
Heaven's Gate took a grim turn in 1997, the year that the comet Hale-Bopp shined brightly in the night sky. It all started on Nov. 14, 1996, when Applewhite and his followers were listening to Art Bell's "Coast to Coast," a radio show dedicated to UFO topics. During the program, an amateur astronomer called in and claimed to have photographed a mysterious object hiding in Hale-Bopp's tail. This was all the evidence that Applewhite needed to confirm his spaceship prophecy from the 1970s. He and his group soon began preparations to board the UFO through the execution of a mass suicide. When police entered the California compound on March 26, 1997, they found 39 bodies dressed in black tunics with a cloth draped over their heads. They had killed themselves with a cocktail of vodka and barbiturates, or by smothering themselves with plastic bags.