THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE make a living designing Web sites. And for spreading ideology, creating a Web page is `easier than standing at airports ... handing out brochures.' -----------------------------------------------------------------
SAN FRANCISCO - Like most weird postings on the Internet, rambling statements by members of the Heaven's Gate cult about UFOs, comets and religion were largely ignored - until now.
After 39 members of the cult committed suicide, Internet surfers nearly crashed servers trying to find out more information about the group whose members believed that their deaths would result in a meeting with a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. Members posted their religious philosophy on the Heaven's Gate World Wide Web site.
And last year, a woman - known in the cult as Sister Francis Michael - posted a two-part diatribe in which the author claims to be the reincarnation of Jesus. The 1,000-word essay, which states that Christian and Jewish beliefs are lies, appeared in numerous Internet discussion groups on Aug. 1, 1996, including ones devoted to militia activism, Christian thought and Libertarianism.
The group also maintained a nonreligious site that advertised their computer business, Higher Source.
What paid the bills
Higher Source designed Web sites and offered programming, systems analysis and computer-security services.
Clients described Higher Source employees as diligent and professional. They said the Web-site designers didn't look particularly unusual for computer experts with a lot of work in the entertainment industry, with dark, collarless shirts and closely cropped hair.
"Casual shirts? No one in Hollywood is in a suit and tie at a meeting," said David Sams, general partner of TVFirst, a gospel-music company that hired Higher Source last year to create its Web site. "Short haircuts? Everyone wants to look like George Clooney" of television's "ER."
What clients thought
At Interact Entertainment Group, employees noticed that Higher Source staffers were "strict in diet and dress." But they showed "a good sense of humor, and they were exceptionally smart," said Lili Ungar, a spokeswoman for the Beverly Hills company.
As a Web consulting business, the group was typical. There are thousands of independent Web designers in the United States, many composed of young people operating out of private homes.
"It's a sexy industry to be in right now," said Peter Dushkin, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York, which follows the technology business. And it's easy to get started as a Web developer. "A lot of people out there are self-taught."
As a religious sect seeking to spread a message, the group also was typical. Creating a Web page is "easier than standing at airports or parks or street corners in Berkeley handing out brochures," said Gary Arlen, an interactive-services consultant in Bethesda, Md.
Other Net activity
Sister Michael's two Usenet postings were from an e-mail address connected with the Heaven's Gate site and listed as belonging to her.
Although the messages were posted under Sister Michael's e-mail address, it is unclear who wrote them.
In the first posting, the author purports to have come to Earth 2,000 years ago "as the expected `Messiah,' or Jesus." For its current mission, the being returned to Earth and entered into a human body 24 years ago.
The message also says that before the being and its students depart via a "Next Level" mother ship, they will assist "my Father and His other Next Level helpers" in their war against misinformation perpetuated mainly by the "so-called Christians and Jews."
Humans are enslaved through addictions to indulgences such as love, marriage, children and "mammalian behavior," the posting states.
Those desiring to assist the group were invited to visit the Web page or send e-mail to Sister Michael.
The only other posting by Sister Michael appeared on Dec. 12, 1996, when she applauded the Church of Scientology for its action against the Cult Awareness Network, an anti-cult organization that had accused the group of what she called "cult activities."
"History proves that nearly every conceptual milestone now considered `good' was at one time considered a `cult,' " she said. She signed the statement "In service to the Next Level, the so-called `UFO Cult.' " ----------------------------------------------------------------- Information from the Dallas Morning News is included in this report.