BERKELEY, Calif. - Surviving members of the Heaven's Gate cult came to Berkeley yesterday seeking to explain the infamous group's message, but the crowd of about 75 people attracted to the bizarre event left just as skeptically as they arrived.
Many came to see if they could find insight into why 39 members of the group committed mass suicide near San Diego in March on the advice of cult leader Marshall Heff Applewhite. Instead, retired nurse Lyn Pon of Berkeley came away convinced that the Heaven's Gate followers were simply incapable of thinking on their own.
"I think they must have been a little lost - just lost souls," she said. "I didn't think he (Applewhite) was very charismatic at all. As a leader, he wasn't very articulate or even physically attractive. They must have been very fragile mentally."
At yesterday's meeting, Chuck Humphrey, 56, of Denver, along with three other former members who call themselves the "Away Team," showcased a 70-minute video of Applewhite, who preached a rambling message about reaching salvation by leaving behind the physical body - or "container" - to ascend to the "Kingdom Level Above Human."
In killing themselves last March, the group was following teachings of Applewhite, 66, a self-styled messiah known as "Do," who had traveled the nation for years with companion Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, promising converts a one-way trip to salvation aboard a UFO trailing the comet Hale-Bopp, a journey that could be made only through death.
The meeting, held at a rented room at the Berkeley Conference Center, which is not affiliated with the University of California-Berkeley, drew people who came mainly to satisfy their curiosity about Heaven's Gate and its leader. The horde of television, radio, and print media added to the feeling of being rubberneckers at an accident scene.
Insisting the group was not trying to recruit members - or encourage suicide - Humphrey said the goal was to make information about Heaven's Gate available to the public.
"How else are people going to find out information about this?" he said. "We believe there are many out there who want to learn more."
Humphrey had unsuccessfully tried to join the 39 members in May, swallowing a concoction of Phenobarbital and vodka before wrapping his head in a plastic bag. His unconscious body was found by deputies in a motel near Rancho Santa Fe.
"I was just intrigued by what kind of message could have convinced 39 people to commit suicide, thinking they were going to ride away on a comet," said Eldrie Simon, a computer-science student at UC-Berkeley.
After viewing the video, which he described as "boring and incoherent," Simon said he believes the followers must have been "weak-minded and insecure."
"To hold my attention, you have to bring something to the table. There was no excitement there. He had a lot of facial expressions and those bug eyes, but there was nothing there."
Others, like Janja Lalich, an East Bay expert on cults, came to simply monitor what the Heaven's Gate survivors were doing.
"I think it's apparent that Chuck Humphrey hasn't shaken free from . . . Do's leadership," Lalich said.
"My concern is that he's perpetuating a very negative fantasy. He's romanticizing and glorifying these deaths, and then he's making a couple bucks on the side."
Copies of the video were being sold for $15 while thick, bound books entitled, "How and When Heaven's Gate (The Door to the Physical Kingdom Level Above Human) May be Entered," were on sale for $45.
A 25-year-old former member, who identified himself as Crlody (pronounced Carlan Ody), said his full-time job was to assist Humphrey in spreading the message. The two said they will be leaving the Bay Area today but have no definite plans on where they will go.
Originally from Madison, Wis., Ody said he had been with the cult for three months in 1994. Calling his departure from the group a "mistake," Ody said he contacted Humphrey after the March suicides and joined him a week ago.
"That was my wake-up call," he said. "This is going to be my mission."