39 die in computer cult suicide

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The police called at 18241 Colina Norte at tea-time on Wednesday, after two anonymous phone calls told them to check the residents' welfare. Arriving at the five-bedroom Spanish-style mansion near San Diego, they found the front doors locked, windows shut and blinds drawn.

Entering through an unlocked side door, a sheriff's deputy walked up the stairs to find 10 dead men lying on the floor. The stench from the decomposing bodies inside was enough to send two police officers to hospital.

Yesterday, the corpses of 39 men and women who died in what appeared to be a mass suicide were being removed in refrigerated trucks from the million-pound mansion in southern California.

The cause of death, and the background to the incident remained a mystery; but there were reports that the victims killed themselves in a ritual timed to coincide with the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet, and possibly with Holy Week. While some of the dead were elderly, most were young white men, apparently expert in computer programming.

The death toll was lower than the 80 cult members who perished near Waco, Texas, in 1994; nor did it compare to the 900 who died with the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978. But it will surely go down as one of the most bizarre episodes in the history of cults.

The residents of 18241 Colina Norte operated a successful Internet business called WW Higher Source, designing World Wide Web pages for corporate customers. The few visitors to the home said that life revolved around a computer room where cult members, dressed in matching black with crew cut hair, tapped busily at their keyboards.

Documents culled from the Web and videotapes reportedly sent to former members suggested the suicides planned to "shed their containers" and rejoin what they believed to be an alien spaceship behind the comet. They talked of themselves as angels from another planet.

"The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level above human (the Kingdom of Heaven) has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp's approach is the marker we've been waiting for," read a passage from the Heaven's Gate web site, thought to have been composed by Higher Source employees. "We are happily prepared to leave `this world' and go with Ti's crew."

A San Diego County police spokesman said yesterday that officers had found video tapes at the home in which "each member of the organisation gave a brief statement that they were going to a better place". No names for the alleged cult members or their apparent leader, referred to as "Brother John", were released.