How the Angels of the Internet went to meet their comet

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The angels of the Internet chose a curious place to make their rendezvous with the Hale-Bopp comet.

Their $10,000-a-month villa occupied the top of a low hill, where Spanish tile roofs mix with palm trees. At least five media helicopters circled yesterday as the bodies of 39 men and women who died in what appeared to be one of America's biggest and most mysterious mass suicides were taken away in refrigerated trucks.

For six months, the cult members had lived quietly and largely anonymously, plying their trade as computer programmers for the World Wide Web.

Rancho Santa Fe is a testament to genteel Californian country living, just outside the San Diego city limits, with polo clubs, riding rings and gardens tended by Hispanic staff.

The drive from the freeway leads past lemon orchards and strawberry fields, retirement homes, shops selling ornamental carp, and cul-de-sacs with Spanish names.

Mostly casually dressed and quietly spoken, the cult members were barely noticed, except by their immediate neighbours. "It's not the kind of neighbourhood where you go next door to ask for a cup of sugar," said one irritated resident.

"It's not that big a deal," he added, collecting his paper from the end of the drive. "They just chose to do what they wanted to do and they are gone. They just did their thing. I'm only aggravated that they chose this community."

The residents of 18241 Colina Norte operated a successful Internet business, called the Higher Source, designing web pages for California businesses, which would have earned tens of thousands of dollars.

"They knew what they were doing. They were extremely talented," said Greg Hohertz, a technician with the group until last week. Though illustrated by a starscape, the Higher Source's web site itself is firmly businesslike in tone.

"The individuals at the core of our group have worked closely together for over 20 years," it announces, promising an easy route for companies into the "world of cyberspace".

"During those years, each of us has developed a high degree of skill and know-how through personal discipline and concrete effort. We try to stay positive in every circumstance."

Sample work included a slick web site with sporting photographs for the San Diego Polo Club, complete with an interactive guide on "how to watch a polo match". There were graphic designs for the home page of the "British Masters" car parts service, offering "mountains of parts" for MGs and Triumph Spitfires, with orders by e-mail. A third, for the Samia Rose topiary, boasted a "complete line of table-top topiaries" in a brightly colourful computer display.

A passage from a web page now reads: "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.

"Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion - 'graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave 'this world' and go with Ti's crew."

The group, which was reported to have started in Montana, had been moving constantly, spending a few months at a time in homes in Arizona and New Mexico, both states a haven for extreme-right Christian cults, UFO watchers, and spiritualists. For a cult with no fixed abode, it appears the Internet was their chief anchor, a virtual home.

They rented the house last autumn from Sam Koutchesfahani, an Iranian- American who pleaded guilty last year to tax evasion and fraud. "They were celibate and believed they were sent to earth as angels," Milton Silverman, a lawyer for Mr Koutchesfahani said.

In recent weeks, estate agents had shown the house to potential buyers. Visits were allowed only at certain hours on certain days. When Bill Grivas and Kim Schaffer visited, they found rows of bunk beds, with seven or eight people sleeping to a room. "They represented themselves as monks," Mr Grivas said.

"They would refer to each other as brother and sister. With their black outfits, they reminded me of what the Vietcong used to wear, black pajama outfits, a little black tunic and black trousers."

Like the other visitors, the couple were greeted by the tall older man, whom one compared to a character from the Munsters, about 6ft-6in tall. "To my mind, he was clearly a leader," Mr Grivas said. He was "extremely pale, like he hadn't been in the sun, almost to the point of never going in the sun." Others were told the place was a temple. As they walked through, most of the residents barely said a word.

"They had kind of a look about them," said Tom Goodspeed, of the San Diego Polo Club, "that may be they were a little bit strange, but they could sit down in front of a computer and get it done. They did a fantastic job for us." He met a leader called "Brother John."

This week, however, his office manager tried to contact Higher Source for technical help. He was told they were on "some kind of a religious function" and would not be available until after Easter. Where, and in what form, was not specified.