Mar 21, 2007
Rio DiAngelo has a message he wants to share with the world. It’s an important message, one that begins in space. That’s where he came from, and where he will one day return, following in the footsteps of his 39 friends. Bearers of the same message, those 39 friends received their culminating cosmic transmission 12 years ago, when amateur astronomer Alan Hale stood in his driveway one summer evening around midnight, pointed his telescope low and due south and saw something that wasn’t there before.
Five hundred miles away, Thomas Bopp’s telescope revealed the same object, burning with a 10.5 magnitude near the globular cluster M70, just outside Sagittarius’ bow, near the Archer’s heart. It was a comet, 25 miles wide, a titanic piece of ice plunging through space at up to 90,000 mph. When the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams confirmed the object, C/1995 01 officially became known as Hale-Bopp. Something that big comes through our solar system only occasionally. Trailing multiple sputtering yellow and blue tails of dust, ion gases and sodium atoms 20 million miles long, Hale-Bopp would become the brightest celestial visitor to our solar system in a millennium.
Rio’s friends knew what to do. A secretive, itinerant group of self-described monks following the teachings of their leader, who was known simply as DO, they’d recently moved into a 9,000-square-foot mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, which they called “the Monastery” and “the Craft,” and was paid for by members doing Web design and other technical services. The group had many names over the years but by that time had settled on Heaven’s Gate. They’d waited patiently for a sign, and DO thought the sky was now speaking.
When another amateur astronomer announced on Art Bell’s conspiracy-minded radio show that he’d taken a picture of Hale-Bopp showing an elongated fuzzy brightness lurking in the tail, word quickly spread in UFO circles that there was an alien spacecraft accompanying the comet. Remote-sensing practitioner Courtney Brown collected clairvoyant “data” that also suggested an extraterrestrial presence. DO’s followers went out and bought a telescope. They couldn’t see the ship themselves, but that wasn’t important. When Hale-Bopp passed too close to Jupiter, and the giant planet’s gravitational pull altered the comet’s orbit so that it would return every 2,000 years, DO became certain: This was their long-awaited “indicator,” perhaps even the star Wormwood described in The Revelation. The group updated its Web site (http://www.heavensgate.com/). “RED ALERT” flashed across the top; below came the announcement “HALE-BOPP BRINGS CLOSURE TO HEAVEN’S GATE.”
For years, they’d been hoping to return to the Kingdom of Heaven, which they called “Evolutionary Level Above Human,” or the “Next Level.” Day in, day out, the group — which they always said was not a cult but a “classroom for growing a soul” — had learned to transcend human existence through rigorous discipline. In preparation for the final step of leaving their human bodies, or “exiting their vehicles,” the group assembled uniforms: matching black Nikes and homemade black pants and shirts, each adorned with a custom-made triangular patch that said “HEAVEN’S GATE AWAY TEAM.” Rio, an artist in his human incarnation, designed the infamous patch, which was embroidered with the constellation Orion in the triangle’s apex. This, DO explained, was their destination. Each morning, the house’s 40 inhabitants took turns with the telescope, watching the indicator, and taking glimpses at their home world, Sirius, the faithful hound at the feet of Orion the hunter, nine light-years away from San Diego. They couldn’t have been more excited about the trip some members took to Mexico to purchase enough phenobarbital to kill them all several times over.
On March 22, 1997, Hale-Bopp made its closest approach to Earth, at 122 million miles. DO and his followers meticulously cleaned the house, took out the garbage, polished the silver and packed their things. The sign was above; the time was now. Outside, the bougainvillea were in full bloom as the group began executing “The Routine,” a document they’d created that precisely choreographed how teams would help each other to wash down phenobarbital-laced helpings of applesauce and pudding with vodka, a lethal combination that did its work painlessly. “Lie back and rest quietly,” the ritual instructed, which they did, covered in purple shrouds, a $5 bill tucked in their wallets, waiting for the “elixir of life” to cause drowsiness, then a coma, and finally a circulatory-system collapse. No one knows the exact timeline, but within three days, all the members of Heaven’s Gate were dead.
Except Rio. Most people remember the bizarre unfolding of details surrounding the largest mass suicide in U.S. history, but few recall the sole survivor. Rio had been fitted with his departure uniform, and was prepared to “graduate with the rest of the class.” Then, one day in February, as the exit plans were coming together, Rio woke up and felt he had some unnamed thing yet to do here on Earth. He had followed his instincts before, when he abandoned his life to join the group, and now the directive coming into his awareness was telling him to leave the mansion. Rio was confused, and had an emotional meeting with DO, who telepathically consulted the Next Level. Word came back that Rio should stay behind; that it was all part of the plan. Rio was given a camera, a computer, $1,000 for living expenses and $12.50 for train fare back to Los Angeles.
Four weeks later, on March 27, Rio received a FedEx package at the office of InterActive Entertainment Group in Beverly Hills, where he was doing HTML work. Inside was a letter addressed to Rio, a press release, two videotapes on which were recorded DO’s and the students’ “Exit Videos,” and a map to the house indicating which door they’d left unlocked. Rio knew what he would find there. Lacking a car, he asked his boss, Nick Matzorkis, for a ride to San Diego, where Rio donned gloves, doused his shirt with cologne and used his camera to film the neatly arranged bodies, by then in various stages of decomposition.
As soon as he informed police, Rio and his footage were at the center of one of the biggest news stories of the decade. Three of his fellow followers, those who “dropped out” before graduation, killed themselves in subsequent weeks and months so as to not miss out on their one brief opportunity to pass through Heaven’s Gate. But Rio stayed with us. As tabloids offered lots of money, Rio chose few press contacts. Everyone wanted the insider’s perspective, which is what Diane Sawyer eventually got when Rio appeared on Prime Time Live and patiently explained to her that his colleagues had moved on to the Next Level. By the time Princess Diana was killed that summer, Heaven’s Gate was old news. The tale of the suicidal cult was eclipsed by the next shocking tragedy. Rio disappeared.
Until he contacted the L.A. Weekly a few weeks ago. With the 10th anniversary of the Exit coming up on March 27, Rio e-mailed our managing editor and offered to do his first interview since writing a self-published book, Beyond Human Mind: The Soul Evolution of Heaven’s Gate, an account of his experience that will “clarify the truth about the group and their amazing agenda.” A few days later, Rio dropped off an elaborate press kit at our offices, with full-color copies of previous interviews, various statements, a sample Q&A and a cover sheet marked with a personalized embossed seal that said, “Official Rio Document.” Throughout the pages appears the recurring slogan “Glad to be alive and planning to stay that way!” Among the clips was a short bio of Rio in the 1997 edition of People magazine’s 25 Most Intriguing People of the year, alongside Drew Carey and John F. Kennedy Jr. At the bottom of the cover letter, Rio left his phone number.
I called right away. I’d heard about Rio before and thought about trying to track him down. When I pointed this out to Rio the first time we met, he quickly chalked it up to cosmic significance. “It’s pretty coincidental that you contacted us,” I said. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” he said, smiling and looking me right in the eye. “I think you’re going to find that it wasn’t very coincidental at all.”
Cosmic, coincidental or cosmically coincidental, it turns out that 13 years ago, Rio first learned about Heaven’s Gate from the L.A. Weekly. A short item in 1994 described the Total Overcomers, as they were then known, and their informational meeting, which instantly changed Rio’s life. After the suicides, Rio felt burned by the sensationalism of the media frenzy, which he felt never told the real story of Heaven’s Gate, but since the L.A. Weekly had guided him to the truth before, he returned to the publication to help him tell the story “that is so hot mainstream media won’t touch it.”
When I’d read about Rio, I’d always assumed that he’d survived because he came to his senses and realized the flaw in Heaven’s Gate’s suicide pact. In fact, Rio remains a true believer, one for whom a divine mission has crystallized. He began our first interview by asking me to be sure to include his prepared declaration, part of which reads:
I am alive not because I rejected anything about Heaven’s Gate.
“I am alive because I have discovered something so extraordinarily important to the world that it needs to pass on to you in its most true and accurate form from ME.”
We were at Rio’s apartment in Westwood, sitting at his dining-room table as he watched me read the whole thing. (See Rio’s statement. (http://www.laweekly.com/general/features/rios-statement/15929/)) On the wall was a plasma screen, around the room Eastern-themed art, including a reclining Buddha — all belonging to Rio’s roommate. “Since my time in the Monastery,” he explained, “I don’t keep attachments to many material things.” Rio is bald, neatly bearded, tall and thin. It is an unfair comparison, but with his strangely perfect posture, he seems like a prim and cheerful Anton LaVey — if Anton LaVey had wound up running a crystal shop in Sedona. Rio’s countenance is exactly what I expected from a Heaven’s Gate adept: calm, friendly, measured, sincere. All too sincere when it comes to the fact that he believes he has been granted a special knowledge about the makings of all life in the universe.
When I asked about the dropouts who later killed themselves, Rio was impassive. “People ask: ‘Why would they do that?’ ” he said. For him, their copycat suicides only further proved the point. “It doesn’t make sense to give up everything. Unless... you know. Unless you know what they knew. And what I know.” Which is? “That DO was the second coming of Jesus Christ. That’s what I’m here to help people understand.”