When and How Did Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles Meet?

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Starting in the 1970s, a cult named that eventually was called the Heaven’s Gate garnered a fringe following, and their numbers went up and down over the years. But in 1997, a mass suicide left 39 people dead, including one of the group’s founders, Marshall Applewhite. ABC News’ ‘20/20: The Cult Next Door’ as well as Netflix’s ‘How to Become a Cult Leader’ delve into the complex history behind this cult and its beliefs. 

Applewhite and Nettles: A Fateful Meeting

Marshall was a Spur, Texas, native and explored theology during his early years before pivoting into the musical field. He then married and had two children, moving to New York to become a professional singer. However, by 1968, Marshall divorced his wife of sixteen years and rarely met his children. About four years later, he lost his father and dealt with debt. It was around the same time that Marshall began looking into some literary works that led him to think UFOs were what people once believed to be angels.

Bonnie was a registered nurse, a mother of four, and a divorcee. While it is believed that Marshall met Bonnie in March 1972, there have been differing stories regarding the circumstances of their meeting. According to Marshall’s sister, Louise, he had some health issues, ended up in a hospital in Houston, Texas, and had a near-death experience there. One of the nurses there was Bonnie. Louise said, “…one of the nurses convinced him it that it was for a very special reason and that he could be used mightily in a group that she knew about.”

Louise added, “She began seeing him and talking him more into joining this group. And then they become sort of co-leaders for a while, but he always considered her the senior leader.” But Bonnie’s daughter, Terrie, had a different story about their meeting. She said the two met at the Houston Music Theater Center, where Bonnie’s son was a student, and Marshall was the teacher. The two left Houston in 1973 to then form their own church.

However, according to Marshall’s writings, he visited a friend at a hospital when Bonnie came into the same room. After that, Bonnie carried out some astrological readings and found their stars aligned, connecting their fates. Over the next few years, they came to believe Marshall was the “second coming” of Jesus Christ and that Jesus was an alien. They claimed that humans would ascend to the Next Level by exiting their “containers” (bodies).

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After Bonnie died in 1985, Marshall took over the teachings and believed they would receive a new body in the Next Level, and they had to kill themselves to achieve that. In March 1997, Marshall and 38 of his followers went through with mass suicide at a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California. The bizarre finding captured national headlines at the time, with the Heaven’s Gate becoming one of the most notorious cults in history.

Read More: Does Heaven’s Gate Still Exist? Where Are the Surviving Members Now?