Mass death in Southern California Apparent suicides: Questions surround cult bound up with computers.

March 28, 1997

IF THE SETTING seemed incongruous -- a luxurious home in an exclusive community near San Diego -- the circumstances were equally perplexing: More than three dozen bodies, dressed alike and partially covered with purple shrouds, found with no sign of violence or trauma. The explanation seems to be the mass suicide of members of a religious cult during a time they called their "holy week."

As Christians celebrate their own Holy Week, the news from California gives all Americans pause. Are new cults springing up to rob families of their young? What power can such a group have over people to persuade them not just to live apart from the rest of the world, but to willingly depart life altogether?

Many experts on cults and on suicide question whether these or any other mass deaths can all be voluntary suicides. In most cases, they say, some degree of coercion is involved, as was true in Jonestown, Guyana, where more than 900 followers of Jim Jones died, or in Waco, Texas, where 78 disciples of David Koresh died in a fiery confrontation with the FBI.

Initial reports suggest that members of this group called themselves WW Higher Source and believed they were sent to earth as angels. They believed that a UFO, shielded behind the Hale-Bopp comet, was waiting for them to shed their earthly "containers." The group designed Web sites for the Internet, and their residence was amply supplied with computers. Did the Internet otherwise play a role in spreading the group's beliefs or recruiting members? The answer will be of interest to many parents.

Cults almost always depend on the strength of a charismatic leader, a persuasive person who is able to substitute in followers a new version of reality. Why are people susceptible? The answers vary, but while cult followers may be easily influenced or lack core convictions of their own, many of them are also idealistic, well-intentioned people with a genuine interest in building a better world. Those same impulses have propelled many of the world's major religions -- yet without the impulse toward mass suicide.

Suicide was once referred to as a "victimless crime," one that harmed only the perpetrator. That is false. The bodies found in the California mansion may have appeared peaceful, but each one leaves family and friends who will spend lifetimes trying to come to terms with a death they may never fully understand.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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