First came shock, then the finger-pointing.
On the Internet, where Heaven's Gate members maintained an extensive Web site and sent out large chunks of their philosophy to message groups, the reaction to the mass suicide began with sympathy and empathy.
"It is terribly sad. People are searching for peace," wrote a regular on the message group known as alt.support.depression. Who better than us know that feeling too well."
But it wasn't long before the mood changed. Only a day after the bodies were found in a northern San Diego County mansion, online discussions quickly dissolved into accusations and counter-claims about who was to blame.
"When will this madness end?" pleaded a message dropped into the message group alt.alien.visitors, where UFO believers check to compare notes. "Those of you who lightly preach this UFO garbage now have blood on your hands."
Replies came quickly.
"No one ever told these morons in California to go out and kill themselves to unite with aliens on a ship," read one. "You want blood on hands, talk to the people responsible for alien cover-ups."
And so it went on the Usenet --the Internet's vast, online bulletin board that houses message areas for a huge variety of interest groups.
Religious fundamentalists blamed New Agers, atheists targeted religion and just about everyone ganged up on the UFO crowd, most of whom distanced themselves from the cult.
"The 'Heaven's Gate' cult is not representative of ufology," began a message on alt.paranet.ufo.
Another protested, "Those people had nothing to do with the serious study of the UFO phenomenon. They were a cult, just like any other cult."
One thing on which most "netizens" seem to agree is that the Internet is being unfairly blamed. Beyond that, however, agreement was rare, and those taking the UFO community to task were in no mood to let them off the hook.
"Like ufologists, [Heaven's Gate] placed far too much reliance on unverifiable hypothesis," said a message in sci.skeptic. "In doing so, they provided the world with a vivid object lesson on the danger inherent in confusing beliefs and desires with knowledge and facts."
But some true believers made no apologies for their positions on UFOs. One wrote on his Web site that the depiction of an alien that Heaven's Gate members left behind seemed familiar.
"Having had several close encounters and ET-related experiences myself, I can say that it is indeed pretty representative of the many reports of otherworldly beings," he wrote.
Also on the offensive was a message to alt.ufo.reports. "These educated and level-headed people may be privy to more information than yourself," he wrote of Heaven's Gate. "They may have got it right. Who are we to automatically debunk them without listening to the evidence they left behind?"
He ended on a somewhat lighter note. "Let's wait till after the inquiry, then the cover-up, then the leaked revelation, then the movie before we make any judgment."
There was no levity when it came to debates over religious matters. "OK you God-believers," taunted a message to alt.atheism, "you gotta admit, the Heaven's Gaters had lots of faith!"
Another message on the subject of faith said that the suicides offer "proof that smart people can do stupid things "
"What poppycock," began a reply. "You all blame God when God never entered into this fiasco at all. In fact, in all the news I have heard, God's name has never once come up God was far from this event because the participants didn't call on the true God."
"We don't blame God," said a reply to the reply. "We blame religion and religious leaders."
One post to alt.religion.christian.last-days started out by trying to give the benefit of the doubt to Heaven's Gate.
"Of course their religion was weird, but at least they went peaceably," he wrote.
Pub Date: 3/29/97