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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cult Gone to Cosmos, Survivors Say

SAN DIEGO, California -- Two former followers of the Heaven's Gate cult insisted the deaths of 39 members were not a mass suicide, and one regretted that he didn't die with the rest at the Rancho Santa Fe mansion.


"I wish I had the strength to have remained ... to have stuck it out and gotten stronger and continued to be a part of that group," former member Nick Cooke told CBS' "60 Minutes" on Sunday. His wife, Suzanne Sylvia Cooke, was among the dead.


Cooke said his wife had "shed her container" and is now aboard a spaceship with 38 colleagues, including cult leader Marshall Applewhite.


On Easter, families of the victims continued to make last arrangements for their loved ones. Many had been lost to them for 20 years or more, having ended all communication after joining the cult founded by Applewhite, who died last week with his flock, and Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles. Ms. Nettles died of cancer in 1985 at age 57.


CNN and Time magazine reported that cult members killed themselves because Applewhite told them he was dying of cancer; Newsweek reported that he told his flock that his body was "disintegrating."


But an autopsy on the 66-year-old Applewhite found no "physical evidence and no visual evidence of cancer in his liver or any other organs," said Dr. Brian Blackbourne, San Diego County's medical examiner.


Cooke described himself as an "off and on" member who left Heaven's Gate three years ago. He and another former cult member identified only as "Sawyer" told "60 Minutes" they still believed in the tenets of the cult, which hoped for salvation by way of a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.


The two former members estimated that dozens of others still remain faithful to the cult's principles -- including the idea that members might be beamed up into space. They weren't worried about the suicide victims.


Said Sawyer: "Suicide isn't the proper term for what they did, in my opinion. They left their bodies. It was something they were preparing for for a long time."


Cooke said cult members had simply "reached a point that the word was given to depart from this world back to the mother ship.


"To move into bodies that had been prepared for them, physical bodies of a finer nature -- androgynous, sexless. It's an evolutionary step," he told KQED. "I'm not suicidal ... but I have no problem in laying down my shell, or my body as they did that day. I don't consider it suicide."


Applewhite and Ms. Nettles, known as Do and Ti, believed that cult members would be pioneers, tending gardens and planets in space -- the literal, not spiritual, heaven.


"You can call that brainwashing, but every student was enjoying it," said Sawyer, who did not say why he left the group.


"We wanted our brains washed," Cooke said. "There's a lot of joy in it."