Nettles, Bonnie Lu Truesdale (1924-1985)

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Nettles, Bonnie Lu Truesdale (1924-1985)

Bonnie Lu Truesdale Nettles, cofounder of the Heaven's Gate group, known for having ended its existence with the suicide of 39 members in 1997, was born in Houston, Texas. She grew up in a Baptist home, married, and became the mother of four children. She graduated from the Herman Hospital School of Professional Nursing in 1948 and subsequently worked as a registered nurse. In midlife, she developed an interest in things occult and in February 1966 joined the Houston Lodge of the Theosophical Society in America, which she remained affiliated with until she allowed her dues to lapse in 1973. She also attended a group centered upon channeling various noncorporeal entities.

In 1972 she met Marshall Applewhite. At the time Nettles was heading toward a divorce, while Applewhite had already been divorced and subsequently lost his teaching job because of an extramarital affair. The two developed a friendship and then a partnership in what was called the Christian Art Center where they offered classes in religion, art, and music. It was superseded by the Know Place, a metaphysical center, a reflection of the theosophical and occult teachings that Nettles introduced to Applewhite.

In 1973 the pair left Houston for the West Coast. They slowly began to see themselves as the Two Witnesses mentioned in the Bible (Revelation 11) who spread a message of judgment, are martyred, and then are resurrected and taken to heaven in a cloud. They identified the cloud as a flying saucer. They developed a perspective that interpreted biblical passages in light of contemporary thought about extraterrestrial contact. They believed that Jesus had ascended to heaven (the Level above Human, or T.E.L.A.H.) in a spacecraft and that Applewhite had arrived on Earth from that same T.E.L.A.H. realm and brought with him the Heavenly Father in the person of Nettles.

They began gathering followers in Los Angeles, California, and then set out on a tour that took them north to Oregon and eastward to Chicago, Illinois. Now known as Bo (Applewhite) and Peep (Nettles), they offered prospective members deliverance from Earth in a spaceship in the immediate future. Amid news coverage that ranged from hostility to ridicule, the group continued to gather members, but in 1976, Nettles announced the doors to the next level were now closed. The group did no further proselytizing and began to concentrate on teaching their followers. In 1977, they received a windfall in the form of a large inheritance received by one of the members. They began to rent houses in which to live, but moved frequently to avoid attachments to any location or home. They also withdrew contact from family and friends.

In the early 1980s, Nettles became ill from cancer. In 1983 she had one eye removed, but the cancer continued to spread. It eventually affected her liver and in June of 1985, she died in Dallas, Texas. Her death seemed to contradict the group's teachings, but Applewhite was later able to explain and justify her moving on ahead of the group. The group stayed together for another decade until the surviving members, including Applewhite, committed suicide at the spring equinox 1997.


Perkins, Rodney, and Forrest Jackson. Cosmic Suicide: The Tragedy and Transcendence of Heaven's Gate. Dallas: Pentaradial Press, 1997.

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000.