The last time Heather Chronert spoke to her Web designers at Higher Source, they told her they'd be "involved with monastery activities" and asked her not to call until after Easter.
Chronert didn't think too much of it at the time. They were quiet, gentle people, and she wanted to respect their privacy. But today, as the pieces started coming together in the apparent suicide of the 39 people involved in the company that designed her Web site, the comment seemed ominous.
Law enforcement officials are still investigating the suicide of the residents of the rented San Diego mansion.
But for those who knew them--and their writings on the Net and their Web page--what happened is clear: The employees of Higher Source believed that the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet signified the "marker" to leave this world and go to the next.
"The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level Above Human (the 'Kingdom of Heaven') has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp's approach is the 'marker' we've been waiting for--the time for the arrival of the spacecraft from the Level Above Human to take us home to 'Their World'--in the literal Heavens," read the group's other Web page at Heavens Gate. Today, the page was nearly impossible to access.
"Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion--'graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave 'this world' and go with Ti's crew. If you study the material on this Web site, you will hopefully understand our joy and what our purpose here on Earth has been. You may even find your 'boarding pass' to leave with us during this brief 'window,'" the site read.
Chronert, the office manager at the Polo Club, said the business chose Higher Source after some members came in and dropped of their card. They were planning to do a Web site, and they liked what they saw. The price also was very reasonable, Chronert said.
"They were professional--did a great job for us," she said. She did notice the men and women--who ranged in age from about 35 to 50, seemed unusually quiet and soft-spoken. They all wore their hair very short and the women wore no make-up or jewelry. They wore blousy, loose clothes. "They were real reserved and shy--nice, nice people," she said. "They were very gentle."
She said they seemed almost embarrassed to ask for payment. In at least one case, the were paid in baseball hats. "They would want hats and things that we have at the polo club. They really didn't care about money."
Clearly, they were more concerned about spiritual matters.
While many crimes have been linked to the Internet, this is almost assuredly the first mass suicide that seems to have been so thoroughly related to the power of the Net.
Hale-Bopp has been a topic of discussion among conspiracy and UFO theorists almost since it was discovered, according to the comet's codiscoverer Alan Hale on the The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal page. And most of those theories have taken place on the Net, which lends itself to rumor dissemination, said Barry Karr, executive director of CSICOP.
"It's instantaneous information," Karr said. "You put something on the Net and it's all over instantaneously. It's hard to catch up with it once it's gone out."
Karr added that people also tend to believe what they read on the Net a lot more than they would on television or a newspaper.
Hale had tried to reason with people who were convinced that the comet was linked with the millennium, with UFOs, or a prediction by Nostradamus.
A search through the Web or through newsgroups with the right keywords proves his point.
"Much of the 'comet madness' associated with comet Hale-Bopp focuses on the fact that its appearance coincides rather closely with the end of the second millennium, which, despite the fact that this is an arbitrary point in time, is being viewed by a disturbingly large segment of the public as an omen of significant upheaval," Hale wrote.
"Another source of the 'comet madness' around Hale-Bopp is tied to the ongoing belief among a significant fraction of the public that Earth is being visited in large numbers by extraterrestrial aliens," he wrote.
Many Netizens today logged on in a frantic search for more information about the suicides. Some blamed each other in chat rooms for spreading the news about the aliens. Press reports have given a huge amount of play to the group's link to the Net.
But whether the group got their information from the Internet is unclear.
What is clear is that they thought they were going to a better place.
According to Danielle Forlano, publicist for one of the Web pages designed by the group, the members sent videotapes to a man only identified as Rio, who had left the group a few months earlier to work for a company for which his group had designed a page.
The tapes were a goodbye. Rio immediately went to the mansion upon receiving the tapes where he found the bodies, Forlano said.
According to their Web page, Higher Source designed Web pages for Pre-Madonna Live CD samples; Keep The Faith online CD sales catalog, audio samples, shopping cart, discussion forums, and 3D chat rooms; Kushner-Locke Film production industry; the corporate portfolio at the San Diego Polo Club; 1800 Harmony Audio, an online ordering and animation site; British Masters, a site for online sales of British Cars and accessories; and Samia Rose Topiary, which offers custom and tabletop topiaries. Many of the sites were down today or nearly impossible to access due to overwhelming traffic.