Obsessed with cults? Us too. Can’t get enough of the Cults podcast, and the more we listen, the more we realize how they sort of work. A leader speaks only and directly to those who want to hear her message (yep, most of the cult founders we are about to mention are female — uh, go girl power?), no matter how said missive might seem to general audiences. And that’s how bat-shit insanity gradually becomes the norm among a tight-knit group. There have existed cults galore — some, like Jonestown, will live forever in infamy. Others, while for a period impressively persuasive, are forgotten. Both sorts had Dallas connections.
1. Heaven’s Gate — almost as famous as Jonestown, just tidier
Bonnie Lou Nettles, aka Ti Nettles, died June 19, 1985, in Dallas from cancer. She grew up in Houston, was raised Baptist, married, mothered four, became a nurse, according to her obit. Not mentioned: Founding member and longtime leader of Heaven’s Gate.
After her death, 12 years passed before 39 members of the cult she and second husband Marshall Applewhite founded together communally committed suicide. Also not highly publicized, Nettles' ashes are scattered around White Rock Lake. Not creepy.
A New York Times piece puzzles over how a couple of middle-aged Texans became “The Two” and gathered hundreds of followers — “old, the poor and rich — a film editor, an accountant, a waiter …”
“Most had already been shopping the counterculture for higher truths … Transcendental Meditation and peyote buttons,” notes the paper.
By 1997, widower Applewhite had relocated Heaven’s Gate to a mansion in suburban San Diego, where on March 26 emergency responders found all 39 inhabitants dead evidently by self-ingested mega doses of phenobarbital and vodka. Precise. Clean. No struggle — Jonestown this was not. And everyone knows about the jumpsuits and Nike kicks, right?
Correct timing, they believed, would allow them to hitch a ride on the Hale-Bopp Comet to the “Next Level,” and participants did not consider their act suicide. More like a supernatural Lyft (though they carried in pockets the interplanetary fare — $5.75).
One Heaven’s Gate apostate departed at the California crime scene was Norma Jeanne Nelson, a 59-year-old artist from Dallas. According to People, Nettles, back in the day, was tight-lipped about her many mysterious visitors to her North Dallas apartment. A few days after Hale-Bopp, former neighbor Patty Falkner says she finally learned who they were — members of Heaven’s Gate.
Nettles’ daughter still lives here in Dallas and is a main source for the 10-part podcast series about HG.
2. Conscious Development — seemed pretty risky, born and grown in Dallas
A photo, circa 1970, of Terri Hoffman shows a smiling lady with deep-set amber eyes and choppy, wavy hair, turtleneck, Jesus necklace — she looks like your high school best friend’s mom (ours, anyway). You’d not imagine her the type to tell everyone about angels, when she was a small child, delivering a message from God: She was special.
She started a popular metaphysics group, as many, even typical housewives, were wont to do in the 1970s.
Her Conscious Development group, however, was on the radical side. When she told followers she saw the future, traveled out of her body and spoke with the dead, or that she could protect them from harm — things like cancer and car wrecks, they were like, “OK, cool.”
An idea that makes ghastly ironic the fact that multiple members of her group died mysteriously. Four of her closest associates willed their estates to Hoffman before meeting untimely demises. Among them, her stalwart (volunteer) assistant who “accidentally” drove her car off a 450-foot cliff.
A few months previous, this assistant’s daughter had drowned while they all were on a Hawaiian vacation.
But, hey, no bigs, Hoffman preached. After all, “death should not scare … it would only allow them to move to a higher plane of existence,” Joyce Tepley, a Dallas psychotherapist and ex-member, said in a December 1982 magazine article. "The Earth," Hoffman said, "was the 17th-lowest planet in the universe, in terms of the vibratory energy that determined the peace and happiness available on a planet."
3. The Rajneeshpuram — settled in Oregon, but had a couple of Dallas run-ins
In the 1980s, a 37-year-old teacher from Dallas, Phyllis Aylward Caldwell, moved to Oregon with the Rajneeshpuram, the religious sect recently revisited in the Netflix docu-series Wild Wild Country. The Rajneeshpuram community took up residence on a sprawling Wasco County ranch. When the locals gave them a little too much shit (for their loud sex orgies and the like, according to the show), they incorporated their own municipality. Dallas native Caldwell changed her name to Deva Rikta and eventually sat on its city council, according to an old Oregonian article.
Rajneeshpuram members came by bus to downtown Dallas’ Stewpot to recruit citizens for the town. A couple of takers returned home later to spill their tales to the Morning News. Seems the cult members traveled to shelters countrywide collecting so called “street people.” They needed a few more residents in order to win county elections, take over the world, something like that. Most recruits were sent packing following that first election. Deva Ritka was one of the defendants named in an Oregon State v. City Rajneeshpuram court case.
4. Children of God — Just. The. Worst.
At age 41, Dallas woman Taylor Stevens recalled to an overseas publication her childhood as an unwitting member of the Children of God, a cult infamous for child sexual abuse, violence and all-around atrociousness.
At 15, Stevens smuggled some notebooks and started writing. For that, she suffered dearly, starved for days and dubbed a “witch full of devils.”
After escaping at 29, she became a bestselling author of fictional thrillers; James Cameron optioned one, The Informationist, and the others were favorably reviewed.
She talks today about life in Dallas, as a housewife and mom. “I don’t relate to being a PTA mum,” she tells the Telegraph, “where your whole life is, ‘Oh, Susy did this, and then we made cupcakes!’”
She adds: “No matter how much they love me, no matter how wonderful they are, people can never understand where I came from.”
Over its 46-year history, Children of God boasted 35,000 members, including 13,000 children – that includes Rose McGowan and the Phoenix boys, River and Joaquin.
In 2005, cult leader David Berg’s stepson and heir apparent murdered his former nanny and killed himself, leaving a video claiming she had abused him as a toddler, adding the person he really wanted to kill was his mother – high-ranking member Karen Zerby.
Even in her cult-focused novel, Dallas’ Stevens won’t discuss details of physical abuse or the cult’s sexual elements: “It overshadows the dozens of other indignities that thousands of children endured. There was sexual abuse… But that’s just one of so many dishes served on the smorgasbord of my childhood… Nobody reports about the extreme discipline, or being separated from our families, or education deprivation, or the lack of medical care…" She supposes, “That’s not entertaining enough.”
5. Branch Davidians
We all know a little something about the Branch Davidians and that regrettable shootout turned 51-day siege and media circus about 90 minutes outside Dallas in Waco.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the Observer's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Dallas's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The evening after the Feb. 28, 1993, failed raid on leader David Koresh’s Mount Carmel, Dallas radio station KRLD broadcast Koresh's message “that God had given him the ability to unlock the seven seals of Revelation and start the apocalypse.” Koresh promised to begin releasing children “two by two” if his religious message was broadcast over the Dallas news station; he reportedly released two “women or children” once they complied.
KRLD later turned the 50-something-minute footage over to the ATF.
Koresh also conducted a phone interview with CNN that day, and with A Current Affair.
Last January, Waco survivor David Thibodeau detailed for the Observer his experience inside the compound, saying the media got a bunch wrong. But the aforementioned is spot-on.