LIFE AND DEATH ON THE WEB

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Every time this country extrudes any significant bit of evil at its fringes, my editors dispatch me to the Internet to look for its source. This has been going on for four years now, and implicit in the assignment is the notion that anything menacing or subterranean must have its roots on the Net. Waco, Oklahoma City, the militias, the Unabomber, TWA 800. Each time I've dutifully logged on and gone hunting, but rarely have I bagged anything more than the usual Internet chatter.

That changed last week. Heaven's Gate left its fingerprints all over cyberspace: in postings broadcast to dozens of newsgroups, in recruitment chats with teenagers, in Websites designed for rich clients and in its own bizarre home page. Here was obsession, delusion and mass suicide played out in multimedia and hypertext — a horror, finally, best observed online.

Start with the Heaven's Gate Website, www.heavensgate.com which must qualify as the most elaborate suicide note in history. From the blinking red ALERT headline of its celestial home page to its computer-generated painting of a resident of the kingdom of heaven, the site serves up 5 megabytes of soul-chilling blather. Hundreds of pages of millennialist writings, including transcripts of videotapes and the full text of a book called Heaven's Gate, lay out the cult's history and cosmology. There are a few special features as well. Buried in the invisible space at the bottom of the home page are hundreds of hidden words: UFO, space alien, extraterrestrial, misinformation, second coming, end times, alien abductions, Yoda, Yoga. Was this some kind of subliminal incantation? Or bait to draw in unsuspecting Web surfers searching the Internet for the key words of their obsessions?

Nothing is forgotten on the Net, and a little bit of cybersleuthing in its deeper recesses turned up plenty of evidence of past cult activity. One posting sent from a heavensgate.com E-mail address was "spammed" last September to dozens of Usenet newsgroups ranging from alt.conspiracy to alt.buddha.short.fat.guy. "Time to die for God?" it began. "Whether we like it or not, the Armageddon — the Mother of Holy Wars — has begun, and it will not cease until the plowing under is completed."

In one disturbing exchange, purportedly recorded in full, a cult member calling himself CandlShot struck up a conversation on the Internet Relay Chat system with an 18-year-old using the screen name JayBoy18. "Are you looking for work?" CandlShot began. "We are always looking for associates."

CandlShot "If you agreed to work with us, we would like to have you here with us, but we could accommodate you. Where do you live?"

JayBoy18 In the COLD state of Michigan.

CandlShot Actually, if you could not relocate, we are looking for associates in that area.

JayBoy18 I couldn't relocate.

CandlShot That is understandable. However, you can still meet our needs. Do you live with family or friends? Actually, this is a conversation we should be having over the telephone. May I have your number so I may call you?

JayBoy18 Um...no. You know how it is...you don't give out your number over the Net, besides...I just met you.

CandlShot You will not succeed unless you trust. Do you trust me enough to give me a set of numbers?

JayBoy18 No, I'm afraid I don't. Sorry...how about this...I'll call you? I couldn't talk long, but we could get something done.

CandlShot No, I'm afraid that we cannot really have calls coming in at this time.

JayBoy18 Well, you can E-mail me.

CandlShot That would be feasible.

While the young man gave his real E-mail address (bad idea), he cut the "interview" short when CandlShot tried to persuade him to reveal more details about himself (smart move).

A suicide book, correspondence from beyond the grave, aggressive proselytizing by someone who sounds like a Conehead — all of it frozen like a scorpion in amber for us to examine. What are we to make of this spectacle? Is the Internet somehow to blame? "We've known for years there are sexual predators on the Web," an authority on cults said on CNN. "Now it appears there may be spiritual predators as well."

Spiritual predators? Give me a break. Better yet, go look at this stuff yourself and tell me if you think it's dangerous. A Web page that has the power to suck people — against their will — into a suicide cult? The whole idea would be laughable if 39 people weren't dead. If you want to find out what killed them, however, you're going to have to click a lot deeper than www.heavensgate.com

— With reporting by Karen Brophy and Noah Robischon/New York and Declan McCullagh/Washington

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