RANCHO SANTA FE, California: Seeking to unravel the events leading to the group suicide and to understand the reasons that the members of Heaven's Gate came together, attention has turned to the cult's leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Applewhite was leading an apparently unremarkable life as a highly talented baritone, a husband, father of two, and a professor of music at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. In the early 1970's, Applewhite was granted a leave of absence from the university to deal with emotional problems. According to The Washington Post, he left the university amid a scandal over an affair with a male student. Within a year he left his wife and children, and was later hospitalized for heart trouble. During this time he had a "near-death experience," according to family members, that would change his life. At the hospital, he was convinced by a registered nurse named Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles that he had been saved for a higher purpose. According to the Christian Research Institute, Nettles and Applewhite immediately felt strongly connected to each other. Both had recently undergone "severe upheaval and personal confusion," which they later interpreted as their bodies' responses to being taken over by another being from the "Next Level." Just nine months after they met, the two set out together, Nettles leaving behind her husband, four children, and a small astrology practice. Shortly after that, Applewhite told his family he would never see them again. For the next six weeks, the two endured painful soul-searching in a Texas country ranch house. They said later that it was difficult to concentrate on their developing beliefs that UFOs would come one day to take them to a higher world. But the retreat gave them a new understanding of their calling, and the two embarked on a long journey of proselytizing. The pair, who went by many names - "Him and Her," "Bo and Peep," "Doh and Ti" - gathered "sheep," as they called new recruits, by traveling to small towns throughout the West. In the 1970s, the UFO cult gained much notoriety around the country. The cult's ranks reached about a thousand members, as hundreds of people were persuaded to leave behind their belongings and families and prepare for a UFO trip to the land of God. Members lived by new rules: no drinking, sex or contact with family or friends. Some even chose to be castrated. (Law enforcement officials in California reported Friday that about six of the males who committed suicide at Rancho Santa Fe, including Applewhite, had been surgically castrated some time ago.) Nettles died of cancer in 1985. By the late '80s, the cult had lost a slew of members. This was when Applewhite turned to the Internet to gather a new flock. One of the newest converts was Yvonne McCurdy-Hill, a 39-year-old Cincinnati woman. She left behind five children in September to join the cult and was one of the 39 who used pills, alcohol and suffocation to end their lives.