Searching for Bo Peep: Artist Hits the Road With Cultists 22 Years Ago
If a stranger from California could have healed local artist Gene Elder's car radio 22 years ago, Elder might have been one of the 39 dead cultists recently discovered in a Rancho Santa Fe, California mansion. But the mysterious stranger from California-a follower of the Bo Peep cult-could not work a miracle on the radio in Elder's Chevy Impala-he couldn't even bring in static. And the one-armed motorcyclist in the car with them during the Rocky Mountains blizzard was no help either. Elder's encounter with the Bo Peep cult-later called Heaven's Gate-was brief and strange but ultimately life affirming. In February 1975, Gene Elder-then in his mid-20s-was working as a cook at the now defunct Greenwood Restaurant on Main Street, not far from the San Antonio College campus.Elder remembers a group of about 10 clean-cut young men from California and Arizona, who were traveling the county, stopped in the restaurant. They booked the Greenwood for a meeting to proselytize their beliefs-a mixture of religion, mysticism, and space travel-handing out and pasting up flyers promoting the meeting. "As I recall," says Elder, "the flyers said something about leaving this garden and going on to the next." The night of the meeting, Elder remembers 25 to 30 people gathered at the restaurant. "The men doing the talking seemed robotic," Elder says, "and people who had come to hear what they had to say pretty much tuned them out. Most of the audience looked skeptical and started to get annoyed." But Elder wasn't annoyed, "I felt sorry for them, and I was intrigued. They were talking about going to a higher plane of existence. And, they were going there on a space craft. But it never offended me," Elder says, "They would weave it around Christianity, make it palatable, believable. "They had nothing," Elder remembers, "and they asked for nothing. They didn't even want to know your name," he says. "And," he adds, "although they espoused giving away all your possessions, they weren't saying you should give it to them or to Bo or Peep," as Heaven's Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite and his companion Bonnie Nettles were known back then. "I believe that if they had said, 'Give us all your stuff,' I would have dismissed them right away."But Elder didn't dismiss them; in fact, he invited all 10 in group to stay at his home for the night. They accepted and Elder says he and members of the group stayed awake till the wee hours discussing their beliefs. "What they were saying was so outrageous, spaceships and all that. I had never heard these kind of thing before. I was perfectly willing to surrender my logic to something so outrageous," he says. "At that time of my life, I was bogged down by possessions. Something about giving all my stuff away appealed to me.The next morning, the group was off to Houston, but not before making plans to come back for Elder after he had time to get rid of his possessions. It was determined that a week would be sufficient. Elder began divesting himself of worldly goods, but according to his longtime friend Yvonne Woods, he wasn't divesting them for free. "I bought several beautiful pieces of art from him," Woods recalls. "And I got some nice lamps which he still wants back," she adds with a slight giggle. "I thought it was perfectly fine for him to go off to Venus," says Woods. "I told him to have a wonderful time."Elder says other friends thought his actions were a bit odd. "They were concerned for me, but also realized it was what I needed to do at the time. Getting rid of your possessions was kind of a catharsis; it was also kind of humorous to me."Elder got rid of most of his stuff and kept the money he got for it. He also kept a Chevy Impala with a broken radio. A week after the initial band of cultists left San Antonio, one of the them, a nameless guy from California, returned for Elder. "There wasn't anything special about him," Elder recalls. "He was dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans. He had a short haircut. There just wasn't anything special about him. He didn't act robotic like on the night of the meeting." Robot or not, at this point Elder was ready to pile into the Impala with him and take off. But right before they were ready to depart, another guy-one who had attended the Greenwood meeting-showed up on a motorcycle and decided to go with them. "I remember that guy only had one arm," notes Elder.So Elder, No-Name, and One-Arm jumped in the Impala to boldly go westward, in search of intelligent signs of life in the universe-literally. From the beginning, Elder recalls, the whole steam of conversation revolved around the stranger from California and his dogma of space travel and Bo, the cult leader. Elder and the one-arm motorcycle guy listened, soaking up "We would stop at roadside parks to sleep," says Elder, who used some of the money from the sale of his possessions to buy the trio sleeping bags and shoes. "When we needed food," Elder continues, "we would stop at a fast-food place and ask if we could pick up trash in exchange for something to eat. Most of the time, we had no problem." Although the unlikely trio were heading west, Elder says he didn't know the destination. In fact, his companions didn't know for sure where they were going. "They were following signs, like car license plates or symbols on readings. I thought this guy [California Guy] knew what he was doing," he says. "He kept finding signs-licenses plates, newspapers, and other odd things-that he said were directing us to meet up with a space craft." Elder says they headed to El Paso, where Elder's father lived, and then on into New Mexico. Once, Elder recalls, California Guy made him stop, and all three of the travelers got out and climbed a mountain in search of a "sign." "Again," says Elder, [California Guy] said we needed to leave a possession as an offering. I began to notice all the possessions we were leaving were mine, things like a ring or necklace." Wary yet undaunted, Elder forged on searching for...something. It wasn't until the third day of traveling that Elder says he was "able to evaluate the validity of the experience.""We were headed into the Rocky Mountains, in the middle of a blizzard," says Elder, "and we all were just wearing T-shirts. At this point," recalls Elder, [California Guy and One-Arm] had really gotten caught up in the space ship thing. The [California Guy] would act like he was in a trance and describe the inside of the space ship and what was going on in there. [One-arm] was into it too."I had just about had it," says Elder. "The guy from California started to believe he could perform miracles, evidently thinking he got the power for the aliens in the space craft. He would say, 'I can work miracles, ask me to do something.'"Apparently not interested in seeing plagues of locusts or water turned into wine, Elder simply asked the no-name, California miracle worker to fix the car radio. "When he reached over and turned the knob," says Elder, "it didn't work. I could see it was an incredible ego deflation for the guy. After that I took control of the situation and turned the car around and said, 'What the hell am I doing. I'm going back.'" California Guy was not happy about the decision, and the one-armed, motorcycle guy from San Antonio didn't want to go home. "I was beginning to realize the [California Guy] had a few screws loose," says Elder. "I could tell he was getting angry. And I was becoming concerned that they might try to take off with my car, so I left them at a restaurant in New Mexico and headed to El Paso to see my father." Elder says his father, at the time a furniture manufacturer, "accepted what I had done. I was embarrassed," says Elder. "But he wasn't judgmental." It was at this point that Elder had what he terms "an emotional collapse." Leaving his car in El Paso, Elder and his father flew back to San Antonio where Elder the almost-Bo-Peep cultist eventually opened up an art gallery called the Mud Gallery.Looking back on the three-day experience, Elder now sees it as a positive one. "I'm a hell of a lot wiser about what I get into," he says. "I think now I'm better able to control things and less likely to be swayed by manipulative people. I think I also learned something about faith, about being open to something you don't understand." But Elder's return to River City wasn't the end of his contact with California Guy. The cultist reappeared in Elder's life about five or six years after their short journey together. "He looked me up," says Elder, "and I let him spend the night at my place. At that time, I got a clearer picture of him. He really wasn't in touch with reality." California Guy took off the next day, and Elder hasn't seen him since. In fact, because he never knew his name, Elder is uncertain whether California Guy was among the bodies found at Rancho Santa Fe. Elder's first reaction upon learning of the mass suicide in California was empathy. "I really got kind of upset at the journalistic community calling the group a 'bizarre cult,'" he says. "They kept making other judgmental statements. Whatever their reasons for killing themselves, they [the cultists] obviously had a great deal of love for each other as a group. They weren't trying to hurt others."