RANCHO SANTA FE, CA — Thirty-nine members of a cult of computer programmers systematically killed themselves by washing down lethal drugs with vodka, their suitcases packed for what they thought was a rendezvous with a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

They left behind a matter-of-fact videotape explaining they were about to graduate from their human shells and ascend into heaven via outerspace.

"It seemed to be a group decision," said Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the San Diego County medical examiner. "It was very planned, sort of immaculately carried out."

They were graduating from their human shells to ascend into heaven via outerspace.

"It seemed to be a group decision," said Dr. Brian Blackbourne, the San Diego County medical examiner. "It was very planned, sort of immaculately carried out."

The victims included 21 women and 18 men, Blackbourne said. Tucked in their shirt pockets was a suicide "recipe": take pudding or applesauce and mix it with phenobarbital, drink it down with alcohol, lay back and relax.

Phenobarbital is an anti-seizure medicine that turns deadly in sufficient quantities. Its effects are intensified with alcohol.

Police believe death was aided by plastic bags placed over the heads of the drugged people, because bags with elastic bands were found in trash cans outside.

The victims apparently died in separate groups over the course of the past week: approximately 15 one day, 15 the second and the remaining nine the final day.

Blackbourne said the second group cleaned up after the first, the third after the second. The last two members alive apparently removed the bags from the heads of the last seven bodies, then killed themselves.

"They did have plastic bags over their heads," but no purple shrouds, Blackbourne said of the final pair.

The dead ranged in age from 20 to 72, and because each had closely cropped hair, it initially was difficult to determine their sex.

One of the videos the group left behind has an ethereal look, showing triple images of a bald, elderly man in a black, collarless shirt apparently beckoning his followers to leave the Earth.

"I am in the same position in today's society as was the One that was in Jesus then." He was identified as the founder of the Heaven's Gate cult, a former teacher and opera singer named Marshall Applewhite, who recruited members to a similar UFO-based cult in the mid-1970s with Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles. They met when Nettles, a nurse, treated Applewhite in a mental hospital.

CBS said Applewhite's body was among the 39 in the mansion.

In the tape, Applewhite, now called Do, after the musical tone, says, "You can follow us, but you cannot stay here and follow us," referring to the suicide plan.

A letter included with the tape says:

By the time you read this ... we'll be gone — several dozen of us. We came from the Level Above Human in distant space and we have now exited the bodies that we were wearing for our earthly task, to return to the world from whence we came — task completed.

On the group's Web page, a writer named Do likens himself to Jesus Christ and calls himself "The Present Representative."

"Our mission is exactly the same," Do says. "I am in the same position in today's society as was the One that was in Jesus then."

Among the cult members on a second tape is a woman with short cropped hair seated next to a younger man with a short haircut.

"Maybe they're crazy for all I know, but I don't have any choice but to go for it because I've been on this planet for 31 years and there's nothing here for me," the woman says. Each had a packed suitcase and a $5 bill and quarters in their pockets.

One suicide victim was Canadian, two were black, a few were Hispanic and the rest were white, Blackbourne said. Authorities withheld identifications until family members were notified, but said victims were from California, Colorado, Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Washington, Minnesota, Utah, Ohio and Arizona.

Each had a packed suitcase at the foot of their bed or cot, and each had a $5 bill and quarters in their pockets, Blackbourne said.

Police played a videotape shot inside the mansion by investigators, showing bodies all dressed in black, as if wearing uniforms — identical Nike sneakers, long-sleeve shirts and pants — most lying on neatly made bunk beds.

All had a rectangular purple shroud covering their upper bodies, some had eyeglasses folded neatly at their sides. Computer equipment was spread throughout the nine-bedroom house.

The bodies were taken to the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office in Kearny Mesa by the truckload, then shifted two-by-two by forklift to a refrigerated semi-trailer until autopsies can be performed.

"They were dead wrong ... the extra- terrestrials will not come to Earth until 2001."

Charles Spiegel, Director, Unarius Educational Foundation

Joe Szimhart, a cult specialist and counselor based in Pottstown, Pa., said that when he came across the Heaven's Gate Web site months ago, he noted a high level of paranoia.

The text warned against a scenario like those that occurred at Waco and Ruby Ridge, in which armed agents stormed the compounds of groups on the fringe.

"They seemed to be New Age Fundamentalists," Szimhart said. "They took their symbols literally. They didn't see them as metaphors. They took the comet as a literal vehicle. And that's what caused their downfall."

Other New Age/extraterrestrial groups distanced themselves from the Heaven's Gate cult.

"They were dead wrong," said Charles Spiegel, director of the Unarius Educational Foundation, which also based in suburban San Diego. His group teaches that the extraterrestrials will not come to Earth until 2001.