San Diego's infamous pink police car, a favorite photo op at the Sheriff's Museum.
San Diego's notorious pink patrol car, a favorite photo op at the Sheriff's Museum.

Sheriff's Museum: Heaven's Gate

Field review by the editors.

San Diego, California

When the museum of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department remodeled and reopened in 2014, it emerged with an improved Heaven's Gate diorama in its Criminal Investigations Division Homicide Unit exhibit (We've only seen this bizarre suicide cult scene recreated once before -- at the grisly Museum of Death). Nearly 40 members of the "Heaven's Gate Away Team" (as they called themselves) committed suicide in a rented house on March 26, 1997, but posthumous public memorials were initially discouraged; the building was quickly bulldozed, and even its street name was changed to thwart tourists.

A member of the
A member of the "Heaven's Gate Away Team," post-launch, in the museum display.

The exhibit includes a framed photo of bug-eyed cult leader Marshall Applewhite, and another photo of bodies inside one of the death rooms. The latter reveals the accuracy of the museum's recreation: tubular metal bed, purple shroud, and the only visible body parts are a pair of legs wearing black pants and Nike Decades, which the frugal cult bought on sale for $10 a pair.

We asked Lani Curtis, the Museum Coordinator, if any of the Heaven's Gate items were from the crime scene; she said they were all replicas.

Outside the death room, two glamour mannequins (unconvincingly dressed in SWAT gear) are ready to break down the door with a battering ram.

An adjacent showcase features one of the cultist's original spiral-bound "How and When Heaven's Gate May be Entered" guide, and there are also relics from the Santana High School Shooting of March 5, 2001, including the murder revolver of Charles Williams, a skinny, jug-eared freshman who'd been bullied and reportedly smiled as he shot his schoolmates.

The museum stands on a spot formerly occupied by the county's first prison. Its most famous inmate was Roy Bean (later Judge Roy Bean) who was jailed for fighting a duel on horseback, then later escaped using knives smuggled to him inside tamales.

One of the Sheriff Museum's most photographed artifacts is its pink patrol car, a 1966 Dodge Polara. Lani told us that the sheriff at the time had the choice of two colors from the dealership, and allowed his wife to pick the one that was used (Officially it's Salmon/Dusty Rose). It remained the official vehicle color of the San Diego County Sheriff's Department until 1971.

Sheriff's Museum: Heaven's Gate

William B. Kolender San Diego County Sheriff's Museum

2384 San Diego Ave., San Diego, CA
Just north of the airport, on the north side of San Diego Ave. between Ampudia and Arista Sts.
W-Su 11-5:30 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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