ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Dale Fredrick Mackey seemed to fall off the planet.
Few had known what had become of the Albuquerque man over the past six decades until his obituary appeared in the Journal last week. He had died in Dallas at age 81, they learned, but in November, though no explanation was given as to why it had taken until last Friday for him to be returned to his hometown to be interred near his parents at Fairview Memorial Park.
The obituary listed the usual accomplishments – Mackey graduated from Albuquerque High School in 1952, the University of New Mexico in 1956 and a master’s program at the University of Southern California in 1959. He had served in the Army Reserve. He had “served the Lord Jesus.”
It also listed some not-so-typical accomplishments, including his work as a film editor and director at MGM Studios.
And this: Mackey at one time had been a member of Heaven’s Gate, the UFO-worshipping cult whose 39 members, including founder Marshall Applewhite, committed suicide en masse sometime before March 26, 1997, at a Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., mansion, in a bizarre plan to leave their bodies – “vehicles,” as they called them – to board a spaceship tailing the Comet Hale-Bopp as it passed close to Earth.
I did not make that up.
Had Mackey not fallen ill and into a more earthly religion, the obituary said, he might have offed himself, too.
Which is to say, he had almost fallen off the planet.
“We left town the morning that obituary ran,” said Mackey’s cousin Barbara Schafer of Albuquerque. “I picked up the paper, read it later, and, my gosh, I couldn’t believe it.” Schafer and another cousin, Ann Greenwood, are the only known Mackey relatives left.
Schafer thought he had died years ago.
So had Greenwood.
“Dale dropped out of existence,” said Greenwood, who lives in San Jose, Calif. “I assumed he must have died somewhere along the way.”
Both cousins say they had heard the cult rumors.
“I remember hearing Dale had given away all his worldly possessions,” Shafer said.
But both say nothing about their cousin suggested that he was cult material. He wasn’t on the fringe or off-the-wall, they said. Just nice, talented.
Longtime Albuquerque attorney Michael Keleher agrees. Keleher, who knew Mackey as a Sigma Chi fraternity brother, recalled that Mackey was the only child of parents who ran a clothing store Downtown and that he had an interest in art.
“But we never really had a conversation about what he was going to do after we graduated,” Keleher said.
Mackey likely had numerous chances to encounter Heaven’s Gate, both in Southern California and in New Mexico, hot spots for cult recruiting in the 1970s. At its height, the cult had about 200 members.
Mackey may have been one of the recruiters. In the summer of 1975, Mackey had visited John “Mickey” Craig, a former UNM classmate, according to an Albuquerque Tribune article. Both men would have been about 41.
A week later, Craig disappeared, abandoning his wife, children and their Colorado dude ranch, resurfacing 22 years later as Brother Logan, one of the 39 who committed suicide in 1997.
Logan had also been among the 40 or so pale, short-haired cult members who in June 1995 settled briefly on a 40-acre compound in the Manzano Mountains, where they began erecting an earthship, a 3,700-square-foot maze of rooms and hallways constructed of fortified dirt-filled tires.
By the spring of 1996, the cult had abandoned the earthship and headed to California.
A year later, the members dressed in matching Nike shoes and black attire adorned with a Heaven’s Gate “Away Team” patch. They each carried $5.75 in their pockets. In three shifts, each drank a fatal barbiturate-and-vodka cocktail, wrapped plastic bags around their heads, covered themselves in purple shrouds and waited for the spaceship to whisk them away.
Mackey was supposed to be among them.
And here we turn to Pastor Paul Kerr of the Mill Valley Fellowship in suburban Dallas. It was Kerr who had placed the obituary in the Journal and brought Mackey’s cremains home.
Kerr knew Mackey as Fred.
“He was very friendly, outgoing, helpful as a great volunteer,” he said. “He helped edit videos for the church. Then he got sick and I and my wife ended up being the only persons who would go see him.”
Mackey, he said, was supposed to film the suicidal end of the cult but fell ill beforehand.
“He was really sick, critically ill,” Kerr said. “He told me a minister came to pray for him, and he literally got out of his bed and walked out of that hospital. He turned his back on the cult, turned his life to the Lord and never looked back.”
A few people showed up at the graveside service in Albuquerque last Friday, among them Schafer’s daughter, Lisa Chavez, as a favor to her vacationing mother; and Keleher. Whatever they might have hoped to learn about the long-lost Mackey, why he had fallen away so far so long so strangely, stayed unknown.
“That cult was a curious thing,” Keleher said. “Kind of weird.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.