Pain of sect massacre lingers 30 years later
Dark clouds tumbled overhead on that afternoon 30 years ago, in the last hours of the lawmaker’s mission deep in the jungle of Guyana.
With a small entourage, Rep. Leo Ryan had come to investigate the remote settlement built by a California-based church.
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While he was there, more than a dozen people had stepped forward: We want to return to the United States, they told him.
Suddenly a powerful wind tore through the central pavilion, riffling pages of my notebook, and the skies dumped torrents. People scrambled for cover as I interviewed the founder of Peoples Temple.
“I feel sorry that we are being destroyed from within,” said the Rev. Jim Jones, saying he was stunned that members of his flock wanted to abandon the place he called the Promised Land.
The storm and the mood seemed ominous — and not just to me. “I felt evil itself blow into Jonestown when that storm hit,” said Tim Carter, one of the few to survive that day.
Within hours, Carter would see his wife and son die of cyanide poisoning, two of the more than 900 people Jones led into a murder and suicide ritual.
And I would be wounded when a team of temple assassins unleashed a fusillade that killed Ryan — the first member of Congress slain in the line of duty — and four others, including three members of the news media.
By their wiles or happenstance, scores of temple members escaped the events of Nov. 18, 1978. Among the survivors: Members of the group’s basketball team who were playing in Georgetown, 150 miles away; a woman who fled Jonestown with her young son, hours before the carnage; a family that had left Peoples Temple months before.
For survivors like Tim Carter, the suffering still hasn’t ended.
“What you experienced at the airstrip is what I experienced at Jonestown,” Carter said almost 30 years after that horrible day. “Somebody was trying to kill us. And my family was killed as well. I cannot describe the agony, terror and horror of what that was.”
‘A concentration camp’
Yulanda Williams was about 12 years old when she began attending temple services in San Francisco with her parents. Her father, lured by Jones’ reputation as a Christian prophet with healing powers, believed that the minister helped him recover from a heart attack.
Peoples Temple sprang from the heartland in the 1950s. Jones built an interracial congregation in Indianapolis through passionate preaching and calls for racial equality. Moving to California, the minister transformed his church into a leftist social movement with programs for the poor.
He was head of San Francisco’s public housing commission in the 1970s when media scrutiny and legal problems spurred his retreat to Jonestown for what would be his last stand.
In 1977, as members of the news media were beginning to investigate disciplinary thrashings and other abuse in the temple, Jones summoned Williams and her husband to Guyana.
Upon arrival in Jonestown, the couple felt deceived. It was far from the paradise Jones described. There were armed guards, and Jones warned that deserters would encounter venomous snakes and hostile natives.
“I felt like I was in a concentration camp and he was Hitler,” Williams said.
Because her husband was a lawyer whose skills could be better used elsewhere, they were permitted to leave after a few weeks. And months before the horrific end, Williams and her family cut ties with the temple.
Eventually, Williams joined the San Francisco Police Department. But she told no one about her temple involvement for a decade. When she finally confided to a deputy chief, “He said, ‘No way,’ because everybody had this stereotype” about the kinds of people who were members of Peoples Temple, she said.
‘Waiting for a gunshot’
On the morning of Nov. 18, Ryan’s party was about to tour the settlement and investigate whether its residents truly were free to go.
Leslie Wilson, wife of security chief Joe Wilson, took her 3-year-old son, Jakari, to the kitchen building where they met seven others who had endured enough of Jonestown. The group told fellow settlers they were going on a picnic — but they just kept on moving through the jungle, with Jakari slung in a sheet on Wilson’s back.
“I was so scared I was shaking in my tennis shoes,” she said. “I was waiting for a gunshot and a bullet and me dropping.”
Concealed by thick undergrowth, the escapees passed so close to the Jonestown guard shack that they could hear voices. Trudging 35 miles along railroad tracks, they arrived sweaty and dirty that night in the town of Matthews Ridge.
Wilson, who lost her mother, brother, sister and husband that Saturday, would be consumed with survivor’s guilt.
Now divorced, she goes by her married name Leslie Cathey and works in the health care industry. She said she has finally found forgiveness, even for Jones, but she can’t forget. “I pray my family did not think I left them,” she said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it.”
Gunfire at the airstrip
While a truck ferried the Ryan party and 15 grim-faced defectors toward the Port Kaituma airstrip six miles away, we were unaware that anyone had escaped. But at Jonestown’s front gate, Joe Wilson inspected the crowded truck, looking for his wife and toddler.
We made it safely to the dirt strip. But then, a tractor with a trailer full of temple gunmen — Wilson among them — soon bore down on us. Gunfire exploded as we boarded two small planes.
Ryan died. So did defector Patricia Parks, Don Harris and Bob Brown of NBC News, and San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson. I was shot in the left forearm and wrist.
‘Don’t be afraid to die’
By the time the airstrip gunmen — Joe Wilson among them — returned to Jonestown, Jones had gathered his people in the pavilion and had begun preparing them for the end. He used news of Ryan’s shooting to convince the throng that they had no hope, no future, no place to go. “The congressman has been murdered!” he said. “Please get the medication before it’s too late. Don’t be afraid to die.”
When potassium cyanide-laced Grape Flavor Aid was brought forward, Jones wanted the children to go first, sealing everyone’s fate because the parents and elders would have no reason to live. With armed guards encircling everyone and children screaming, medical staff members with syringes squirted poison down the throats of babies.
The killing already was under way when Carter was sent to the pavilion. Frozen in horror, he saw his 15-month-old son Malcolm poisoned. Then his wife, Gloria, died in his arms. “I wanted to kill myself,” he said. “But I had a voice saying, ‘You cannot die. You must live.’ ”
He did live. Jones had one last mission for the Vietnam veteran.
A top Jones aide gave Carter, his brother and another temple member pistols and luggage containing hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were instructed to take the money to the Soviet Embassy in Georgetown along with letters authorizing transfer of millions from temple bank accounts to the Soviet Union. But the trio ditched most of the cash during the arduous hike to Port Kaituma, and they were detained by police there.
Two days later, Carter was brought back to Jonestown to help identify the bodies. “People still think everyone lined up in orderly fashion and drank the potion without protest,” Carter said. “It’s not reality. I saw people who had been injected with poison.”
He went to live with his father in Idaho. Carter landed a job at a travel agency and worked in the industry for many years. But he said he reflects on the nightmare of Jonestown almost every day.
“The more time that goes on, the better it is,” he said. “I can think about Gloria and Malcolm without feeling that knife in my chest.”
Thirty years later, dozens of surviving members come together for private reunions because they still value their friendship, the temple’s sense of community and their utopian dream of a world free of racism and injustice.
“I go because I feel so strongly about the need for and power of forgiveness and understanding,” said Stephan Jones, the minister’s son. He was 19, and in Georgetown with other basketball team members on the temple’s last day. “I’ve come to believe a group of people can see the same thing and each come away with a completely different perspective and all be right in the moment.”
Today, he is the vice president of a small Bay area office installation and services company.
In Jonestown’s aftermath, Stephan hated his father. But he said he has come to recognize that the capacity for good and evil, and mental sickness, coexisted in Jones.
“We don’t want to face our own responsibility or part in what happened and feel ashamed for being duped or manipulated,” he said. “We look for someone else to blame. I realized over time that there was a great need to forgive him, then I could forgive myself.”
About Tim Reiterman, reporter of the above story:
AP Journalist Who Survived Jonestown Mass Killings Reflects On 30th Anniversary
NEW YORK — Since he was wounded outside Jonestown, Guyana, 30 years ago during an attack by members of the Peoples Temple, Tim Reiterman has written numerous anniversary stories about the incident and mass suicide that followed.
But, this year, things seem different. Now a news editor for Associated Press, Reiterman, 61, says looking back on the deadly incident that occurred during his days as a San Francisco Examiner reporter is not the same.
“Every time I write an anniversary piece, it seems like it gets harder rather than easier,” Reiterman said by phone from San Francisco. “I know it is painful for the people I approach to relive. These survivors have become saturated.”
Reiterman says he has written such stories on the 10th, 20th and 25th anniversaries of the Nov. 18, 1978 tragedy that ended with 900 dead at the hands of leader Jim Jones. The link to the Bay Area is key as that is where the People’s Temple began and Jones built political power.
“This one was different in the sense that most of the people I talked to, more than half, were people I had not spoken to for other pieces,” says Reiterman. “There has been a kind of healing process. A lot of the survivors have started to come together.”
He also notes: “Now there is a whole new generation who has never heard of the story.”
The impact on San Francisco was immense given Jones’s ties to the Bay Area, which included serving on the city’s Housing Commission. The city was shaken just nine days later when Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by fellow Supervisor Dan White.
That 30th anniversary is also approaching, marked even more so this year by the film, “Milk,” in which Sean Penn plays Milk, the first openly-gay elected public official.
Reiterman, a former AP reporter, joined the Examiner in 1977 and was working as a police reporter in Oakland when word began to spread about the Peoples Temple in San Francisco.
That resulted in a two-part series about the controversial cult, and later a follow-up on the life and death of one of its members who was the son of a photographer. When Ryan visited in 1978, Reiterman was a natural to join the press contingent.
Reiterman said one reason he has continued to write about the incident is to make clear that it was not a mass suicide, but a mass killing. “There were 200 children who were killed,” he says. “This was mass murder and I believe that some of that has started to sink in.”
Afrer the 1978 tragedy, Reiterman stayed at the Examiner until 1989, writing a book in 1982 about the tragedy titled “Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones,” with fellow scribe John Jacobs. The book was just re-released in paperback.
Jonestown still reverberates in Bay Area 30 years later
Thirty years after 900 people died at the remote Jonestown settlement in a South American jungle, the shocking event still reverberates in the Bay Area.
Rep. Leo Ryan, whose assassination Nov. 18, 1978, on an airport tarmac near the settlement triggered the murders and suicides that brought an end to charismatic leader Jim Jones and his cult followers in Guyana, will be honored today when Rep. Jackie Speier hosts a ceremony renaming the U.S. Post Office on Ellsworth Avenue in San Mateo after him.
Speier, then a staff aide to Ryan, also sustained five gunshot wounds on the tarmac and required long-term hospitalization and years of physical therapy for her injuries.
Meanwhile, one of Ryan’s former staff assistants who spent months probing Jones’ Peoples Temple in San Francisco has emerged to reveal that threats on his life he received that fateful day turned his life upside down.
“There are two stories here,” said William Holsinger, the former assistant. “One is Peoples Temple and Jonestown, and the other is this extraordinary man Leo Ryan.”
Holsinger, today a 57-year-old San Mateo lawyer, added that Ryan “literally sacrificed his life for his constituents in a way that no other member of Congress ever had.”
Ryan and others wanted to get to the bottom of rumors that Jones had brainwashed and abused members of his colony.
Jones founded the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in the 1950s but later moved the group to Northern California, where it attracted more followers and established a regular presence in San Francisco’s political scene. In the late 1970s, most members followed Jones to Guyana to participate in an agricultural project at Jonestown.
When Ryan and Speier traveled to Guyana to investigate the Peoples Temple, they were accompanied by journalists and relatives of some of Jones’ followers.
The group arrived in Guyana on Nov. 14 and three days later gained access to Jonestown, where it interviewed Jones and some of the settlement’s 900 residents. Things appeared to be going smoothly, with a special dinner, musical presentation and warmly received speech by Ryan, until a number of Jonestown residents told the visitors they wanted to return to the United States.
Ryan arranged for about 16 temple members to leave the settlement with his group.
On Nov. 18, members of the Jonestown security unit shot and killed Ryan, three journalists and one defector as they attempted to leave an airstrip near the settlement on two planes. The gunmen injured 10 other people, including Speier, who sustained five gunshot wounds.
Holsinger said his wife received three threatening phone calls at their home in San Francisco’s Richmond District that same afternoon.
“Tell your husband that his meal ticket just had his brains blown out, and he better be careful,” the caller allegedly said.
At the time of the calls, Holsinger had been interviewing members of the Concerned Relatives group, as well as investigating the temple’s tax-exempt status and its alleged cache of weapons.
He arranged for patrol cars from the San Francisco Police Department and the California Highway Patrol to escort his wife and young son from San Francisco to Palo Alto. The couple then spent a few days in Lake Tahoe and later holed up at a ranch in Houston.
They never returned to their home in San Francisco and arranged for movers to take their belongings to Foster City without knowing the destination in advance. They survived those months as a couple but split up a year later.
James Reston Jr., author of the 1981 book on Jonestown “Our Father Who Art in Hell” and a radio documentary on the subject, said people who received threats “had a real, genuine reason to be afraid.”
“That was a tyranny of the mind like we’ve never seen before in America,” Reston said. “There were all kinds of intimidation going on, and people had reason to think they could back it up.”
When Ryan and the others arrived in Jonestown, Jones was taking massive amounts of drugs and falling apart both physically and mentally, Reston said. A doctor who visited the camp in August said Jones would probably die before the end of 1978.
By November, the Peoples Temple already had acquired the poison they would imbibe with punch and had conducted suicide drills, but Ryan’s visit gave Jones the excuse he was looking for to incite the killings and suicides, Reston said.
Jones “wanted to die in a grand way so he would be remembered by history,” Reston said. “Ryan was the provocation — that’s how Jim Jones could whip up the community into this fervor.
“It would not have happened had Ryan not gone down there personally,” Reston added. “From a cold historical standpoint, yes, he is responsible.”