The day they ‘stepped across’

Deaths of messiah from Ukiah’ and 908 followers remain center of mystery, controversy after 25 years

For Anthony Katsaris, 25 years hasn’t dulled the sounds of the murderous fusillade fired by followers of the Rev. Jim Jones at a small airstrip in the jungle of Guyana.

On that deadly day — Nov. 18, 1978 — three bullets slammed into Katsaris, knocking him to the runway at Port Kaituma. Five people were killed and 10 others were wounded in the surprise attack, a precursor to a mass murder-suicide that claimed the lives of Jones, the “messiah from Ukiah,” and 908 of his followers at a jungle compound called Jonestown.

“I heard people walking around, and then the ‘boom, boom’ sound of a shotgun. They were finishing people off,” Katsaris recalled.

Echoes persist a generation later of a cult-like church commune that first planted its roots in bucolic Mendocino County, spread to San Francisco and Los Angeles and then extinguished itself in a violent orgy of poison and gunshots.

Hundreds of Peoples Temple members drank cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid and then fell to the ground, their bodies writhing from the drug’s powerful effects.

Of the dead, 276 were children. Rebecca Moore, an academic expert on Jonestown who lost two sisters and a young nephew there, said, “Able-bodied adults killed their children, and then apparently without too much coercion, killed themselves.”

Jones and a second person were shot to death for reasons still unclear.

A quarter-century later, the scope of what happened at Jonestown still staggers the imagination and eludes explanation. Waco and Timothy McVeigh have all captured headlines. But only 9/11 claimed more lives than that gloomy November day at Jonestown.

Over time, theories about what might have possessed hundreds of people to die have become as tangled as the jungle that’s reclaimed what was once envisioned by Jones as a self-sustaining paradise for his beleaguered Peoples Temple.

In some quarters, Jones is still viewed as a lone, drug-induced madman who somehow seduced hundreds of followers into willingly taking their own lives, evidenced by repeated practices of a so-called act of “revolutionary suicide” that he devised a few years earlier.

Conspiracy theories

Speculation is kept alive on numerous Web sites, including a global conspiracy theory that U.S. government agents went into the jungle and murdered everyone in order to hide the fact that Jones was a spy for the CIA.

Then there are Peoples Temple loyalists who still believe the residents of Jonestown voluntarily chose death because they knew the man they called “Father” would be unfairly blamed for Rep. Leo Ryan’s murder on the jungle airstrip.

For Katsaris, the reasons are unimportant. On that November day, he lost the person he had come to Jonestown to save: his older sister Maria.

After Katsaris was wounded at the airstrip, he recalls falling to the ground, bleeding badly. Katsaris rolled under the belly of a small airplane and attempted to hide behind its wheels. Ryan, mortally wounded, and his injured aide, Jackie Speier, lay nearby.

Ryan, hit in the head with a shotgun blast, was one of five people killed at the airstrip. Three Bay Area journalists and a Peoples Temple defector were the other victims.

Katsaris, a former Potter Valley resident who today lives and teaches in Davis, and Speier, now a state senator, survived, along with eight others.

Ryan’s party had made the trek to Guyana on behalf of concerned families of members of Jones’ mysterious Peoples Temple. Katsaris’ father, Steven, was waiting with other families in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, when the airstrip attack began.

Aiding defectors

Ryan, young Katsaris and other members of the party had left Georgetown the day before to visit Jonestown and assist anyone who might have wanted to defect. Katsaris hoped among them would be his sister.

Thirteen years before, in 1965, Jones and 140 followers had left his native Indiana and settled in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley, where his “socialist” church prospered. Jones quickly charmed his way into the local political establishment, where he was hailed for his good deeds on behalf of the poor and the elderly. One year, Jones was appointed foreman of the county’s grand jury.

Mendocino counsel

At the time, Jones’ chief legal counsel was Tim Stoen, then a Mendocino County deputy district attorney. Stoen has since become Humboldt County’s chief deputy district attorney.

In the temple’s final years, Stoen and his former wife, Grace, turned against Jones. Stoen, in a bitter quest to retrieve the couple’s 6-year-old son John from Jonestown, had helped persuade Ryan to make his trek to Jonestown.

Stoen declined interviews about his early role, and his later unsuccessful effort to retrieve his son, who was among the dozens of children who perished at Jonestown.

But in a recent message to former temple members posted on a Jonestown Institute Web page, Stoen said he still remembers “the delicious tang — a tang of buoyancy — in feeling part of a utopian society that would be a model of sharing in a cutthroat world.”

Stoen said true believers tried valiantly to prevent the disintegration of the Peoples Temple.

“We decided to pay any price to prevent that from happening, including the fatal one: authoritarianism. People like me, with a grounding in world history, should have known better.”

Prominence in SF

By the early 1970s, Jones had moved to San Francisco, where he quickly rose to prominence among the city’s political and religious elite: Willie Brown, the Rev. Cecil Williams and George Moscone, whose assassination nine days after the Jonestown massacre was a second seismic shock for Northern California.

But by 1977, with questions beginning to mount publicly about Peoples Temple practices, including alleged beatings, money laundering and sexual abuse, Jones sought refuge in the jungle compound in Guyana.

Among Jones’ earliest followers was dark-eyed Maria Katsaris, a vivacious, intelligent young Potter Valley woman who had come to believe Jones was a religious revolutionary. At the time of her death in Jonestown, she reportedly was one of Jones’ mistresses.

As shocking as the midday airstrip attack on Ryan and his party was, it was only the harbinger of an even more stunning event that was beginning to unfold six miles away at Jonestown, a 300-acre compound cleared out of the South American jungle.

Drinking cyanide

There, Jones and 908 followers — a “rainbow coalition” of men, women and children of all ages and races — died from drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid. Some may have been coerced by a cadre of armed guards.

A quarter-century later, academics, former temple followers and relatives of the victims still differ on why.

James Richardson, director of the Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, said the truth about what exactly happened may never be known.

Richardson noted that only seven complete autopsies of Jonestown victims were done, and, even then, not until three weeks after the jungle tragedy.

“We will never even know how many people were murdered, or died of self-ingested poison,” said Richardson.

Autopsy questions

Richardson, in a recently published paper questioning government secrecy surrounding Jonestown-related files, said the chief medical examiner for the government of Guyana estimated that no more than 200 people committed suicide.

“If that figure is true, this means that over 700 might have been murdered, raising many issues about what actually happened there,” said Richardson.

Former temple leader Laurie Efrein Kahalas in 1998 wrote a book outlining her belief that a variety of government agencies spied on and harassed Jones and his followers, from Redwood Valley to San Francisco, and later to the jungle of Guyana.

Kahalas, citing a tape recording of events on the final day at Jonestown, claimed that Army sharpshooters — not temple members — attacked Ryan, Katsaris and the others at the airstrip.

At one point, according to a tape recording cited by Kahalas, Jones was heard telling followers over loudspeakers: “I didn’t order the shooting … I don’t know who shot the congressman.”

Moore is an associate professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, home of the Jonestown Institute.

Enormity of evil

Moore said she believes conspiracy theories make it easier for some people to absorb the enormity of Jonestown.

“If we believe that ordinary, decent people did extraordinary acts of ‘evil,’ then the moral order is demolished,” said Moore.

“It seems easier for people to believe in evil in the guise of conspirators than in evil in the guise of our neighbors,” she said.

Moore said the fact that “residents rehearsed suicide before, and were faced with the imminent destruction of their community leads me to believe that they chose to be loyal to each other, and to die rather than be traitors and survive.”

Catherine Wessinger, a religions history professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, links the religious fervor of the Peoples Temple to current events in the volatile Middle East.

“As I watch events unfolding now on the international scene in the aftermath of Sept. 11, with the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the heightened conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians, I am very discouraged that leaders of governments still do not understand the interactive nature of violence involving religious groups,” Wessinger said.

‘Revolutionary suicide’

Weissinger believes Jones’ concept of “revolutionary suicide” is not unlike the emergence of suicide bombers as a lethal force in the Middle East.

Based on a tape recording of his final minutes, Jones issued a chilling call to his followers to join him in an act of “revolutionary suicide.”

Jones exhorted his followers not to resist the poisonous drink being passed around in paper cups — or, in the case of babies and toddlers, a poisonous purple liquid injected into their mouths.

“So you be kind to the children and be kind to seniors, and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly,” Jones urged.

Jones told his followers, “I don’t care how many screams you hear, death is a million times preferable to spending more days in this life.”

“You have to step across,” Jones said. “This world was not our home.”

Maria Katsaris’ body was found near Jones. She died from poisoning.

Lasting memory

Anthony Katsaris recalled the last time he saw his sister, a few hours before the airstrip shooting, and the hysteria at Jonestown that would engulf her.

“She wasn’t the sister I knew. She acted as if she had been brainwashed. She was stiff and wooden and unable to connect,” Katsaris recalled.

Still he persisted.

As he was bidding Maria goodbye at the compound, Anthony Katsaris pressed a sterling silver cross that had belonged to their Greek grandfather into one hand. As he turned to board a dump truck used to transport the visitors to the airstrip, Maria Katsaris called out. She threw the cross to the ground, declaring her past was no longer important to her.

Anthony Katsaris retrieved the cross and left.

Within hours, he lay seriously wounded at the airstrip. Back at Jonestown, his sister was preparing for death.

“I wanted to live more than anything else that day,” he said. “I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why she didn’t.”

News Researcher Vonnie Matthews contributed to this report.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Press Democrat, USA
Nov. 16, 2003
Mike Geniella

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday November 17, 2003.
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