“Guyana: How It Was”

by Tony Russomanno

In 1978, Tony Russomanno of KSFO Radio in San Francisco was the world’s only radio reporter to cover the death of Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana. His reports earned him the Armstrong Award and the RTNDA Edward R. Murrow International Award, among several others.

The transcript of “Guyana: How It Was,” a radio documentary on the Jonestown deaths which Russomanno produced after his return from Guyana, appears below.

The audio of the reports appears on the Internet Archives website in Part 1 and Part 2.


Saturday, November 25, 1978

KSFO news report

Steel drums are playing reggae music.

Tony Russomanno: If I think about it, it’s unbearable. Unbelievable. So I’m not thinking, just working. Twenty-two hours a day, living on warm beer, sleeping on the floor, pumping out the news, covering the story. I’m medium cool, an extension of my tape recorder. I’m connected to some larger device, and it’s okay, as long as I don’t stop. But now it’s hot and humid, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, a full week after more than 900 people died out there in the jungle, because they couldn’t stop the device that led to their destruction, and their decomposing bodies are being shuttled around in airplanes above my head.

Georgetown, Guyana is slowing down and coming apart. And on this day, the best view of it all is obtained in the middle of the noisy open air of the veranda of the seedy turn-of-the-century Park Hotel. Four of us are spectator participants. Myself, two brothers – Tim and Mike Carter – and Michael Prokes, a former reporter for a Sacramento TV station who interviewed Jim Jones a couple of years ago and put down his camera and joined him. I’d heard that all three were Jonestown insiders, supposedly members of the ruling clique, yet they survived the death ritual. I asked Mike Carter how they managed to get out.

Mike Carter: Well, we had been asked– before this had all started, we had been asked to– by a woman named Maria Katsaris to– he and I were asked to help this gentleman over here to help deliver a suitcase, and uh, he said it’ll be heavy, he’s going to need some help, so we agreed to do that.

Russomanno: Maria Katsaris was the treasurer of Peoples Temple and one of Reverend Jones’ mistresses. The suitcase was filled with 500,000 dollars cash and a sealed letter. The instructions came from Katsaris.

Mike Carter: Well, all I heard was: take it to the embassy, uh, and later we found out it was to go to the Soviet Embassy.

Russomanno: How did you find that out?

Mike Carter: When we looked into it, we uh– there was a letter in there, and uh, we had dumped the money, and you know, we had this letter, and it said, you know, to the Soviet– you know, it had the address of the embassy here in Georgetown.

Russomanno: Mike Carter watched his wife and child take poison, before he and his brother and Prokes took off with the suitcase. They only got a couple of hundred yards down the road before ditching it in a chicken coop, stuffing their own pockets with cash, taking off again. They thought they’d come back some other time. They did, the next day with Guyanese police to identify bodies. And the police took the money and the letter addressed to the Soviet embassy.

Reggae music continues to play in the background.

Russomanno: It took us a long time to complete that interview, because I kept trying to make sense out of it. And around us, the scene was getting even stranger. As the Carters told their story, a survivor and a defector walked over to the center of the veranda to listen in. But they were afraid of each other now, and they circled warily around us, with each appealing for protection to a huge Guyanese guard, a black man who stood totally disinterested, wearing a five-inch wide Star of David medallion with Hebrew inscriptions.
While all this was going on, off to one side of the veranda, two dozen nine-year-old ballerinas in leotards danced to a classical recording. And on the other side, a benefit party for a local leprosy foundation was being entertained by a steel band playing “Jingle Bells” in ninety degree heat.

Steel band plays “Jingle Bells”

Russomanno: If I hadn’t caught the entire scene on tape and in my scribbled notes, I’m sure I would’ve blocked it out of my mind as some surrealistic nightmare. But I remember thinking at that moment, I’ve got to get out of this place right now. I’m Tony Russomanno. KSFO News sent me to Guyana, and I saw it all come down. For the next hour, this is how it was.

Music stops.

Announcer: Ladies and gentlemen, our next speaker is a person who needs no introduction in this community, who’s paid his dues, a person who you can count on, whenever you need support for whatever your cause is, a true friend of the black community, and a person all of us should all be proud of and should support in every way we can. I like to introduce you to Reverend Jim Jones.

Thunderous applause.

Jones: Wherever poor people are, we are seen only as niggers to be used. No matter where we live, or what language we speak, and a lot of white people better begin to recognize this soon in America, or their fate will be just as bad as anyone else that is being oppressed.

Charles Krause: Suddenly shots–

Unidentified man 1: We waited for them to come back and kill us–

Unidentified man 2: The congressman was shot dead less two feet from where I had been lying.

Jerry Parks: The next thing I heard was my mother say, “Oh my God, look, they’ve shot Patty’s head off.”

Charles Krause: I dove behind this wheel and– and closed my eyes, and lay there pretending I was dead.

Russomanno: The murder of Representative Leo Ryan, three newsmen and a defector at Port Kaituma was the event that made most people aware of Jonestown for the first time. But the news media, and the people in the government, had been hearing strange stories about Reverend Jim Jones for years. At first the stories told by defectors – reports of beatings, druggings, sexual abuse, and mad practice suicide drills – seemed too bizarre to be true. A Ukiah newspaper laid it all out more than a year ago, followed by a major exposé in New West magazine. But Jones was a well-respected man, and he held political power.

Mark Lane: We have now completed an independent investigation into the charges against Peoples Temple, Jim Jones and Jonestown, and we’ve concluded that there is no substance to those charges, that those charges are false.

Russomanno: Kennedy assassination investigator Mark Lane was hired by Jones in what was becoming a desperate attempt to blunt increasing criticism from a growing number of people. Lane has modified his statements somewhat, in light of events, but he still basically stands by what he said at his October 3rd press conference in San Francisco.

Mark Lane: Our inquiry has led us to conclude that intelligence organizations and other organizations of the United States government have been involved in an effort to destroy Jonestown and the Peoples Temple and Jim Jones.

Russomanno: But it’s apparent that the government – at least the governments of San Francisco and California – supported Jones and his work. He presented himself as a champion of liberal causes and was appointed chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority by our late mayor, George Moscone. He opposed Proposition 6, and was supported by our late supervisor Harvey Milk. He and his followers marched to support the right of reporters to maintain the confidentiality of sources. He spoke at a rally on the Golden Gate Bridge to urge the construction of a suicide barrier.

Reverend Jim Jones was well known to Governor Jerry Brown, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and San Francisco District Attorney Joseph Freitas, all of whom were visitors to his Temple. The D.A.’s office once cleared Jones of voting fraud charges. Is it coincidence that Jones’ number two man at the time was also one of Freitas’ top assistants? State Attorney General Evelle Younger has now reopened that investigation.

Indeed, Jim Jones, through long hours, hard work, and his ability to turn out large crowds on short notice for political rallies, had worked himself into the mainstream, the liberal heart of the National Democratic Party, as letters of support from First Lady Rosalyn Carter and the late Senator Hubert Humphrey attest.

It was for a long time a battle of letters: defectors and relatives of Temple members pleaded with government officials and the State Department to investigate Jones, while cult followers and Jones’ powerful friends praised him and his work. Finally, one congressman – Democratic Representative Leo Ryan of San Mateo – accepted the burden of finding the truth.

Leo Ryan: I’ve had pretty serious complaints from relatives uh, of people who are in residence in Guyana on this plantation or this uh, agricultural station or whatever you want to call it, uh, about the condition of life, the– the uh– the– the manner in which they’re treated, and so on, and uh, they’re– they’re pretty serious charges, and I think it’s not– I don’t think it’s particularly fair to– to listen to one side, I want to give uh, those who are down there in charge a chance to uh– to tell their side of the story.

Jerry Parks: Upon finding out that he was going to have to let the congressman in, the ambassador, and some reporters, they immediately started getting the guns out.

Russomanno: Jerry Parks, one of the people in Jonestown who wanted to get out. He was working on a plan of escape for himself, his family, and several others even before hearing of Ryan’s visit.

Jerry Parks: While we were getting this worked out – we’d worked on this for weeks – and it was just coming close to the days when I– we were going to wait until our half a day off and leave that afternoon so we wouldn’t create too much suspicion, ‘cause you had to be on your job, and you were checked in, you know, daily, and they knew whether everybody was on their job or not. So we found out the congressman was coming, the ambassador, some American reporters, and uh, we’d even talked about approaching them when they got there knewing– knowing very well that we could really create a problem, you know.

Russomanno: But Jones had warned his followers not to approach the outsiders. And even though Jones had not granted advance permission for the reporters and a small group of Concerned Relatives to enter the camp with Ryan, everything seemed to be going well. A slick Peoples Temple gospel choir entertained at a large party in Ryan’s honor. And the congressman stood up to say he was impressed.

Leo Ryan: I can tell you right now that, from the few conversations I’ve had with some of the folks here already this evening, that uh, whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life.

Thunderous applause, shouting, clapping.

Russomanno: But then a reporter noticed the elderly members of the community who joined in the singing were moving mechanically, without feeling, as if ordered to look happy. Meantime Jerry Parks’ independent plan of escape took a turn.

Jerry Parks: We were going to try to take off that same day, but we didn’t get it worked out enough, and we thought they were on to us, so I was contacting each one of my family telling we had to get out of there. I was trying to talk my s– my son into it, I was then going to contact my daughter and her boyfriend and get us all together and try to leave at the same time. I told my mother about it, and she is the first one, and when she found out about it, she went right straight to the congressman and the ambassador, and told them that she wanted to go home and her family.

Russomanno: Somehow Jones immediately got wind of the plan. Parks was called to the central pavilion, and Jonestown officials tried to talk him out of leaving, telling him they were working on ways to shorten the work hours and improve the food. Meantime another cult member decided he wanted out and slipped a note to NBC reporter Don Harris. Listen carefully as Harris takes that note to Jones.

Don Harris: Doesn’t it concern you, though, that– that this man, for whatever reason, (unintelligible word) of your group–

Jim Jones: (Interrupting) People play games, friend. They lie, they lie– What can I do about liars? Are you people going to– Leave us, I just beg you, please leave us. We’ll– We won’t bother nobody, anybody wants to get out of here can get out of here, we have no problem about getting out of here, they come and go all the time– I don’t know what kind of game– People like– Who– Who– People like publicity. Some people do, I don’t.

Russomanno: The note startled Jones. You could see him jump. Suddenly his mood changed. He became cynical. The one thing he couldn’t tolerate was the idea of anyone wanting to leave.

Charles Krause: He kept talking about how he wished he were dead. How all of this, people who left, lied about Jonestown, and you could just sort of see him kind of unraveling. Sixteen people had indicated they wanted to leave with us.

Russomanno: Washington Post reporter Charles Krause.

Charles Krause: Suddenly we noticed that there were some agitations and problems in the pavilion, and we ran towards it. It turned out that someone had tried to stab Congressman Ryan.

Leo Ryan: Yeah, and he said uh, something about uh, rob and choke and kill and uh– or– my– I don’t– I don’t know, but they obvio– what he said was, he intended to kill me.

Jerry Parks: I left the congressman and the ambassador and the reporters on the truck. There were 31 of us all total, including uh, all of us. We drove down the road to the uh, gate, one of the security guards jumped on the– the truck and rode from there into [Port] Kaituma with us, looking very mean and uh, uh, sadistic.

Charles Krause: It was decided that we just better get out of there. We were in the process of boarding people onto the two planes that had come, when suddenly we noticed the– the dump truck and the tractor from Jonestown had suddenly returned and were on the other side of the runway. Three men from Jonestown were walking across towards where we were near the plane.

Ron Javers: And I never saw anybody like that before with murder and absolute mayhem in their eyes. And at that point I turned to Bob Brown and I said, “I think we’re in for it now, Bob.” And he said “Uh-huh.” And the next thing we knew, bang, the shooting started.

Russomanno: San Francisco Chronicle reporter Ron Javers. He, Krause, and Parks survived to tell their stories.

Ron Javers: I guess the shooting continued for anywhere from five to eight minutes, uh, as close as I could tell. And then there were just bodies all over the field.

Charles Krause: I was standing by the uh, door of the plane. Suddenly shots – I heard shots, everyone heard shots – and people started to scatter. I ran around the other side of the plane and– and dove behind its wheel and– and sort of closed my eyes, and– and lay there pretending I was dead.

Jerry Parks: And they started opening up fire immediately on the plane. All you could hear was these gunshots all over the place. We was all trying to get down on the plane. I was struggling with my seatbelt, trying to get it unfastened, (unintelligible word) up above the window. And I– and uh, glass was shattering, the shots was coming through the plane, I could feel one go right over the back of my head. The next thing I heard was my mother saying, “Oh my God, look, they’ve shot Patty’s head off.” And I looked back, and there was my wife hanging in the seat, with the whole top of her head gone.
Ron Javers: There were shots all around. And I felt a shot hit my side. And um– And I just felt as though, all right, this is it, there’s just no way I’m going to live through this.

Charles Krause: I was hit, and then I think Brown was hit. At that point we were all scrambling around on all fours, trying to move around the fuselage of the plane to– to get behind the wheels. All of us were down, and you know the kind of thing you hear, when they’re shooting, hit the deck. We– we hit the deck, and hit it flat.

Steve Sung: So everybody dive, everybody hit the deck. And the congressman and Don Harris, our correspondent, tried to run underneath the big wheel on the other side of the plane. And we ran around, trying to take pictures at the same time, but– but we hit the deck instantly.

Russomanno: NBC sound engineer Steve Sung, tied by cables to cameraman Bob Brown. Brown was hit in the first volley, but he kept his camera on, recording the scene.

Steve Sung: He hit the deck instantly, right? So I hit right next to him practically, like two feet away from him, because his minicam– there’s a cable connecting to each other, we can’t– we can’t be separated. I lie face down, I have my arm over my head, basically, as though you go to sleep with a baby, you know? One arm– my right arm was on my head like this, my left hand was this, and my face is pushed against, kissing the floor, as close as possible. I don’t want to move because I know they keep shooting. And next thing I heard, they’re walking towards us, one of the men, and somehow, one shot hit Bob Brown in the leg, I believe, I don’t know what part of the body, he screamed. “Ouch!” and called “Shit,” or something, I don’t know what he do. And the next thing I know, the– the guy came close and blows his brain off. And next thing I know, I said “Oh, next one will be me who get killed.” Right? So I– I just didn’t think about it. I just thinking about little– my little daughter, and next thing I know, I have tremendous pressure, explosion right next to my head, and my arms just feel like falling apart. I– I wouldn’t dare to move one single muscle. That probably– that saved my life. I guess the reason it saved my life is because my arms with my head– my– my head, so the bullet missed the brain and it hit my arms instead, and I didn’t move. And the blood was all over the place, so they thought I probably dead. That really saved my life.

Willie Nelson sings “Time of the Preacher”

Russomanno: The Peoples Temple gospel choir.

“Something’s Got a Hold on Me” plays

Russomanno: You’re listening to a KSFO radio documentary, Guyana: How It Was.

Unidentified Male: Ladies and gentlemen, I like to introduce you to Reverend Jim Jones.

Thunderous applause.

Jim Jones: Wherever poor people are, we are seen only as niggers to be used. No matter where we live, or what language we speak, and a lot of white people better begin to recognize this soon in America, or their fate will be just as bad as anyone else that is being oppressed.

Willie Nelson sings “Time of the Preacher”

Woman: They murdered my child, obviously, they murdered my child.

Jim Jones: The center of that power structure, the heart of that multinational corporate system that’s creating so much misery and slavery and devastation worldwide, is right here, as American as Rockefeller Standard Oil. We are living in the same mess, controlled by the same people, the same interests, they only know how to exploit us until they have no more use for us, then throw us on the scrap heap to be forgotten.

Willie Nelson sings “Time of the Preacher”

Spokesman: There are reports, as yet unconfirmed, that members of the Peoples Temple community in Guyana are perhaps engaging in mass suicide.

Russomanno: Sunday, November 19th. None of us wanted to believe that State Department spokesman in Washington. How incredibly irresponsible, I thought, for the government to say something that couldn’t possibly be true.

Archie Ijames: We are non-violent people. Reverend Jim Jones has always deplored violence–

Russomanno: Archie Ijames, a top aide to Jones in San Francisco.

Archie Ijames: We also wholly deny the charge of intention to commit mass suicide. The charge is sensational and patently untrue.

Odell Rhodes: There was a general meeting called after the congressman and his party left. And uh, Jones told us that uh, these people wouldn’t reach the States, he– Well, he denounced the people who were members who had left and told the– tell the public there uh, these people wouldn’t reach the States and that uh, everyone there would commit suicide.

Russomanno: Jonestown resident Ordell [Odell] Rhodes was one of the few to witness the final ritual and live.

Odell Rhodes: They took the equipment into a– a tent that was used as a– as a library and school, and uh, they brought over syringes, large size syringes, you know, minus the needles, and they had uh, small uh, plastic containers with a liquid solution in it, and a large vat of uh, what appeared to be punch. And they would uh, draw up in the mouth in the syringes, and he had babies and children go first, and they would take the syringe, and the nurse or other people who were administering it would simply put it into the person’s mouth, and they would swallow, and then give them a small drink of punch to wash it down.

Reporter: Were the people willing to do this?

Odell Rhodes: Well, the first person that went up was a young mother. I’d say she was about 27 or so. She had a small baby, and uh, I’d say the baby was approximately one and a half, something like that. She walked up and just– she administered it to her own baby, and then she took her own. And then she went over to a field and sat down, and that’s uh– You know, uh, it was hard to believe. You know, I could understand older people maybe, but I couldn’t understand these young people just doing that.

News Announcer: Reverend Jones was said to have a mesmerizing effect on his followers. Is that what led these people into mass suicide? Or was the mesmerizing effect one that from the end of a semi-automatic weapon? Because those weapons were there, and I know they were used.

Mark Lane: They– They were high on something, or not really high, sort of euphoric, and calm, and relaxed. And they said “We’re going to die. Isn’t that beautiful? We’re all going to die together. It’s (unintelligible word). It’s beautiful.”

Russomanno: Attorney Mark Lane stayed behind in Jonestown when the Ryan party left Saturday. He and attorney Charles Garry were in a hut when a guard named Poncho and another man told them about the planned revolutionary suicide.

Mark Lane: At that point, I said to Poncho, “Well at least, if you’re insistent upon this, at least you know that Charles and I will be able to tell the story of the last minutes of Jonestown.” And he said, “Yeah, right.” And he embraced me, and the other man did too, and they said good-bye and they started to leave. I said, “Wait, how do you get out?” He said, “Well, when everyone’s dead, you just call the plane.” I said, “I don’t have a phone, I don’t have a plane, I don’t know how to work that radio. How do I get out of here?” “Walking,” he said, “you go over that hill. That’ll take you to the road.’ They took a few steps back and he said, “Jim Jones is the greatest man in the world.” And Charles Garry gave him a salute, and he returned the salute, and we took off over the hill, and then we heard Jim Jones saying, “Mother, mother, mother, mother, mother, mother!” And then there was silence.

Willie Nelson sings “Time of the Preacher”

Russomanno: The children of Jonestown were the first to die. Again, the Peoples Temple choir.

Marceline Jones sings “Black Baby”

Russomanno: These are the children of Jonestown.

Children sing “Welcome”

Russomanno: You are listening to a KSFO radio documentary, Guyana: How It Was.

Dr. Lowery: But uh, you know, my mother is a very, very religious woman. And I would not describe her as a, you know, cultist or a cult member at all. She’s not that type of a person.

Reporter: What is her name?

Dr. Lowery: Ruth Lowery.

Reporter: Ruth?

Dr. Lowery: Yeah. Ruth Lowery.

Russomanno: What did she think what she was going to find when she got to Jonestown?

Dr. Lowery: Well, yeah,  I think this is important: uh, my mother really went down there because she thought that she was going to be uh, serving as some missionary type capacity.

Russomanno: In the letters uh, from your mother, did she say anything about her work as a missionary? Did she believe she was doing missionary work?

Dr. Lowery: I only got one letter, one letter from her this year about uh, four or five months ago, and in that letter I had no reason to believe that she was in any type of distress whatsoever, okay. Uh– She also sent a picture, and you know, I do know my mother, and she did not look apprehensive in the least. That’s why (stumbles over words) at this moment I have some hope, but then, you know, reality, I don’t know, uh, she may have been forced – not coerced, but forced – into– into drinking the stuff, if the reports are true. ‘Cause she– like I said, she’s very religious, and als– but also very, very strong-willed. And you know, she’s uh, not amenable to just, you know, some– someone suggesting that she drink poison knowingly, I mean she just wouldn’t. I mean, that’s why I have hope that she’s still alive. Although she’s not– Like I told you, uh, about, I guess it was five years ago now, she sustained a uh– a very large stroke, okay, and she completely rehabilitated herself, and so I mean, I really– I would be suspect if she drank something like this willingly. You understand?

Russomanno: Yeah.

Dr. Lowery: You know what I mean? (Pause) I mean when I was a kid, she never would even lie to– to get me out of trouble. (unintelligible), you know, kind of mother I had, you know, she was very very good. And she only wanted to help people, she never thought badly of anyone. You know, I mean– I– I can’t say that about very many people at all, but uh, uh, you know, honestly, and this is not (unintelligible word) about my mother, but it’s– it’s true.

Reporter: What are you going to do tonight? Are you going to try to get a hotel room?

Dr. Lowery: No, I’m going to try to get to Jonestown.

Reporter: Tonight?

Dr. Lowery: Um-hmm. I mean, I have to try to get some provision to get there. You know, if I wait till the morning, I don’t know, maybe all the rides will be taken. Listen, you guys gotta help me get down there. (laughs)

Russomanno: Dr. Robert Lowery is going home without his mother. The New York City physician, formerly of San Francisco, arrived here three days ago to search for his partially paralyzed 55-year-old mother Ruth, who had been living in Jonestown for the past year. But after looking at decomposing bodies for two days at the Peoples Temple community, Lowery returned to Georgetown Thanksgiving morning, en route back to the United States. Lowery and I flew into Guyana on the same flight. It was almost as if we were looking for each other. When we met soon after takeoff, he grabbed my arm and said, “Please, help me find my mother.” Over the next five hours, we talked about her, and her involvement in the Peoples Temple. She was a devout Catholic before joining the Jones sect in Los Angeles, her former home. She always wanted to be a missionary. She believed she would find that opportunity in Guyana. And despite partial paralysis brought on by a stroke, the small elderly widow began making regular visits to the Peoples Temple in San Francisco, in preparation for her move here last January. Dr. Lowery said his mother always spoke glowingly of Jones, calling him “charismatic,” “giving” and a “very good person.” Lowery said he visited the San Francisco Temple several times himself, and experienced an uneasiness, which led him to make several vain attempts to talk his mother out of going to Jonestown. Then Dr. Lowery fell silent, meditative.

He removed a picture from his briefcase. It was his mother, in a snapshot taken about two months ago. Mrs. Lowery had a pleasant half smile on her lips. Her face was relaxed. She stood leaning against a tree, and thick green vegetation filled the background. We said nothing for a long time as we looked at the picture. Then I said I would do whatever I could to help find her, and I knew the face in that photo would be with me forever.

Although Dr. Lowery said he was advised by both U.S. and Guyanese authorities not to come here, he was given humanitarian assistance by both governments, and was permitted to fly into Jonestown Wednesday. I was worried because there was no word from him until noon Thanksgiving Day. That’s when I saw him for the last time. He looked sick. His shoulders drooped. He had closely viewed 348 rotting corpses, and if his mother was among them, he couldn’t tell. He shook his head. No, he didn’t want to talk about it, he said, quietly and patiently. He would leave now, without knowing whether his mother is dead or alive. Visual identification of bodies might’ve been possible a day or two ago, but by Thanksgiving, all the dead were strangers. Tony Russomanno, KSFO News, Georgetown, Guyana.

Willie Nelson sings “Time of the Preacher”

Russomanno: Where are the survivors? What’s happened to anywhere from 400 to 800 Americans unaccounted for after the Jonestown suicide/murders. Are these people dead or alive? And why aren’t U.S. and Guyanese forces looking for them? As this tragedy beyond rational understanding continues to unfold, the number of new questions grows far beyond the number of answers. Both U.S. and Guyanese officials are withholding most information from reporters, though rumors and unconfirmed stories are everywhere. Survivors number 32 at last official report. There are 408 confirmed dead. That makes 440 total. But earlier, Guyanese authorities reported the discovery of approximately 800 passports of Jonestown residents, and the authorities say about 1,000 people passed through Customs en route to the Peoples Temple. To further confuse things, U.S. officials said the number of Jonestown bed spaces about equal the number of dead. But eyewitnesses to the suicide ritual said many people fled rather than take poison. Several survivors told of scattered bursts of gunfire coming from the jungle, long after those at Jonestown died. Was this a mass execution? We don’t know.

Over the past four years, some Jonestown residents, including Reverend Jones’ mother, are known to have died here, presumably of natural causes. But U.S. officials say they found no cemetery or graves at the settlement. Jonestown itself has been sealed off to all but military personnel. Something is going on out there, and we don’t know what.

The nearest jungle community is a two-day walk from Jonestown, and about five days on boat and foot from where I am now. We appear to have no choice but to rely on official U.S. information, and for the most part, we are not getting it. Tony Russomanno, KSFO News, Georgetown, Guyana.

News anchor at KSFO: Tommy, uh, we have now Tony Russomanno live on the line on the telephone uh, from Georgetown, Guyana–

Russomanno: Hello, are you there?

Jones: Yes, Tony, can you copy?

Russomanno: Yes, Jim.

Jones: What is the latest information?

Russomanno: Okay, Jim, the latest information is that it is confirmed. There are uh, uh, approximately 800 dead at Jonestown. Uh, I have obtained uh, the first interview with uh, the uh, spokesman here for the USIA. Let’s try to play that for you now. I haven’t even had time to transcribe it myself.

USIA Spokesman: Uh, it appears that the original count of 410 is seriously in error. At this time, it appears there may be as many as 780 persons who died at the Jonestown site. At this time, 485 bodies have been removed from Jonestown. Twenty more uh, at the Jonestown site pending removal, and a hand count has reached 270. There are more expected as the hand count uh, continues, and more available– uh, more information on this will be available as it’s available.

Russomanno: (Unintelligible) Uh, where were the bodies found?

USIA Spokesman: Uh, at the site.

Russomanno: In the Temple or in the jungle?

USIA Spokesman: Uh, I’m not sure precisely, but at the uh, same approximate location. They were not in the jungle, as I understand it.

Russomanno: Does this mean that uh– Well, first of all, does this explain why uh, the Americans haven’t been conducting a full scale uh, search-and-rescue mission for the missing?

USIA Spokesman: Uh, no, it doesn’t. Uh, in fact, we have been conducting search-and- uh, rescue mission. Uh– There were helicopters out uh, yesterday and this morning, uh, uh, participating in the search. And the Guyanese uh, forces have been conducting a search a lot, uh– We were simply not aware of this uh, before today.

Russomanno: Uh, do you mean these hundreds of bodies were there, and no one had seen them?

USIA Spokesman: They had not been counted by uh, our personnel.

Russomanno: That they­– they were there from uh– from day one, and they’d– they’d been there, but uh, there was a miscount, is that what you’re saying?

USIA Spokesman: That’s apparently the case.

Russomanno: When did you first get the word that– that the body count was in error.

USIA Spokesman: Uh, not long ago. I don’t have the precise time, (stumbles over words)– rather confused uh, communications system, but it hasn’t been known for very long.

Russomanno: It’s a matter of– It’s a matter of minutes from– from right now as we’re speaking.

USIA Spokesman: Uh, I would– I don’t know if I would qualify it as that, but uh, it’s– it’s been a very brief period of time since we uh, were aware of the error.

Russomanno: All right, I guess, you know, is there any explanation for an error? It– it just seems uh, another incomprehensible event on top of all these others that have come around.

USIA Spokesman: I have no explanation at this time.

Russomanno: The essential information is that uh, there are not hundreds of people in the jungle. Uh, they are dead in fact. Uh, there may be some people in the jungle. That is not known. Uh, there’s been a grievous error in the number of dead counted at Jonestown. There is no explanation how this incredible error could’ve occurred. However, we do expect– we– we will insist on an explanation shortly.

Part of the explanation as we now know is that bodies were piled on top of bodies, with small children and babies on the bottom. The Guyanese troops who made the initial count were understandably reluctant to move the dead, and the error was not discovered until the American graves registration team began their work. But that does not explain why it took so long to get the word from Jonestown to Georgetown, or for it then to be relayed to anxious relatives. American officials would say only that there were communications difficulties, but reporters found it difficult to believe Army radio gear airlifted in a few days before could not span one hundred and fifty flat miles from the jungle commune to the capital. Some publicly charged cover-up at one particularly acrimonious briefing. And the truth is, indeed there was a cover-up. But not in the manner some believed.

After everything was over, U.S. sources explained that military radio equipment was shipped to Guyana in a huge wooden crate. As it was being unloaded from an Air Force transport, it was accidentally dropped on the runway. The sources said the U.S. military was simply too embarrassed to say what had occurred, so Embassy spokesmen were ordered to keep it quiet and cover up the communications problems as best they could. It was a minor insignificant episode, in light of the great tragedy that had occurred. But it was typical of both the U.S. and Guyanese governments’ approach to just about everything there. It seemed that the only thing developed in the young undeveloped country of Guyana was the bureaucracy. Trying to get information out of it was like trying to get out of a Chinese finger puzzle. The harder you pull, the tighter the grip. And certainly no government official could answer the question most ordinary people had and still have.

Voice 1: Do I have any questions? I think the whole episode is ugly.

Voice 2: I suppose the big one. Why?

Voice 3: Why did it happen?

Voice 4: I have the same question everybody does, and that’s, how did something like this happen?

Voice 5: Why they allowed themselves to go down the tubes?

Voice 6: What went on? What caused the paranoia?

Voice 7: How do you (laughs) give a purpose to a paranoid mind?

Russomanno: The unanswered questions of Jonestown: Why did it happen? And what was behind the rhetoric of Reverend Jim Jones?

Jim Jones: The center of that power structure, the heart of that multinational corporate system that’s creating so much misery and slavery and devastation worldwide, is right here, as American as Rockefeller Standard Oil. We are living in the same mess, controlled by the same people, the same interests, they only know how to exploit us until they have no more use for us, then throw us on the scrap heap to be forgotten.

Charles Garry: Jim Jones for the past year or more has been very paranoid. He’s been ill, he’s been under a lot of medication. And I think he’d just lost his reason. A terribly, terribly emotionally sick person.

Russomanno: Peoples Temple attorney Charles Garry.

Charles Garry: Slide showed that he had what we call a fungus in his lungs, and he’d been taking an awful lot of medication, and Dr. Goodlett told me that he’d literally been burning his brain, and been taking a lot of drugs along with that.

Carlton Goodlett: I was suspicious when I saw him in August, he had a (Pause) pulmonary infection of the lung due to fungus.

Russomanno: Reverend Jones’ personal physician and psychiatrist, Dr. Carlton Goodlett.

Carlton Goodlett: Prior to his death he had a b– a systolic blood pressure of over 300. And there were times he suffered from an urine– ability to urinate. Well, any man who stuff– who suffers the temperature in the neighborhood of a hundred and five, hundred and six daily over a period of oh, five or six weeks, is indicative of the fact he’s in the life and death struggle with an invasive infectious process, and the very fact that he isn’t able to get the temperature lowered indicates he’s not winning that battle. And when uh, a person’s uh, temperature usually rea– reaches 107 or 108, it’s the death (Pause) temperature.

Russomanno: Jones was said to have been taking drugs, including amphetamines – speed – for many years. Long term usage of speed results in paranoia and death.

Stephan Jones: For the most part all my life, you know, I feel it wasn’t my father that taught me what was right.

Russomanno: Reverend Jones’ son, Stephan.

Stephan: But you know, as Mark Lane, you know, he said it, you know, very well, you know. Half of Jonestown was uh, Jim Jones’ genius and other half was his paranoia.

Odell Rhodes: And he said it’s too late, people were dead, and he instructed them, doctored to them, bring the poison.
Russomanno: Ordell Rhodes, one of the few to witness Jonestown’s final hours.

Odell Rhodes: Parents were uh, talking to their children and telling them whatever they were telling them, and a lot of the children were crying, and uh, he was telling them not to tell the children that they were dying, not to tell them it was painful. He was telling people that it wasn’t painful, and that, you know, people had to die with dignity, you know, that this was a way of protesting what was happening, you know, that the people– what the people in the United States were doing to the community. This is their way of protesting it.

Charles Garry: I don’t understand what– why it was necessary to do it that way. In the first place, the trip of uh, Congressman Ryan was very successful from the standpoint of the Peoples Temple.

Russomanno: Radical attorney Charles Garry once represented the Black Panthers. He was asked about possible CIA subversion at Jonestown.

Charles Garry: You know in the old Panthers days, I did say that the government was involved. And history has proven I was right. I have not found the type of things that I found in the Panther days in this instance. I found no active governmental activity against the uh, Peoples Temple. As a matter of fact, everything that I did find regarding the government was supportive of the Peoples Temple.

Reporter: Have you thought in your own mind about what might have been behind all this?

Russomanno: Survivor Ordell Rhodes hears this question from reporters in Guyana.

Reporter: Was Jones trying to cover up something, uh, some connection which would be political, or involving large amounts of money, something that he was so ashamed of that he couldn’t live with? Was it just the death of Congressman Ryan, or something bigger?

Odell Rhodes: Uh, I don’t like to give opinions on it because uh, I know there’re a lot of them, but I would say that uh, I felt that the people who left– and he– well, he said this hisself, that if these people who wanted to leave the families here, the Parks and the other families who left with the congressmen and these other people here who had left that morning, if they were allowed to get away with it, then next week some of these other families from the United States would come and try to take their people back, and it would be a constant process, and I think he just could not stand to see his organization break up. He was– he was uh– he had a lot of ego, and he had to be in control. And I– I think that his decision stemmed from the fact that he found he was losing control.

Jerry Parks: He didn’t want anybody to leave that place at all, I mean, and that– that’s the worst crime you can commit, to want to leave there. He thought it was terrible.

Russomanno: Jonestown defector Jerry Parks. His wife was killed along with Representative Ryan and the three reporters at Port Kaituma. As for what happened at Jonestown–

Jerry Parks: I prefer to call it mass murder, although many of the suicides would’ve been voluntary, ‘cause many of the people were that loyal to him. He had ‘em so brainwashed, so duped into believing uh, the stories that he’d told them about the conspiracy against him, and that was the only true way to die was with dignity. It would be revolutionary suicide rather than let someone come in and take over and destroy us and our children, and things like that.
Russomanno: Was this an agricultural community, a religious community, or a slave camp?

Jerry Parks: It was no religious community, no religion involved at all. Uh, you couldn’t actually call it a slave camp, uh, inasmuch as you were in chains, uh, or anything like that. Uh, I would call it uh, sort of uh, a prison. You know, a jungle prison. Uh, long as you didn’t cause any trouble, uh, as long as you act like you were one of them, and you said nothing against us, nothing negative, or nothing about going back to the States, and uh, uh, you know, gung ho like he wanted you to be, he did– they didn’t give you any problem. You know, you were allowed to go and come and walk around, whatever you wanted to do, without too much problem.

Reporter: What would he do–

Jerry Parks: But if you were to– if you were a dissenter, or caused any trouble at all, you were watched constantly. Security watched you constantly. Uh, if you got too far out of line, then you were disciplined up front, you were– at one time, they were– you– they’d beat you severely, and the last part of it here, they drugged you, with drugs, in the– what they called an extended care unit.

Russomanno: A lot of people in the Bay Area have relatives who were involved in this. What can you say to those people listening in San Francisco?

Jerry Parks: Uh, the only thing I can do is uh, express my regrets that uh, he pulled this crazy stunt like this, and uh, the only thing I can say to relatives uh, of any of these people, is never ever get mixed up with any organization and with any leader, uh, to go on your own inclinations, the way you feel inside, and don’t make yourself loyal to any one man to the point that we did.

Russomanno: Again, the Peoples Temple gospel choir.

Peoples Temple gospel choir sings “Walking With You, Father.”

Jim Jones: When we took up, uh– took up the defense of the Jewish community, uh, not long ago, when the Nazis were emerging, not only against the Jews, it’s all– they’re– they’re against everybody, I guess, these– these bums, but uh, uh, they– they begin to threaten–

Russomanno: Reverend Jim Jones. In his final interview before he left for Guyana, Jones told KSFO’s Julia Hare about the tactics he used against neo-Nazis.

Jim Jones: I think they thought, well, we’re past this. They’d forgotten certain things that Gandhi said. Gandhi said if a mad dog’s running loose, uh, meaning a mad human within the society, endangering it, you don’t allow that to happen. Now pacifism doesn’t mean that you roll over and play dead.

Jim Siegelman: Well, one thing that uh, in our research, the Peoples Temple ranked way down on the list of the most uh– most potentially dangerous and violent cults.

Russomanno: Jim Siegelman, a pioneer researcher in the field of cult psychology. Drawing on hundreds of interviews and extensive research into new communication sciences, Siegelman and journalist Flo Conway coauthored Snapping, the first in-depth study of the cult mentality. Siegelman and Conway tell us that the Peoples Temple wasn’t their most likely candidate for violence.

Jim Siegelman: I’d have to say that there were a half dozen cults that would come before them that are larger, richer, uh, or reported to have uh, a greater potential for violence, or reported to have weapons, or reported to have uh, plans of world conquest, plans of political activities, plans of terrorist activities. Peoples Temple didn’t even rank with the major cults that we were concerned about.

Flo Conway: I mean– I think that– that what had happened has just blown open uh, not only a Pandora’s box of questions on relation to our First Amendment, in relation to uh, mental health care in this country, but I think it also has brought home – I hope it has brought home – to the people in this country that we– that we are in the future, right now, and that we– that our systems, uh, whether it is religion, whether it’s uh, p– politics, the economy, whatever it is, family, we really do not have the systems now or the values or the patterns to– to handle the kinds of problems that we are increasingly going to confront.

Jim Sigeleman: The uh– the inherent uh, contradictions in the First Amendment at this point are going to have to be confronted, and in all likelihood the First Amendment is going to have to be reinterpreted in the wake of Guyana and whatever else may happen in this country with religious cults. When that’s done, it’s got to be done with total responsibility. Not every group is a cult. People cannot be questioned for their religious beliefs, but we can identify techniques that do influence the mind, than have the capacity to impair or destroy an individual’s freedom of thought, and those techniques should be outlawed.

Reporter: How many Americans are members of what you would call cults?

Jim Siegelman: We’ve heard estimates that we think may be conservative that uh, three million young people uh, belong to the one thousand different religious cults that are active in this country today.

Flo Conway: And we have so many groups in this country, uh, groups that now have not even been mentioned, uh, you know, in– in the lineup of the cult. But you have something like TM, you have to ask, what is the Maharishi doing over here? Why is he establishing a world government? You’ve got to ask, what is the Hunger Project? What is Werner Erhard collecting millions of dollars for? You know, I mean, what are all these people doing? What are these est trainings? Uh, you know, why do people go in there and throw up and– and– and come out and– and leave their husbands and leave their children, and uh, uh– what happens to people who go into– to TM and they get their mantras and they come back and they tell you that they– they levitated and they– they see auras around people and that they’re in cosmic consciousness and they’re­– they leave their bodies when they’re driving a car? I mean, this is– this is all stuff that you have to say, you know, what is happening with these people?

Russomanno: Snapping co-author Jim Siegelman answers the final question: Does the end of the Peoples Temple mark the end the ascendancy of cults?

Jim Siegelman: I’m not that optimistic. I think more than the end of the ascendancy, I think it might just be the beginning of the chaos we’re going to see in this country, as the public demands some kind of pressure and investigation into the cults. I think as the cults are backed up against the wall, they’re going to come out fighting, and it’s going to get worse, not better.

Woman: God– The man– The man turned into an insane weird (Pause) crazy person.

Voice 1: I think Jonestown all the way was a rip-off from the beginning to the end. And I don’t really think that the man is dead. And if he is dead, he needs to be dead.

Voice 2: You know what the word “mad” is? He was mad. I think he was out of his mind.

Voice 3: I think he’s a mad man, I think he was insane, and I hate him.

Jim Jones: The center of that power structure, the heart of that multinational corporate system that’s creating so much misery and slavery and devastation worldwide, is right here, as American as Rockefeller Standard Oil. We are living in the same mess, controlled by the same people, the same interests, they only know how to exploit us until they have no more use for us, then throw us on the scrap heap to be forgotten.

Russomanno: Somewhere, a one-time Christian church leader named Jim Jones learned the boundless capability of human belief. Perhaps none of us will never know why he converted that knowledge – that ability – into an extravaganza of death. And perhaps no one will ever know the extent of Jones’ political and financial power, or of the organization that survived him. In the long run, the entirety of the Peoples Temple may prove to be beyond the understanding of any sane person, comprehensible only to the mad.

You’ve been listening to a KSFO radio documentary: Guyana: How It Was. I’m Tony Russomanno for KSFO news.

Last modified on June 1st, 2017.
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