Commentary on Q 042

by Fielding M. McGehee, III

Q 042, the so-called “death tape” that recorded the final hours of the Jonestown community, has been included in several documentaries about Peoples Temple and the events of 18 November 1978. Indeed, in some ways, it has become the small piece that now seems to represent the event itself, attaining the almost mythic status of the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination, the wire service photo of the young woman kneeling over Jeff Miller’s dead body at Kent State, and the videotape of the Challenger explosion.

Unlike these other icons, however, some people have raised questions about the authenticity of the Jonestown tape. When they refer to Q 042 as the so-called death tape, their emphasis is on “so-called.” Whether they believe Jonestown was a mind-control experiment gone awry, a CIA hit on a leading congressional critic named Leo Ryan and/or a rogue agent named Jim Jones, or an act of genocide against a predominantly black community, they claim the deaths at Jonestown did not occur as depicted in the tape.

There are several elements of the tape which conspiracy theorists use to bolster the claim that it is not what it purports to be. At one point, Jones demands that “Dwyer” be taken to the East House. The only person named Dwyer at Jonestown that day was Richard Dwyer, an official of the American Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana. Dwyer had left with Congressman Ryan a couple of hours earlier and – according to most reconstructions of the events, including our own – at the time of the deaths in Jonestown was himself wounded at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Depending upon the conspiracy theory challenging these reconstructions, Dwyer was not at the airstrip, but rather was supervising the deaths in his true role as the CIA spymaster in Guyana; or the deaths began earlier in the day, before Dwyer made his way to the airstrip to be wounded with the others; or the whole tape is a fabrication, assembled from pieces of tapes from earlier White Nights, and one of the segments included Dwyer’s name.

There are other problems with the tape, including its lack of continuity on some of Jones’ decisions. Will they die tonight, or not? There’s a firm decision to do so, then the issue is opened for discussion, then abruptly and mysteriously dropped. Can they emigrate to the Soviet Union instead of dying? Jones initially rejects the suggestion, then later says he’s placing a call to Russia, then fails to reveal whether that call was ever made.

Contributing to the ambiguity are the numerous breaks in the tape. There are drop-outs in sound, there are edits, and there are sentences that seem to make no sense or are out of context but that are punctuated with suspicious hesitations.

As the transcriber of the Jonestown tapes on this website, I believe the tape is genuine. I do not believe it to be in true time – in other words, the 45 minutes of tape ends more than 45 minutes after it began recording – but it does capture Jonestown’s final hour(s) of existence on November 18, beginning an hour or so after Ryan’s party left the community.

I must begin with a personal bias. In general, I do not subscribe to conspiracy theories. Instead, I believe in Ockham’s Razor, which holds that the simplest explanation is most often the best explanation. There may be more to the death tape than this commentary allows, but unless a theory finds resonance in the facts that have been established, without speculation or leaps of ideological faith, I tend to reject them.

Even with that said, I have several reasons for my belief in the authenticity of the death tape.

First, it matches the few eyewitness descriptions of the events as they unfolded that day, in the same general order that those accounts have outlined.

Secondly, the references to those events are so specific to the day and approximate time, that the creation of such a tape – with those ongoing references spoken by the same voices in a consistent manner – would be a formidable task, requiring the involvement of someone familiar with intimate details of Jonestown life. A few examples should illustrate: Jones makes an early reference to the anticipated attack on Leo Ryan’s party. A few minutes later, he and Christine Miller refer to the “twenty-odd” defectors who left with the congressman – the number was closer to 15 – and then Jones asks what will happen to those people when the “plane goes down.” In the very next exchange, he talks about the man who’ll “stop the pilot by any means necessary… That plane’ll come out of the air.” A moment later, Jones expresses his support for Ujara, the nickname for the man who had attacked Ryan with a knife earlier that afternoon in Jonestown. Later, when the news comes of the deaths at the airstrip, Jones laments – by name – the loss of Patty Parks, the only Temple defector who was slain at that scene. And so on.

As for the contradictory statements, I believe they are not only understandable in the atmosphere of death and confusion around Jones as he spoke, but also in the context of Jonestown’s life. Practically every tape of previous community meetings – whether they took place during the crisis of a White Night or during a regular meeting to review schedules and production of the Jonestown farm – reveals similar contradictions. Jones invites people to air their grievances, then reprimands them for their pettiness, or their number, or the capitalistic mentality that must underlie their complaints. He speaks of the influence he has with the government of Guyana, and a few minutes later, warns of their vulnerability to their enemies, including those in the government of Guyana. Such contradictions, inherent within most community discussions, are merely exacerbated – and captured on tape – in the project’s final hour.

The specific reference to Richard Dwyer is seemingly the most incomprehensible and hence most troubling detail. Everything else in the tape can be explained in context, but on the surface, this cannot. In my opinion, though, this does not prove the tape has been faked (especially since if someone takes the trouble to create a fiction to cover the truth of what happened, that agency would certainly edit out a loose end such as a man purported to be the agent who oversaw the carnage) or that something more sinister happened at Jonestown.

What I believe is that the tape simply shows that Jim Jones made a mistake. Moreover, the evidence of the mistake exists alongside the misidentification itself.

Jones says: “Take Dwyer on down to the East House… Take Dwyer.” It doesn’t immediately happen, so Jones repeats: “Get Dwyer out of here before something happens to him.” After a pause, he says: “Dwyer? I’m not talking about Ujara. I said” – and he is emphatic about this – “Dwyer.” This order and its repetition in the course of a few minutes tells me that the person Jones addresses is confused, and asks several times for clarification about who Jones meant.

It could be that Jones eventually corrects himself. Later in the tape – some time after his instructions about Dwyer – Jones says, “Make sure those attorneys stay where they belong.” The attorneys are unnamed, and Jones’ voice indicates he can’t remember their names.

In fact, the only people who were not members of the Jonestown community but who stayed behind after the congressional party left on 18 November, were two Temple attorneys, Charles Garry and Mark Lane. The former, like Dwyer, was white, late middle-aged, with white hair. Could this be the man Jones called Dwyer?

Finally, according to Mark Lane in his book, The Strongest Poison, the two attorneys had been escorted to the East House, the place Jones had directed “Dwyer” to be taken.

For these reasons, I believe that Jones was instructing people to escort Garry, not Dwyer, to the East House. While there is certainly room for argument on this point, I think this is the most plausible explanation.

Conspiracy theories seem to put much stock in the edits on the tape. Certainly if Q 042 is the only tape you listen to, the edits are as obvious as they are baffling, perhaps even ominous. But the fact is – as with the inconsistencies in conversation – in this respect, the death tape is like every other Jonestown tape. From Jones’ sermons before 20 people in Indianapolis (e.g., Q 1058-2), to his political addresses before hundreds of followers in California (e.g., Q 953), to the White Nights in Jonestown (e.g., Q 635), every tape has pauses and dropouts. Some are short and obvious, as an organ in the background will still be on the same note; others are of an unknown duration, but seem to be short, as the conversation picks up in context with the same speakers; others are of an unknown length, and the speakers are on a new subject, but the speakers are the same people, and the background noise is the same as before the break; while others are long enough to lose their context completely. Whether the reasons for the pauses are periodic equipment failures or maintenance, or a switch from one microphone to another, or a decision by the person doing the recording – sometimes Jones himself – that the conversation of the moment wasn’t important, it still remains that pauses, silences, and drop-outs characterize every Jonestown tape. Rather than call into question the veracity of Q 042, in my opinion, these edits serve to demonstrate it.

This commentary added 6 July 2001.

Last modified on December 5th, 2013.
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