I met Monica Bagby in Jonestown, Guyana in the spring or summer of 1978. I had arrived in Jonestown on March 19th, my 25th birthday. Monica came some months later. She was 18 years old. Her mother had sent her to Jonestown to get her off drugs. Monica was not really a member per se and did not have the cult programming that I had had for five years. Monica’s lack of indoctrination into the Temple mindset was invaluable to me in our escape from Jonestown.
I was walking down the path in Jonestown. I had never even taken note of Monica and had had no interactions with her. Walking in the opposite direction, she approached me and said, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” I was startled, to say the least, as any dissent, complaints, disagreements over how Jonestown was run or the conditions there – much less the expression of any desire to leave – were offenses of the gravest nature that could land either one of us on the work crew or much worse. Any individual opinion that differed from the party line identified oneself as dissenter. We would be labeled as counter-revolutionary and an enemy of the people.
“Keith told you!” I replied. Keith Wade, my 17-year-old loftmate in the cabin I lived in was the only person I had told I was planning to leave. We had shared other secrets with each other. I had wanted Keith to come with me, but he was too frightened to go along with the plan. He was sure I was doomed to failure, just as he had been. He had been living in Jonestown a long time – even longer than me – and when he had tried to escape before, he was caught, beaten and physically thrown down, landing on his head. He was petrified.
Monica, Keith, and I were all gay and had bonded together. Keith had trusted Monica to reveal my plan, and Monica and I soon became fast friends. We clung to each other as much as was possible, sneaking away – which was very difficult – encouraging each other in our desire to leave, Jonestown’s greatest sin. The level of indoctrination we were under was astounding. Lack of sleep and decent food, endless meetings with Jones haranguing us, and those goddamn loudspeakers going on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, had taken their toll. My mind was a mass of confusion and conflict. Perhaps I lacked the character to be a good socialist, perhaps I didn’t have what it took to make the necessary sacrifices. And the indoctrination was working. Even though I knew I was being held against my will, I wasn’t sure that planning my escape was the right thing to do, amazing as it sounds. But Monica was my lifesaver, and I was hers. She was a part of the escape plan and an essential one. We kept each other going, energizing each other, validating our thoughts and intentions. At the time, I did not think we would be successful, but I also knew we didn’t have a chance without the other.
When we learned about Congressman Ryan’s impending visit, the plan was for me to pass the infamous note: “Vernon Gosney, Monica Bagby, Help us get out of Jonestown.”
A few weeks before Congressman Ryan’s visit, Lisa Layton, a Jonestown resident who had been ill for several months, died, and Richard Dwyer, the U.S. consul, flew to Jonestown to speak with her son Larry, the man who later was to later shoot both Monica and me.
On the day Dwyer visited, Monica and I lingered in the area where the interview was being conducted with Larry, even though we were not supposed to be in there at all and most people had been sequestered in their cabins. We were getting up our nerve to ask the consular officer to help us leave. We hovered around, not knowing who was who, but when we saw a Caucasian male, we were sure was Dwyer. We tried to summon our courage and almost asked the man for help, but lost our nerve at the last minute. As it turned out, the man we lingered near turned out to be the pilot of the small plane which had brought Dwyer to Jonestown, and the consular officer had been nowhere in sight. If we had asked the wrong man, all would have been lost.
I was determined not to make a similar mistake on November 17th, the day Congressman Leo Ryan arrived. As it turned out, though, the man I passed the note that evening turned out to be Don Harris, the NBC reporter, not a member of the congressman’s staff, as I thought he was. Nevertheless, Ryan received the note. He approached me in the pavilion after the assembly that night, and said Monica and I were the first to ask to leave. We would have the first seats on the plane.
On November 18th, after being further interviewed by Congressman Ryan, Monica and I assembled with a number of others leaving in the pavilion where all the Jonestown residents would die later that day. The two of us were standing together when Jones approached us and asked, “Are you lovers?” No, we answered. Monica began to speak with him and express her concerns with Jonestown. I stomped on her foot to get her to shut up, as I knew any information we gave to him would be used against us. Jones told us, “Don’t talk to reporters! They are all liars!” In my deluded mind I thought he was right. Jones then spoke the most diabolical statement of all: “You can come back and visit your son anytime you want.”
Monica and I boarded the Temple truck to leave Jonestown. Ryan’s staff had failed to arrange their own transportation into Jonestown and had had to rely on the Temple to get out. As we got on board, I was still thinking that we would never get out of there, and when the truck stalled – multiple times – I was sure it was intentional. It was only when Congressman Ryan himself got on the truck – his shirt bloodied from a knife attack – that we actually took off.
The Port Kaituma airstrip, six miles away from Jonestown, was a clearing in the jungle for small planes to land and depart. When we finally arrived with the Congressman and the rest of our party at the airstrip, we all waited with high anxiety, fear and foreboding, especially after the drivers of the truck left to return to Jonestown.
Monica and I were assigned seats in the small plane. Monica sat in the front seat next to the pilot. I was seated in the row behind with Larry Layton directly adjacent to me. In the back seat was Dale Parks and his little sister.
When the gunmen from Jonestown returned on the tractor-trailer, our plane was taxiing down the airstrip. The tractor drove across our path, and our plane stopped. That was when Larry pulled out a gun and shot Monica twice in the back and me three times. He attempted to shoot Dale in the face, but the gun jammed. I was able to fend Larry off, and Monica, the pilot and I fled. Monica and the pilot later took off in the plane, and she was treated for her gunshots wounds in Georgetown. The rest of us would wait until the next day, the wounded for help, the dead… Well, they were beyond help.
The next day, I lay on the floor of the small plane, gasping for breath as I was flown from the jungle to Georgetown. I was eventually airlifted to Roosevelt Roads military base in Puerto Rico, where the doctors saved my life. When I recovered enough to travel, I was flown to a hospital in Santa Rosa, California, an undisclosed location and away from the San Francisco Bay Area, and safe from Jim Jones “Angels” seeking revenge on me for my betrayal. Paranoia was high!
* * * * *
I was sure without a doubt after surviving all this that Monica and I would be lifelong friends, inseparable to our dying day, but that was not to be. We started off as I thought we would, though. I recovered in stages physically until I was ready (not) to re-enter the world. That was when I hooked up with Monica in San Francisco again. We were constant companions and running buddies. We closed a lot of bars drinking and slept on friends’ couches. We did the same things that had caused us to seek Jonestown as a refuge – meaning drugs, a lot of mind altering substances – and now there were even more things I needed to bury from my consciousness than ever before. Not being able to take my son Mark with me when Monica and I left. The horror of the deaths in Jonestown, the murder of the children, the murder of my son. And more than that: bringing Mark to Jonestown in the first place, my responsibility in his death. The guilt was unbearable and would be a major barrier in me getting sober when I had had enough.
For all the talk about socialism, I had once needed Peoples Temple, and for a brief moment, so did Monica. When I look back on myself in that period of time, I seem almost infantile in my development. I was not fully formed as a person. I was a lost soul in the world. I had lost Cheryl, my wife, my rock, the person I had loved more than anyone else. I needed the family of the Temple and to have a purpose, to channel my energies in something positive and bigger than myself, socialism and a positive change in the world (or so I thought). Socialism in my mind was the answer to all the problems of the world. Simple. In groups like Peoples Temple, all the answers are in black and white, no gray areas. No need to think.
Monica and I ran the streets together until I hit bottom, got into a recovery program, and got sober. But our relationship was a casualty of that, and we parted ways and lost contact with each other. In 1982 I moved to Maui with a spiritual group, lived in community and was off to the races. The community fell apart after a few years over money, property and prestige. I joined the Maui Police Department and was assigned to be an undercover narcotics officer in a two year sting operation! But after all those drugs, I had an integrity problem: I had none.
* * * * *
The last time I saw Monica was when I came back San Francisco in 1986 or 1987 at the request of the FBI to testify against Larry Layton in his trial. I had resisted. As I told the FBI, I had forgiven Larry, but they had not, and subpoenaed me to appear. By the end of that trip and my testimony, I had lost my tenuous sobriety.
Ironically, Monica was incarcerated at the time in the Oakland jail, awaiting trial for selling cocaine to an undercover narcotics officer. I went to visit her there and told her what I was doing. She was incredulous. She couldn’t believe that what I told her about my life was true, but it was. Part of the dream of Jonestown, Peoples Temple, and the idealism around socialism was to spare our youth from the prisons that were overflowing with African Americans. Unfortunately Hawaii is no different. The Hawaiians are at the bottom of the economic scale and populate our prisons here in disproportionate numbers. That was the last time I saw Monica.
Monica was a woman I admired. She was a large and imposing figure, standing six feet tall. She had the guts and courage to challenge Jim Jones’ authority and overcome the seemingly impossible obstacles in leaving Jonestown. She was my dear friend, even if we didn’t turn out to be lifelong companions. She will live in my heart forever.
We escaped hell together and almost lost our lives in doing so. In those days following Jonestown, Monica and I were consumed with paranoia, anxiety and fears, real or imagined, but we endured them together. The ghosts of the past were always with us. We escaped physically, but for me to escape mentally, emotionally, spiritually – to release all my Temple family, my son from Jonestown, to bring them out of the jungle in my mind – would take decades.
Real freedom from Jonestown has been a long, arduous journey. Getting sober again in 1988 and facing the demons that haunted my consciousness was a non-negotiable. They were waiting for me.
I hope that Monica found some healing, peace and happiness in her life in the years after I saw her last. I hope she had really escaped in all of her being from Jonestown. I will always remember Monica as a courageous soul who stood with me on the darkest day of my life, November 18th, 1978.
One thing I do know now: Monica is free.
God bless you, my sister.
(Vernon Gosney left Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978, and was seriously wounded during the shootings at the Port Kaituma airstrip. His poems in this edition of the jonestown report are Beings of Light and My Journey To The Crone/Elder. His previous writings are located here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)