An Empty Jungle

I can still hear the voice of Donetta, the sister of my best friend Toni James, on the telephone. You ever hear the tone in someone’s voice and know that what they’re about to say isn’t going to be good? It was high-pitched, and she was speaking rapidly. That’s what her voice told me, even before I understood what she was saying. “Turn on the TV! Jim killed them!”

I was trying to emerge from a groggy fog. I hadn’t slept well the night before. Chauntrice, my baby, had been fussy and inconsolable during the night. This was unusual for her because she was never fussy. She didn’t have a fever and she didn’t need her diaper changed.

I had been in San Francisco visiting a friend, Carolyn, from Peoples Temple, and returned home the day that Congressman Leo Ryan left for Guyana to check on the residents of Jonestown. It was good to catch up in person because I had been laying low since I deserted the group in July. I was feeling a little antsy because I wasn’t sure if anyone was out to get me. I knew I had delayed the departure of the entourage I was supposed to go to South America with, just as I knew I had left a bad taste in the mouths of the Temple leadership. I was considered a “traitor.”

I saw a lot of former Peoples Temple members on the news during my visit that November, telling stories of abuse to the residents of Jonestown. People were being held against their will, they said, and many atrocities were occurring. Carolyn’s family and I got into a charged and animated discussion as we watched the TV. I remember saying, “No wonder Darlene never wrote. I told you something was wrong!”

Carolyn and I started naming people we’d heard from through letters, begging us to come to Jonestown. “Just wait until I see Toni,” I said, “I’m gonna kill her for asking me and Trice to go over there.” Then Carolyn and I talked about how some of them were going to start over again after losing everything they had to that madman. We talked about those we missed and how we couldn’t wait to see them again. We laughed about the changes in the world since they’d left and how they’d react to them once they returned home to the States.

As we listened in horror to the stories unraveling on the news, I said, “Well, at least they’ll be coming home now.” I remember naming a few people who probably loved it over there. Some of the counselors were mean and always recommended the most extreme discipline for minor infractions. They seemed to enjoy it. We were just kids, for crying out loud. We talked about which ones we wanted give a beatdown to, once they could no longer hide behind Jim Jones’ goon squad.

According to the statements we heard on TV, some of the kids we went to school with – laughed with, broke rules with – were part of the security there. We were angry and shocked that some of our peers had sold out. How could they hold guns on the same people who ate with them, borrowed clothes from, and even lied for to cover up for them so they would avoid being disciplined during services? How do you turn on your friends like that? We debated that for a while that day.

But we were also hopeful that Congressman Ryan had vowed to investigate all the allegations and bring back anyone who wanted to return. I sarcastically told myself, “He’ll need about 10 jumbo jets.” I couldn’t wait to see every person who had mistreated our families and friends return to the U.S. to get some down-home justice!

I had planned to stay a week, but the night before I was to return home, Chauntrice had a seizure. We rushed her to Mt. Zion Hospital, and I spent days at her bedside watching the news. The night she was finally released, I booked a flight back to Los Angeles. As I waited at the gate at the San Francisco airport, I noticed that the waiting area was strewn with a lot of papers and trash. It looked more like a football field after a game than an airport. I asked someone what happened, and was told the congressman was in Guyana along with a lot of reporters and camera crews.

I picked up a newspaper left in the seat next to me. The congressman was on the front page with his entourage. As I looked at his picture, I thought, “They’re really coming home.’“

Of course, I talked about it with my friends in Los Angeles. Ryan’s trip was starting to get a little coverage down our way, but not as widespread as it was in northern California. That seemed wrong. There were a lot of people in Jonestown from the Los Angeles area.

That Saturday, November 18, 1978, was a day I will never forget. I felt so elated that day. My sister was coming home! My best friends were coming home! I couldn’t wait until they touched down on U.S. soil again. I was already planning in my head the things we were going to do and see. I would take my friend Toni James to The Red Onion and watch her eat one of their enormous burritos. She loved them and we used to joke how she could eat a whole one by herself. I would go shopping with my sister Darlene. She was going to love the jeans everyone was wearing in the States.

Late in the afternoon of the 18th, Chauntrice began to be a little fussy. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I watched her carefully, praying she wouldn’t have another seizure. Later, she began to scream as if she were in agony. Just when I made up my mind to call 911, she stopped screaming. She had a restless night and finally fell asleep before dawn.

I snapped awake when the phone rang and heard Donetta’s screams. Her grandmother got on the phone, but I can’t remember what we said to each other. They both kept telling me to turn on the news. There was a reporter talking emotionally about Jonestown. He said members had killed themselves. We said we knew our people would never do such a thing, and were glued to our sets while we waited to hear what was really going on with our relatives. The story was getting bigger and bigger by the moment. Incoming reports were contradictory. And then we heard the death toll.

The first body count had the number at 408. I can still remember how hopeful we felt at the news, and how that hope was fueled by the additional speculation that hundreds fled into the jungle for safety. We were just sure that our loved ones were in the jungle. I watched the TV show a helicopter flying low over the jungle and someone had a bullhorn announcing that it was safe to come out.

It seemed like we lived in front of the television over the next days, I didn’t even go to sleep Sunday night, imagining them in the jungle, wondering how they felt fleeing into the thick darkness. Hundreds of them. Why hadn’t they gotten together and fled before? What made them stay so long? I envisioned them coming out of the jungle and running for safety to the military personnel there. The helicopters, the planes, the guns, the soldiers; no one was going to hurt them now. They were safe. They could leave their nightmares behind in the jungle.

We switched between TV stations to try to catch the latest updates. U.S. military personnel were now in Jonestown to retrieve the bodies of the victims there. Bodies locked together in the jungle heat. The count changed every hour, went up every hour, kept going up. The number soared by the hundreds – not ten more, not twenty more, but hundreds more! – and every time the count increased, a little more air escaped from my balloon of hope.

I still held on, though. Even though my hope was growing weaker hour by hour, I still held on. I didn’t care how many more bodies were discovered, Darlene and Toni were going to be in that jungle somewhere. They were hiding, they just hadn’t heard the announcement from the helicopter. Surely, they were not laying entangled with those on the ground.

Soldiers discovered bodies underneath bodies. Children missed in the previous counts were uncovered. But they were kids, I tried to convince myself, not my sister, not my friend!

Finally, the helicopters stopped flying over the jungle. “The jungle is empty,” a newsman said, “there are no survivors there.” Empty. An empty jungle.

I turned to channel 4, NBC’s station in Los Angeles. The names of known dead scrolled down the screen in alphabetical order. I sat in disbelief and screamed every time a name of one of my friends scrolled down my television screen. I didn’t scream when I saw the names “Toni James” and “Darlene Ramey,” though. Instead, I grabbed my chest, as though I had been stabbed.

The list went on and on. I sat there and read every name. I remember telling my sister-in-law that they were wrong. The count was wrong. The jungle wasn’t empty. They stopped looking too soon, why did they stop looking? She replied, “Maybe they found everyone, and the jungle is empty.” Thousands of miles away, no one was coming out of the jungle. There was a final count. Everyone was dead.

It wasn’t until the day I stood next to Toni’s casket as it was placed in the hearse that it finally hit me. I had envisioned my loved ones hiding, eluding their evil captors, but here she was, right before me. My heart broke. I tried to cry, but I couldn’t. I realized that day that we weren’t going shopping. We weren’t going to The Red Onion either.

The bodies were returned to the States. None of their personal property was ever returned to us. We kept asking for their clothes, their letters, their pictures. Nothing. I still wonder what they left behind there of their lives to acknowledge their existence.

But all that I saw – to this day, all I can see – is an empty jungle.

(Glenda Randolph Bates was the sister of Darlene Ramey, who died in Jonestown. Glenda’s numerous articles for this site appear here. She died on March 29, 2022 from pancreatic cancer.)