(Matthew Thomas Farrell started off as a science fiction novelist but ultimately realized the wisdom of Thomas Haliburton’s adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.” He has since spent six years as chief scribe for www.branchfloridians.org, a subtle parody website devoted to lateral thinking and bad taste that exposes or debunks various religious and historical conspiracies. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Admittedly, I have always had a soft spot for conspiracy theories, the sillier the better (my personal favorite is that JFK was shot by his own limo driver). Of course, I like to think I am also reasonable and rational enough to separate fact from fiction, so if someone makes a serious claim in the conspiracy field, they had better have something of substance to back it up. After all, ultimately I want to know what’s really going on.
The Jonestown tragedy is fertile ground for conspiracy theories, though many of these theories contradict and cancel each other out. When I first began looking into Jonestown three years ago, I encountered a claim that was especially disturbing, and if true, almost certainly serves as Exhibit A that the “official” versions of events are deliberate misinformation designed to hide something much more sinister.
The claim was made by former Peoples Temple member Laurie Efrein Kahalas on her comprehensive website www.jonestown.com. When Congressman Leo Ryan was killed at the Port Kaituma airport, NBC cameraman Bob Brown caught part of the turkey shoot on film, before he himself became a casualty. Ms. Kahalas claims that on the film, the shooters are all wearing matching military fatigues, are heavily armed, and ran what is known in basic training as a “squad diamond” formation as they advance upon the hapless entourage. Although it is generally accepted that the people who did the shooting were all from Jonestown, the analysis Ms. Kahalas offers strongly suggests otherwise: this was some type of “professional” hit squad.
Although the obvious common sense guess would be that Jones himself had sent some followers out to do the deed, there is an audio tape of the first half of the subsequent mass suicide where, upon learning that Ryan is dead, Jones sounds clearly upset over the fact. That’s not the reaction you’d expect from one who had just ordered it. Among his comments on the final audio tape: “I didn’t order the shooting”; “I don’t know who shot the Congressman”; “I can’t control these people [who did]”; “I waited against all evidence… I tried to prevent all this from happening”; “I wish I could call it back”; “I never wanted to kill anybody”; “How many are dead?… Oh, God Almighty, God help them…” A bit ambiguous, granted, but very perplexing, given his ostensibly genuine tone of alarm, concern, and despair. Again, these aren’t the types of comments you’d expect from someone who had just ordered a murder, so maybe there was something to Ms. Kahalas’ claim after all.
Still, my initial response upon reading her version was skepticism: common sense says that all you have to do is enlarge the video, show it to survivors, and ask them “do you know any of these people?” Likewise, simply watching the appropriate part would settle the issue if the shooters were in fatigues, well-equipped, and executing disciplined military maneuvers. However, that video is surprisingly hard to find. Ms. Kahalas claims to have seen it, I had not. Without being able to see for myself, I left the issue open.
Now I at last have a copy of the tape and can see for myself if Ms. Kahalas’ claims are true.
The tape runs a little over an hour, and is exceptionally poor in quality — especially the audio. However, it is at least a third-generation copy (originally shot in 1978, you will recall) so to an extent this is forgivable; just keep some extra-strength Excedrin handy if you ever watch it. It starts at the Georgetown (Guyana) airport, and chronicles the congressional visit as it flies out to Port Kaituma, the drive into Jonestown, and several interviews with the Concerned Relatives and their Peoples Temple family counterparts. At last the investigating delegation leaves with 16 defectors. We see them loading up the plane, and then the tractor trailer with its lethal cargo arrives.
The film offers a glimpse into the final day of Jonestown, and it is creepy to realize that 99% of the people shown on it will be dead in a few hours.
As for the shootout at the airport, it comprises only five seconds of footage, and much of that is blurred and rolled as the camera starts. The film has a clock counter in the lower right, and this can still seen to be running for almost a minute after the image goes to black snow, presumably from collateral damage that killed the poor cameraman.
Still, enough of those fatal five seconds are available that an analysis of sorts can be offered.
First, the gunmen are all dressed differently. Although one — presumably the tractor driver — is partially obscured by the clock counter, he is clearly wearing a white short sleeve shirt and light-colored pants. Several of the gunmen disembarking from the trailer have similar attire. All in all, these are definitely not military fatigues.
As for being “heavily armed,” that is a bit more difficult to tell. A number of shots can be heard on the audio (as well as the cry of pain of at least one person getting hit) but I am unable to tell what type of ordnance is being fired. The shots are spaced out enough, however, that it is obviously not automatic fire. The standard military issue at the time was the M-16, which had a single-shot and full auto setting (current models, the M-16A2, also have a 3-shot burst setting, but this was introduced long after 1978). My guess would be that an attacking unit would do some full-auto spraying, but that is obviously not the case in the five seconds presented. In any event, it is hard to tell what weapons are being wielded.
There is one exception. If the tape is run on slow-motion, the above-mentioned driver can be seen quickly lifting his left hand, and then a small puff of smoke arises from the end of it before the arm is lowered. This is obviously a pistol shot. You would think, per conspiracy theory, that a “well-armed” group would all have assault rifles.
Lastly, we come to the infamous “squad diamond formation.” I have no idea how Ms. Kahalas determined this, as the film shows most of the gunmen still disembarking, and then goes to grain damage before any type of assembly can be seen. At least one member (the driver, at the front) was out of position, though, so while it is effectively impossible to tell what grouping they ultimately cohesed into to advance on the plane, I would say that it is unlikely that it was anything as coordinated as a squad diamond.
In short, Ms. Kahalas is, in my humble opinion, completely off the mark in her assessment.
Based on the available evidence, I would have to opine that the shooters were, indeed, from Jonestown. If we are to take Jones’s subsequent audio comments at face value, it would seem that the hit squad was an impromptu ad-hoc vigilante squad that took matters into their own hands without formal authorization from Jim Jones.
There is one final piece of circumstantial evidence that leads me to this conclusion: the tractor. When Ryan and company first arrive at Port Kaituma, they are met by representatives from Jonestown, including attorneys Mark Lane and Charles Garry. These people return to Jonestown in a large truck, but accompanying it is a red tractor towing a large cart. I am satisfied that this tractor/cart is the same one that is shown in the shootout footage. If some type of “professional” hit squad attacked Ryan, we are thus forced to believe that they first went to Jonestown and somehow procured the tractor — presumably without anyone’s knowledge — or otherwise managed to acquire almost identical equipment on the scene.
Occam’s Razor cuts quite nicely through this conundrum: the tractor was from Jonestown, and so were the shooters.
Of course, that is just my own opinion. If you would like to see the shootout yourself and draw your own conclusions, I have it available here.