The following essay first appeared in In Defense of Peoples Temple – And Other Essays, by Rebecca Moore (Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1988). It describes how the bodies of the Jonestown victims were handled by various governmental agencies; and it details how family members of victims were treated by those agencies. A related page on the autopsies from the Primary Source Section appears here.
If you’re a cultist, you don’t have the same civil rights ordinary Americans enjoy. If you die, the government doesn’t have to perform an autopsy, or investigate your death. It can entertain the notion of dumping you into a mass grave. It can destroy evidence of the cause of your death, frustrate your family’s efforts to secure your remains, stick you in an airport hangar on a military base 3000 miles from home for weeks on end, and depend upon public apathy to get away with it.
This is exactly what happened to the people who died in Jonestown. In spite of the shock waves that rippled around the world from the jungle community in Guyana, the U.S. government failed to determine precisely how the people in Jonestown died. The Carter Administration characterized the suicides as an aberration lacking relevance to American society. As a result, the government agencies responsible for handling the bodies resolved the problems they presented by ignoring routine investigative procedures. They simply abandoned civilized treatment of the dead.
The people of Jonestown were treated as so many pieces of meat. They were dumped in bags, shipped to a place in the U.S. far from most relatives, embalmed, frozen until a non-governmental organization forced a court in San Francisco to pay for interment, and forgotten. Although 900 people died, only seven were autopsied. Two of the seven were my sisters.
The official attitude towards these cultists pervaded American society as well. Few questioned the hands-off policy taken by the State Department, the Justice Department, and the state of Delaware, where the bodies were warehoused over the Christmas holidays of 1978. Only a handful of forensic pathologists challenged the assault on our sense of justice implicit in the failure to perform meaningful postmortem examinations. “This was not garbage to be picked up,” said Cyril Wecht, the medical examiner for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania.
It shouldn’t matter what we thought of cults or whether these people deserved to die. There should be no moral, ethical or philosophical decisions. We should behave like a responsible country or agency.
Perhaps the magnitude of the tragedy explains why the government mishandled what was essentially a criminal investigation. Nine hundred people don’t commit suicide en masse every day. In a philosophical sense, Jonestown was a cataclysmic event that raised unanswerable questions about the human spirit. In a more mundane sense, however, it was simply a case of 900 suspicious deaths.
For our family, concern centered on the deaths of Carolyn, Annie, and Carolyn’s son Kimo, as well as many other people we knew and liked. Despite the shock during the first week of indescribable horror, we still wanted to know exactly how they died: in what manner and form, and when and where. The very few eyewitness accounts were contradictory, and said little about our relatives.
Our concern took on a note of uneasiness when newspapers reported that Annie had been found in Temple leader Jim Jones’ cabin, half her head blown away by a gunshot wound. Out of 900 people, only two were shot: Jim Jones and Annie Moore. We wanted to know what distinguished those two deaths from all the others.
In addition, news accounts reported the existence of a Peoples Temple hit squad. Several ex-members named my sister Carolyn as a leader of such a squad and voiced the suspicion that she was not really dead.
Autopsies seemed imperative. With a lot of bad press about Peoples Temple in general, and about Carolyn in particular, we felt we had to establish records about their deaths while we had the chance. If something were to come up later, we would have no protection against possible legal actions. A misidentification could have repercussions we could barely imagine. What if, for example, Annie had not been shot? What if the rumors of Carolyn’s survival persisted? We felt we had to be sure we had the right bodies, with manner and means of death legally confirmed. The U.S. government did not make it easy. Persuading the Justice Department to perform autopsies on my sisters proved time-consuming, exhausting, and demoralizing. Getting the State Department and Delaware to release the bodies turned out to be another problem. Everyone who had relatives to bury faced the same situation: unimaginable insensitivity and arrogance.
“When anyone dies by violence, or suspicion of violence,” wrote the late Dr. Milton Helpern, chief medical examiner for New York City, “regardless of whether violence is suicidal, accidental, or undetermined, it is an ancient responsibility of government to officially inquire into the death. This is of paramount importance to the administration of justice.”
Quite simply, our government did not do justice to the people who died in Jonestown. By failing to take on the “ancient responsibility” of investigating the deaths of its citizens, our government denied some people — mostly black, mostly poor, mostly idealistic — due process. Our government said it was doing us a big favor by giving my sisters autopsies. But after the “big favor,” we still didn’t know how they died.
Dr. Leslie Mootoo, Guyana’s chief pathologist, along with an American forensic pathologist sent by the Defense Department, performed brief examinations on Congressman Ryan and the others who died at the airstrip. Mootoo also visually examined over 200 bodies in Jonestown. He later told a Guyana coroner’s jury that he saw needle marks on at least 70. With the help of American pathologist Dr. Lynn Crook, Mootoo concluded that cyanide was present in some of the bodies. An analysis of the contents of the vat revealed several tranquilizers as well as two strong poisons: potassium cyanide and potassium chloride.
While the Guyana Defense Force searched the jungle for survivors November 19th, Assistant Police Commissioner Skip Roberts and Jonestown survivor Odell Rhodes attached cardboard tags to 183 bodies Rhodes could identify by name. He recognized many, but frequently knew only a nickname or first name. Other survivors who came to help were stunned, and unable to assist.
Guyana waived its requirement for autopsies in the case of unnatural death, to expedite removal of the corpses. Some American pathologists blamed the lack of adequate on-site examination of the bodies on Guyana’s haste to be rid of them. Dr. William Cowan, deputy director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, said “the Government of Guyana just wanted the bodies out of there.” He felt the government was extremely hostile. Dr. Lynn Crook said Guyana police allowed him to look at the bodies, but not to touch anything.
However, Guyana cannot be held totally responsible for the American failure to take field samples. Col. William Gordon, who was in charge of the body recovery operation, said he wasn’t aware of the importance of postmortem examinations. “I don’t know of any discussions that took place… No one mentioned it to me as being critical or necessary.”
The confusion and antagonism among federal agencies rivaled that between the U.S. and Guyana. The State Department, the Defense Department, the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget eventually established a Federal Task Force to coordinate activities. State organized the Task Force since American deaths occurring outside the U.S. come under its jurisdiction. It supervised the whole operation and took charge of notifying kin and releasing bodies. The Defense Department handled logistics: body removal, clean-up and storage. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, along with the FBI, worked on identification. The Justice Department investigated Ryan’s death under the statute which makes it a federal crime to assassinate a Member of Congress anywhere in the world. It also went after Temple assets to reimburse the government for the cost of recovering the bodies. OMB monitored the cost of the airlift and subsequent identification.
The division of labor immediately created jurisdictional problems. For that reason we never learned who exactly made the decision to send the bodies to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, although perhaps the State and Defense Departments collaborated on that as well. We were puzzled that the Air Force didn’t take the victims to Oakland Army Base in California, site of a large military mortuary which had processed bodies during the Vietnam War. Most of the victims’ families lived in California, where Peoples Temple was headquartered. It would have been easy to request, and obtain, medical records, especially from San Francisco. Finally, the bodies would not have had to be shipped across country for burial, an impossible expense for many relatives. Moving the bodies from one distant place to another–Guyana to Delaware–continued to alienate relatives from their dead.
Newspapers and officials gave two reasons for taking the bodies to Dover. First, it was closer to Guyana. Transporting them to Oakland, or to Travis Air Force Base fifty miles north, would have required the planes to stop en route for refueling. Second, the Dover mortuary was supposed to be better equipped to handle a large number of dead people. A few years earlier it had processed 327 bodies of Americans killed in an air crash at Tenerife, Canary Islands.
As it turned out, the Dover mortuary could not handle the Jonestown job by itself. Volunteers from the air base supplemented the mortuary’s small full-time staff. Thirty-five pathologists and specialists from Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., 29 graves registration experts from Fort Lee, Virginia, and FBI fingerprint technicians also worked on the remains. Additionally, a local funeral director who had an annual contract with the mortuary received about a quarter million dollars for his participation in the processing. He charged the federal government $413 for each adult and $232 for each child.
The government’s stated reasons for choosing Delaware are totally fabricated, since most of the people working on the Jonestown bodies did not normally work at the Dover mortuary. The volunteers and specialists could have worked anywhere.
We believe the bodies went to Dover simply because they would be close to government bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. who might have to travel there. We also believe the Air Force flew the victims to Delaware rather than California because the government didn’t want to be hassled by relatives. NBC Nightly News reported that Dover was selected because of its “distance from California, thus reducing chances of families crowding the scene.”
As far as we were concerned, dumping the bodies at Dover — 3000 miles from the Temple’s headquarters — demonstrated extreme callousness on the part of the U.S. government. Coupled with the State Department’s desire to bury everyone in Guyana, we felt the government forgot that the bodies had once been people, with kin who still loved them.
People in San Francisco and California were more sympathetic than the people of Delaware. The Temple was a California institution. Unlike Delaware, the San Francisco bay area has a large black population. If the move to Dover was calculated to dilute sympathy for the victims, it worked.
Early Thursday morning, November 23, the first bodies arrived in Dover. That same day, the mortuary staff announced that all bodies would be cleaned and embalmed. But they were not routinely embalmed at first, according to Dr. Cowan. The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology apparently hesitated two or three days while the Justice and State Departments haggled over the question of autopsies. With no resolution to the issue imminent, AFIP then decided to proceed with the embalming.
New York Times reports corroborate this time frame. The Times noted that five bodies were embalmed on Friday, November 24. By the following Monday, Dover morticians had embalmed only 70 bodies. Since all the bodies had arrived by then, they were not automatically embalmed. However, a news article on Wednesday, November 29, reported that after all the bodies were finger-printed, embalming would begin “in earnest.”
AFIP’s decision to embalm — replacing bodily fluids with a preservative — was critical. It precluded any meaningful postmortem examinations by destroying physical evidence within the bodies. The pathologists knew that when they made the decision. Which means someone consciously decided that there would be no autopsies. Although AFIP could have saved the fluids for later testing, it didn’t. “We didn’t have any authority,” Dr. Cowan claimed four months after the fact.
Morticians at the air base justified the embalming because it arrested decomposition and allowed the FBI to fingerprint and identify the remains. One mortician told us, “Our main concern was to preserve the bodies.” The rationale rings false, though. By Saturday night, FBI identification experts had taken fingerprints from 374 bodies. Few of them had been embalmed.
With or without the embalming, identification proved to be a difficult task. The names Odell Rhodes and Skip Roberts carefully wrote onto cardboard tags, had washed off in the rain and humidity. People in Jonestown wore each others’ clothes, so the name tags sewn into collars and waistbands were of no help. One man wore the clothes of several different people. None, it turned out, were his own. The kerosene used to kill maggots made it difficult to get good fingerprints.
The State Department was supposed to help in getting records and then, once a positive identification was made, to notify next of kin. It publicly requested medical and dental records from relatives. We noticed the request by chance in a two-paragraph article buried in the San Francisco Chronicle. ABC News announced a phone number which State had provided for information — and displayed a different number on the screen during the announcement. It’s amazing the Air Force got as many as 100 records by December 1, considering how little the State Department did to help.
Dental and fingerprint records also arrived from Guyana by the first of December. Over 700 adults had been fingerprinted upon entering the country, and the records helped the stalled identification process. According to the FBI, it would have been impossible to identify more than 100 victims without Guyana’s records.
Morticians from Dover, AFIP pathologists, the FBI, and air base volunteers worked around the clock in eight-hour shifts, printing, x-raying, cleaning and embalming the bodies. Wearing blue baseball caps with white FBI letters on them, the workers looked like a baseball team, according to one report.
Two and a half weeks after the deaths, the workers had positively identified 521 bodies. The remains, bagged and kept in refrigerated trucks until processing, were placed in caskets and stored in Bays 3, 4, and 5 at the air force base. All information about an individual was keyed to the number assigned in Jonestown.
Army volunteers had numbered the bodies in no apparent order. Ann was number A001, while Carolyn was number 2A. They lay ten feet apart in Jones’ cabin. Skip Roberts claimed the Army assigned numbers one through 22 to bodies found in outlying houses. He believed the first thirteen referred to bodies in Jones’ cabin. However, Dr. Cowan told us that a woman found in Jones’ cabin was numbered in the “B” series.
In theory, Carolyn’s son Kimo should have been among the first thirteen counted. Several news articles quoted individuals who saw him there alive while the suicides were in progress. We believe Odell Rhodes identified Kimo and another child in the cabin, since the first bodylift included Jones and two children “he was believed to have fathered,” according to the Washington Post. We knew Kimo was Jones’ son before he was born.
Roberts told us there were three children in Jones’ cabin, two boys on bunk beds and an infant lying between a couple on Jones’ bed. We could see the two boys in a photograph Roberts showed us, and he pointed out John Victor Stoen, a child Jim Jones claimed to have sired. Dr. Cowan implied that he knew the other boy was Kimo, but the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology failed to give either of the boys a positive identification.
Carolyn was one of the first people to be identified, ten days after the deaths. The State Department gave out the phone numbers of Dover morticians at random. After several phone calls and a late night trip to Dover, 120 miles from our home in Washington, we contracted the services of the Minus Funeral Home. The owner and his wife were like many members of the Temple itself: concerned, friendly, and black. They listened to us explain our need for autopsies and agreed to help us find a pathologist somewhere in the state who would perform them. The Justice Department had already announced it was not going to authorize autopsies.
Two days later, Justice reversed its decision — at least partially — and announced it would autopsy Jim Jones, Maria Katsaris, Larry Schacht, and four randomly selected bodies. We also heard that the Air Force would perform autopsies on request, so my parents sent a telegram authorizing examinations for Carolyn and Ann. We also called Justice to ask what its autopsy policy was.
Mike Abbell, head of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department, told reporters that public criticism prompted the agency to reconsider its earlier decision not to perform any autopsies.
We’re better off to put things to rest at an early date and make sure that all questions are reasonably answered rather than face second guesses in ten to fifteen years… We thought a full pathological investigation, at least of selected individuals, would be desirable to put questions to rest.
Abbell’s announcement was a bit more modest than that of Assistant Attorney General Philip Heymann, who declared that the Justice Department intended to “find out exactly how and why more than 900 Americans died in the jungle of Guyana.”
We called Abbell and requested two autopsies. He said Ann could be one of the four randomly selected victims, but he thought Carolyn’s close relationship to Ann made it difficult for both of them to be considered “random” choices.
With little encouragement from Abbell, we continued to try to find a private pathologist. Again we met with frustration. After checking around the state, Mr. Minus told us no pathologist in Delaware would touch the Jonestown bodies. There was an unofficial hands-off policy.
The state medical examiner, Dr. Ali Z. Hameli, seemed more encouraging. Several news stories quoted his offer to perform postmortems. Apparently he had received no requests. My husband Fielding McGehee phoned with a request and an offer to reimburse the state for its expenses. Dr. Hameli said he’d get back to us.
Since Delaware looked unpromising, we began to call pathologists in the Washington area. We reached one in the District of Columbia medical examiner’s office who criticized U.S. handling of the bodies. “If they’d really been interested in how those people died,” Dr. Leroy Riddick said, “the State Department should have sent fifteen pathologists to Guyana.” Dr. Riddick seemed curious and concerned. Others were not.
Our countless phone calls had one goal: to make sure nothing happened to Ann’s or Carolyn’s body. It seems paranoid now that time has passed. At the time, however, we were scared and skeptical. We believed anything could happen.
On Saturday, December 2, a State Department employee called at 1 p.m. to confirm Ann’s death. He gave no cause.
On Monday, December 4, Dr. Hameli told us he couldn’t perform any autopsies, but would forward our request to the FBI. Even though he acknowledged ours was the only family to request autopsies, he felt the two on Carolyn and Annie could open the door to 900. Delaware would not issue death certificates since the bodies would just be passing through “in transit.” In a bizarre catch, he said the Attorney General of Delaware would not approve any cremations because the deaths had been of suspicious causes.
I wrote Dr. Hameli an angry letter that night.
I have to say I am greatly disappointed by your performance. Your own refusal to assist my family in obtaining autopsies for my two sisters – in the face of confirmed reports by the Guyana police that at least one of them died of gunshot wounds – indicates a profound disrespect for truth and justice. Your state’s refusal to cremate or bury any of the victims is insensitive to their families, at the very least, and quite possibly racist, at the worst.
By return mail Dr. Hameli explained that it wasn’t his responsibility.
I fully understand your concern and sympathize with your problem. However, I would like to advise you that your letter of concern should have been addressed to the federal authorities, specifically, the officials of the U.S. Departments of State and Justice who took custody of the bodies in Guyana, transported them to a federal zone, which happens to be located in the territory of the State of Delaware, and still have the jurisdiction over and possession of the remains…
Once the Federal Government decides on a final course of action and the State of Delaware is the recipient of the vacated responsibilities of the Federal Government, then I, as the Official Medicolegal Officer of the State, will exercise my duties in the appropriate manner.
As Medical Examiner for the State of Delaware, Dr. Hameli could have ordered autopsies in spite of the fact that the bodies came under federal jurisdiction. He could have stipulated that bodies buried in Delaware had to undergo forensic examination. But the governor, and the people of Delaware, wanted the bodies out of the state.
The state’s eagerness to get rid of the Jonestown victims created a merry-go-round of confusion which ultimately delayed release of the bodies. In the beginning Governor Pierre DuPont’s press aide announced Delaware’s policy this way: “Claimed and identified bodies, for which there are requests to bury them in Delaware, cannot be removed from the Air Force Base in the absence of death certificates.” But neither the state’s attorney general nor the medical examiner would issue death certificates. Next, Delaware funeral directors could remove bodies from the air base only by signing a statement swearing they would transport the remains out of state. But the funeral homes we contacted in Washington D.C. said they could not perform cremations without death certificates. Which brought us back to the beginning.
Delaware prevailed because the State Department could not cope with the situation. Although responsible for overseeing this part of the bodylift, State’s lack of coordination led to missed and contradictory communications. For example, we called the State Department liaison in Dover to find out if Carolyn and Ann had been embalmed, since we had learned it would adversely affect the autopsies. The liaison, Mike White, told us to call the base mortuary. The mortuary told us to call Mike White. We went back and forth several times before we finally learned from the mortuary that my sisters had been embalmed.
The State Department could have ordered the mortuary to retain blood and urine samples for future analysis. State could have kept the bodies on ice for several weeks. But the State Department would not act. It viewed Jonestown as a political, rather than a criminal case. The suicides were an international embarrassment. Better to leave the bodies in Guyana, or dump them in a mass grave in Delaware, or get rid of them quickly somehow, than think of them as people.
State defended its conduct by asserting it had no authority to investigate deaths of U.S. citizens in foreign countries. But it wouldn’t tell us who did have authority. In fact, no one from any state or federal governmental agency we spoke with ever admitted anything but the most limited responsibility. When the Justice Department finally decided to authorize autopsies, in response to public criticism, it was too late for the examinations to be meaningful.
On Wednesday, December 6, an FBI agent named Lou Stevens called to tell us the FBI wanted to autopsy Carolyn and Ann. In our initial request for autopsies, we’d asked that an independent pathologist be present at the examinations. I mentioned that to Stevens. He said fine. Doctors from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology would actually do the procedure, however.
Stevens called back within a couple of hours to tell me he’d learned that my parents, John and Barbara Moore, had requested an independent pathologist in their earlier telegram to the Air Force Base, exactly what I’d told him in our first conversation. Now he said that it’d be a big inconvenience. The AFIP was doing the autopsies as a favor to us. It was unnecessary anyway. “There is no government plot to hide or cover-up anything,” he said angrily. Besides, he added, it would be a “prodigious hemorrhoid” to get the AFIP to agree to our request.
On December 15, almost a month after the suicides, AFIP examined the remains of Carolyn and Ann, as well as Jim Jones, Dr. Larry Schacht, Maria Katsaris, Richard Castillo and Violet Dillard. Our family and Dr. Schacht’s were the only two to request the examinations. A few days later, we learned that the Air Force had allowed Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker, a Baltimore forensic pathologist, to witness the proceedings. It was an ironic twist, since Dr. Breitenecker was the independent pathologist we wanted to be present in the first place.
Breitenecker told the New York Times that Jones and Annie had died of gunshot wounds to the head, consistent with either suicide or murder. In Jones’ case, however, the contact wound made him a likely suicide. Breitenecker felt the cause of death of the other five people might never be known because of advanced decomposition and embalming. “We were working with all the handicaps,” he said.
The bodies were so seriously decomposed that you could not tell if they were black or white, and the examination was aggravated by subsequent embalming. This was two strikes against a proper medical-legal autopsy, because toxicologic tests in such a situation are hit or miss. You can hope by some miracle you can come up with something, but it’s not very likely.
No miracle occurred. It took almost four months to complete several experimental toxicologies. As AFIP labored to complete the tests, we decided it was time to inter the remains of my sisters despite the lack of a full report.
At one point during the delays, I called Dr. Breitenecker, looking for someone outside the government who could give me a sympathetic ear instead of a bureaucratic runaround. Breitenecker repeated what he’d told the press. He could not determine from the wound if Ann had been murdered or had committed suicide. He seemed to think, however, that Jones had shot himself since the “wounds he had were easily compatible with suicide. But,” he added, “you can’t really exclude the possibility that he had a gun pressed against his head.”
Finally, in April 1979, the FBI had the reports. Lou Stevens believed Ann was murdered because of an injection mark in her shoulder. He thought it was possible, however, that she’d chosen multiple suicide: poison and gunshot. There was no evidence of cyanide in Carolyn.
The reports were good enough for Lou Stevens and the FBI. As far as they were concerned, the case was closed. “Your sisters are dead,” Stevens said in parting, “and you can’t do anything to bring them back.”
We couldn’t bring them back, but we could still try to find out how they died. Our family doctor explained the medical terminology in the reports and concluded that Ann had been cut on the face. We also talked with Dr. William Cowan, who supervised the examinations. His answers surprised us.
Ann hadn’t been injected. The marks on her shoulders were bruises which might have occurred at any time prior to death. The pathologists couldn’t observe any injections except for those made by embalmers. Any injections administered in Jonestown would have been erased by decomposition anyway. All incisions on her face had been made by pathologists.
The reason for the four-month delay, Dr. Cowan told us, was that they tried to develop a whole new set of tests to compensate for the embalming. The entire thing had become “a research project,” he said. “The embalming fluid was a nightmare.”
It was a nightmare the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology itself had precipitated when it decided to embalm the remains. Nevertheless, the Justice and State Departments must bear ultimate responsibility for initially refusing to consider autopsies.
We asked if AFIP had made any policy changes for coping with similar disasters in the future. Ideally, Dr. Cowan responded, the bodies are processed at the site of the disaster. This happened when a DC-10 crashed outside of Chicago. He felt that the military was better equipped to process large numbers of bodies than were communities, because it had wartime experience.
Dr. Cowan said AFIP was preparing a report to help the Pentagon deal with disasters more effectively in the future. In 1981 we learned it had never been written.
Our arduous efforts to obtain autopsies and our four-month wait produced inconclusive results. For Annie:
Cause of Death: Acute Cyanide Poisoning; Gunshot wound of the head, laceration of brain.
Manner of Death: Undetermined.
Cause of death: Probably cyanide poisoning.
Manner of death: Undetermined.
Lou Stevens was right: the autopsies wouldn’t bring Carolyn or Annie back. But they were necessary, first of all, to determine if Ann had been shot, and second, to establish some records, however paltry, on how some of the Jonestown people died.
Grisly details filled the reports: maggots; fingers amputated to obtain prints and then tossed back into the body bag; decomposition making them unrecognizable; incisions made to compare teeth with dental records; and of course the horror of Ann’s mutilation by a gunshot wound. We dealt with these horrors by compartmentalizing them. They had nothing to do with the persons we knew as Carolyn and Ann. The autopsies were scientific procedures performed on human flesh, not human beings.
A rather ordinary detail affected me more than any physiological description in the report. Annie wore a pair of blue tennis shoes with her name written on the outside of each: “Annie Moore.”
Kimo, like 234 other children, was never identified. The photos we sent to the FBI were of no use.
Metal coffins containing the bodies of unidentified, and some identified but unclaimed victims, were stacked in hangars at Dover Air Force Base. They sat there while the State Department pondered a decision. On January 19, 1979, the day we buried Carolyn and Ann in California, State suggested dumping the remaining bodies in West Virginia.
Delaware had already refused to accept the bodies, although State Senator W. Lee Littleton offered to bury 30 to 40 Peoples Temple children in his backyard so he could “watch their bodies rise on Judgment Day.” In December, Governor DuPont asked President Carter to fly the bodies to California, but the State Department insisted the government had neither the authority nor the money to release the bodies.
Religious workers and churches in San Francisco had been talking and working together on the Peoples Temple problem since November 19. They canceled an ecumenical memorial service they’d planned because they feared the publicity would create an “incident.” In December, the ad hoc group, called the Emergency Relief Committee, urged the courts to set aside one million dollars of Temple assets for burial costs. “Somewhere the courts have to find the key so that people can bury their families and life in this city can return to normal,” their statement read.
Over a month elapsed before the State Department agreed to work with the 27-member committee. This time, the committee went to court with a proposal that asked for $215,850 to reimburse next of kin, and $55,000 to pay for the cost of transporting the bodies to the west coast. This time, they succeeded.
On March 30, 1979, a San Francisco Superior Court judge awarded the committee $300,000 out of Temple assets to pay for the operation. It was another month, though, before the bodies left Delaware. The problem was a lack of destination. Various communities in California resisted the idea of having a mass grave in neighboring cemeteries.
Skyline Memorial Park in San Mateo originally agreed to accept the bodies at a cost of $349.10 for a single interment, and $560.70 for double depth interment in the same space. The cemetery backed out after nearby residents complained. Marin County’s Daphne Fernwood Cemetery was willing to bury the remains, but the Marin County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution asking that the bodies be interred in several counties. Vandals spray-painted the cemetery walls with epithets and convinced Robert Fabian, the Receiver of Peoples Temple assets, to change the site once again. “I decided I was not going to send them to a place that doesn’t want them,” Fabian told reporters. Finally, Evergreen Cemetery, located in a predominantly black neighborhood near Mills College in Oakland, accepted the bodies.
In late April 1979, the bodies finally made it to the West Coast, transported on tractor-trailers by a Delaware moving company. One hundred identified remains went to Fort MacArthur in Los Angeles, while another 201 went to Oakland Army Base. The 234 bodies which were still unidentified–mostly of children–went directly to Evergreen Cemetery. After months of organizing, including filing a lawsuit, the Emergency Relief Committee anticipated that many relatives would come forward.
“The reaction was just the opposite of what we expected,” Donneter Lane, the president of the San Francisco Council of Churches, told us. “We expected lots of calls, lots of interest. We’d been working on this a long time. But when the bodies arrived, nothing. No response.”
One reason the committee wasn’t flooded with calls was a court order that required relatives to file a statement of destitution before any bodies could be released to them. This discouraged many who were not poor, but who could not afford the extraordinary costs associated with moving bodies across country and burying them. The fact that many lost more than one relative added to the burden.
Evergreen Cemetery buried the unclaimed and the unidentified in a mass grave on a steeply sloping hillside. It was May 11, 1979, almost six months after they died. Kimo, we believe, is buried there.
We never thanked the Emergency Relief Committee or the individuals who did the dirty work of handling and processing the bodies. At the time it never occurred to us. But we appreciated their efforts, both then and now.
Not everyone felt that way. “Delaware might be the ‘First State,”‘ said Sgt. Lardizzone, a friendly voice on the phone at Dover Air Force Base who gave us miscellaneous bits of information. “But it’s last in the hearts of its countrymen.” Lardizzone told us the callers on a local talk show expressed no sympathy for the people of Jonestown. According to the base’s public information officer, Lt. Joe Saxon, the commanding officer received only two letters of support. The rest criticized the military for transporting the bodies. Several Members of Congress objected to the government financing the airlift. The outcry was so great that both the Justice and State Departments announced they would attempt to recover expenses from Temple assets. Responding to the announcement, the Arizona Republic editorialized:
We commend the attorney general to the task [of recovering money] with every effort bent toward recovering whatever he can on behalf of taxpayers who do not begrudge charity but are outraged by having to pay for the deranged behavior at Jonestown.
At the end of November 1978, the federal government claimed its Jonestown expenses ran to $9 million. When the Justice Department finally filed a civil suit against Peoples Temple in January 1979, the figure shrank by half, to $4.2 million. And in May 1979, the General Accounting Office calculated a cost of $4800 per body, or close to $4.4 million for the entire operation. At the time, the U.S. Agency for International Development picked up the tab. When the Justice Department suit finally concluded in May 1981, the judge awarded only $1.7 million, retaining the rest of the Temple’s assets for survivors and other claimants.
This doesn’t seem like too much to spend on “the proper and decent thing to do,” White House Press Secretary Jody Powell said of the airlift. In fact, the government could have done much more for the people who died in Jonestown. It could have followed routine forensic procedures to accurately determine how 900 people actually met their deaths. The fact that it didn’t shocked medical examiners across the country. “Once [the U.S. government] assumed responsibility,” said Cyril Wecht, the medical examiner for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, “the medical/legal work was inequitable, ridiculous, inadequate, and negligent.”
The President of the National Association of Medical Examiners, William Sturner, described the U.S. investigation as “badly botched,” and called the follow-up “chaotic.”
Family members will never know how their loved ones died and will be nagged for years by unanswered questions. Insurance claims and other matters of adjudication will be mired in doubt for years to come.
The United States government wronged the victims of Jonestown and their families when it removed the bodies from Guyana without making any tests at the scene of the crime. It wronged them, and us, when it took the bodies to Dover, Delaware. It wronged us when it embalmed the bodies before conducting postmortem examinations.
By failing to follow routine medico-legal procedures, the government raised questions about its own performance and motives regarding Peoples Temple. More important, however, it obscured the true cause of the deaths in Jonestown, irrevocably.
“All someone had to do was drain a little urine or blood through a needle, and not even do an autopsy,” Dr. Breitenecker said after the autopsies. “if it was worth the expense of several million dollars to fly the bodies back, maybe it would have been worth a needle to establish what happened.”