(Garrett Lambrev makes his home in Oakland, California where he continues to work part-time as a retired librarian and is revising a memoir, written in the immediate aftermath of what happened at Jonestown, Life Before the Final Punchline: A Memoir of Peoples Temple and Jim Jones. His complete collection of writings for the jonestown report may be found here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In the wake of my partner’s suicide last December, I’m once again face to face with death, burdened by physical possessions but with much less to lose than a quarter century ago, finally ready to turn my flashlight into the darkness and see what, if anything, moves. I simply have to take whatever risk there might be. It’s the least I can do for friends, enemies and strangers who died at Jonestown, ostensibly for the sake of a vision in which I believed passionately too.
It’s clear from reading transcripts of tapes made during Jonestown’s final months, that the man whom many of us had revered as God in the Body retained little grasp on reality and was absolutely terrified of losing power — whether to his followers, the CIA, the Soviet government, or death from physical illness. This raving madman seemed to be all that was left of the wise, charismatic and exemplary human I’d encountered in the spring of 1966, when I first arrived in Ukiah, freshly dropped out of a doctoral program in history at Stanford and the nascent student movement against the war in Vietnam for which I’d already committed civil disobedience and done time in jail.
The Jim Jones I first knew supported a “rainbow” family of mostly adopted kids by holding down a fulltime job as a sixth grade school teacher. It required a 60-mile commute each day over a tortuous mountain road that I came to know nearly as well, since I served as welfare worker for many of the families who had kids in his class. Grandparents of one student, who had no idea of my connection to Peoples Temple, praised Jim for protecting her right not to salute the US flag, an act of conscience which got him in hot water with local bigots and which briefly, at least, imperiled his job. He supplemented family and church resources by working two nights a week, teaching adult school classes in American History and Government in which I often participated. Even for one like myself, who had studied history since before I could read, these sessions served up miracles of insight that empowered students to interrogate social reality for themselves and prepared them to act like real citizens in a functioning democracy. Those able to hear and interact were every bit as blessed in that halcyon time as those whose bodies were saved from accident or healed of hideous disease.
The corrupting abuse of the absolute power that he demanded — and that we gave him — was more than evident when I left the final time, not so much unable to make the commitment as profoundly disillusioned, having fundamentally lost faith in someone whom I had thought would act like the reincarnation of Buddha and Jesus as well as of the Comrade Lenin he claimed to have been. A man who could order the brutal physical torture of my friend, Peter Wotherspoon, was no longer a moral giant, but a weakling and a coward afraid of surrendering power to his troops, the grassroots workers, us. The humble godman who could tell me my thoughts and read my heart had turned over the years into a paranoid political trapeze artist who would falsely accuse me in public of having sexual relations that I would like to have had with a friend but did not. During a White Night seven months before the end in Jonestown, Jim regaled his captive audience with a figment of wishful thinking, recorded on tape Q 639, to the effect that a “Diane” had encountered me coming through a revolving door (back in San Francisco?) and on the spot had summarily “beaten the shit” out of me. Thinking of my apocryphal humiliation, he claimed, had gotten him through one of the preparatory White Nights.
No doubt prolonged use of too many controlled substances had taken a hideous toll on mind and body; so also must the stress of having to provide for an extended family of at least a thousand — that included far too high a proportion of elders and kids — from a jungle that lacked nutrient-rich topsoil. What is more difficult to ascertain, particularly for one like me who left for good more than two years before the end, is the ultimate nature of the reality he and his self-exiled flock actually confronted.
Conventional wisdom may laugh contemptuously at the very notion of conspiracy. I want, nevertheless, to point out some of the multitude of pieces yet missing from what continues to puzzle me. In doing so, I have no desire to protect Jim Jones or, for that matter, any of the rest of us who consented as presumable adults from our fair shares of responsibility, but rather to raise questions akin to those that were raised after the untimely deaths of Malcolm X, the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr.
From my perspective, it’s time for catharsis again: too many questions remain unanswered. There is space here to include only a suggestive few in chronological order.
Where was CIA station chief Richard Dwyer on the evening of that fatal November 18th when Jim Jones ordered Temple security to “get him out of here”? I don’t know, of course, but somebody living must. If Dwyer was indeed present at the outset of the carnage, what were he (and presumable partners in crime) up to? If some of you who read this know, please don’t wait till you’re dead to testify.
Whose were the voices and footfalls on tape Q 875, made after the killing was over but before Guyanese forces had arrived?! Why was the tape made and by whom? Perhaps by some of the Green Berets reported by Soviet media as well as by Charles Huff of US Special Forces in Panama, who claimed in Freedom magazine that he was present as a participant and witness before the GDF had arrived. And yes, why was the tape left behind? I cordially invite whoever reads this to contribute to the ongoing detective work, pioneered by Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee at this website, and Laurie Efrein Kahalas at www.jonestown.com.
Why was it Congressman Leo Ryan, House sponsor of the only law ever passed by Congress to limit the power of the CIA, who got knocked off? Why did the Republican congressman from Nebraska who was supposed to have accompanied him to Jonestown decide at the last moment to stay behind? I find it curious that Ryan’s co?author, Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa, had been assaulted by the media over his alcoholism and defeated for re?election shortly after passage of the legislation bearing his and Ryan’s names. Was it mere accident, or purposeful coincidence, that the two legislators calling for the greatest oversight of the CIA were both denied further public service through underhanded means and assassination? Unlike too many other members of Congress, Hughes was at least in recovery. Ryan aide Joseph Holsinger long ago expressed his suspicion that there might be more here than what meets mass?mediated eyes.
Who made the decision to burn Jim’s body and disperse his ashes at sea? And why? Think of the submarine fate of too many of Argentina’s desparecidos, eliminated shortly thereafter by military intelligence trained in large part at the US Army’s School of the Americas. The formality of an “autopsy” notwithstanding, our corporate government didn’t behave as if it had nothing to hide.
Might the murders of Harvey Milk — who considered himself a member of Peoples Temple according to researcher, Michael Bellefountaine — and of Mayor Moscone have been carried out according to covert op plan? The hysteria that followed the mass murder at Jonestown provided considerable cover for the targeted killings that followed. Dan White’s acquittal on the murder charge precipitated only the last in a series of White Nights when outraged queers like myself rampaged down San Francisco’s Market Street to City Hall. White’s only excuse may have been that he was just following orders he’d been trained to carry out. I have no evidence of anything here, but the context continues to provoke questions that need to be answered, insofar as they can, by information that various agencies of the federal government continue to withhold. As a result of White’s apparent suicide shortly after his release from prison on parole, the opportunity for him to tell his whole truth — whatever that may be — no longer exists.
Who killed Deanna and Elmer Mertle (aka Jeannie and Al Mills), founders of Concerned Relatives, and the principal organizers of Ryan’s attempt to intervene, at their home in Berkeley more than two decades ago? Why did the media — even the alternative screeds in San Francisco and Berkeley — choose to forget about this case as soon as their 17-year-old son, Eddie, was arrested on what seemed to me trumped up charges? One of his friends at the time described him as “not violent. . . not even hostile. You can’t make Eddie mad.” Why did no media voice (with the possible exception of Berkeley’s now-defunct Independent Gazette) demonstrate the slightest curiosity when Eddie was subsequently released for lack of evidence and the search for the killer(s) was prematurely squelched? Despite the report of three men seen running from the bushes to the side of the Mertle property about the time of the murder, there was no follow up. If Daphene Mertle’s former boyfriend is still alive, I hope that he will talk until what he claims to have witnessed is finally taken seriously. Who was the woman or man he couldn’t quite see in the getaway car, which the witness described to an Independent Gazette reporter as a Pontiac? Did Berkeley Police Inspector Daniel Wolke, or anyone else in authority, ever bring in a police artist to draw a sketch based on the teenager’s description? If there was a hit squad at work, for whom was it really working?
What about Paula Neustel Adams, Jim’s top liaison with upper echelons of the Guyanese government, murdered in suburban Bethesda, Maryland in October 1983? Did her longtime companion, Laurence Mann, Guyana’s ambassador to the USA from 1975?81, really kill her, their child and then himself, as Montgomery County police conveniently alleged at the time? Mann’s brother?in?law who saw him the day before said everything was fine between the couple. We’ll probably never know. The media, particularly the Washington Post, failed to follow up the unproven allegation. Paula’s reputed role as provider of sexual services to Mann, a married man, cited in the House of Representatives report on Jonestown released May 15, 1979, must have invited a little curiosity from the intelligence services, if not from our supposedly free press.
Why was Walter Rodney, born and raised in Guyana, assassinated there December 13, 1980? His name may not be a household word in the USA, but this renowned academic, revolutionary organizer and author of such works such as How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is regarded around the world as perhaps the most distinguished Caribbean intellectual since Frantz Fanon. Though he’s rarely if ever associated with Peoples Temple, it’s also true that he returned to Guyana in 1974 — the same year that we broke ground in Jonestown — in order to liberate his homeland from the CIA — imposed tyranny of Forbes Burnham, and that he remained there until his martyr’s death, victim of a bomb-implanted walkie?talkie. According to former comrade Zinul Bacchus, those six years between 1974 and 1980, when Rodney tried to put his political theories to the test of practice, were the most productive and, according to Rodney himself, the most significant of his life. It’s hard, at least for me, to imagine Jim Jones not trying to connect with such a creature, busily engaged in the process of organizing the first real multi-racial party, the Working Peoples Alliance, in Guyana’s history. If they somehow failed to ignite, one can assume that Jim’s megalomania proved no match for Rodney’s judicious modesty. In either case, the likes of Rodney must have come to full attention after the events of November 18. If he had had any cause for suspicion that the official version of the story might be intended only to deceive, who can doubt that he would have mounted his own personal investigation? He’d long since been banned from a number of Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, thanks to pressure from the corporate sponsors of Uncle Sam, but they had not been able to keep him from returning to his homeland.
What’s this? Now Joe Mazor, the private detective hired by some of the Concerned Relatives to persuade folks to leave Jonestown, is shot dead. And by whom? By his wife, silly, who shot him to death in a crime of passion just a few years after his pals, the Mertles/Mills, got snuffed out. I think I see a pattern here. The significant decedent is always the recipient of an inside job. Nothing to worry about. If it’s not your Dad, it’s your child or your lover or your wife who will get you in the end, maybe your best friend; in any case, it’s always has to be only an individual, serving merely individual ends. Such, in any case, was the reported fate of a former Interpol agent who declared his ultimate ambition to serve as an impartial liaison between Jonestown and the media.
And what’s become of independent investigator Brian Csuk, reporting no more than three years ago in these very pages as well as from his ? His first and last article in the jonestown report (November, 1999) announced plans to upload as audio files 25 cassettes which he’d finally forced the FCC to release the year before. According to the jonestown report (November, 2000), his site disappeared from the web before he could achieve such a goal. Fortunately, the tapes themselves are extant and, for the moment, remain safe in the hands of the jonestown report‘s editors. To date, however, Fielding and Rebecca have not been able to contact Brian by email, snail mail or phone. Who still with access to power might have gotten worried about the trail he was following, desperately cold to most? If you’re still alive, Brian, please let us know.
While we’re all waiting, it might prove rewarding to be able to read The Jonestown Carnage: A CIA Crime, a tome by three Soviet authors first published in 1987 by Progress Publishers in Moscow, translated into English only recently. It remains to be seen, however, whether Amazon or Barnes and Noble — or, for that matter, any major distributor to bookstores or libraries — will accept such a potentially explosive item when it finally comes out. Unless the publisher is a major player, the book is unlikely to secure reviews sufficient to attract a critical mass of attention. What can this and another still-untranslated Russian book possibly tell us that we need to know? What’s in the Russian diplomatic and intelligence archives that could stir our curiosity for still bigger pieces of the puzzle?
Why does critical documentation remain inaccessible despite several decades of lawsuits under the FOIA? What is there to hide, folks? Maybe because I work as a public librarian, I won’t put up with government cataloguing systems designed to disguise whatever might be held. Would everybody concerned immediately hit the floor?
Jim Jones and Peoples Temple have to be regarded, not just in the context of cults, but also in the dynamic of a US imperialism and an ongoing Cold War in which 918 individuals might just have ended up as sacrificial victims. One ignores the ramifications of a seriously weighed exodus to the Soviet Union at the peril of missing the US government’s need to prevent potentially damning publicity. If indeed the CIA did intervene, it did not do so for the first time in tiny Guyana. The CIA had intervened to keep the Peoples Progressive Party, the indigenous pro-Moscow instrument, from winning the first general election of the newly independent nation.
Real inquiry with its surgical scalpel disturbs my own peace of mind too. In March 1977, Deanna Mertle/Jeannie Mills approached me on behalf of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and asked if I might be willing to talk to the same agent who had just interviewed her. After thinking over the invitation, I agreed to meet in the bureau’s San Francisco office on Market Street. The agent with whom I spoke at great length led me to believe that my testimony might contribute to their ability to prevent the mass exodus to Guyana of kids and other dependents not able to give informed consent. When we next met a month later, he asked me to join him for a walk around the block. Outside the building he informed me — off the record, of course — that the CIA, having just discovered the ATF’s fresh start, had subsumed it under a pre?existing long-term investigation. We shook hands and separated, never to meet again.
I certainly do not propose any final answers, or even final questions. But I do want to know before I die as much of the story as possible in order to put my own demons to rest and to salvage whatever meaning is to be found in the most extraordinary years of our lives when we thought we’d left the world of Plato’s cave and emerged into real light. One has to wonder what perhaps different meanings those who follow us will find implicit in the final punchline, the full impact of which at this time can only be surmised.