The extent of the U.S. Embassy’s contacts with the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Jonestown may never be fully known. Consular visits to the jungle community have been documented, and the Jonestown leadership fulfilled its responsibilities of informing the embassy of such events as the deaths of seven of its members over the lifespan of the project. Temple members working out of the Georgetown headquarters at Lamaha Gardens also documented some of their meetings with embassy officials. Nevertheless, there were almost certainly records of less formal conversations – telephone calls, casual meetings, chance encounters – which are lost.
One embassy official – Douglas Ellice from the Consular Office – recorded some of his telephone conversations from his home office with Temple staff member Sharon Amos at Lamaha Gardens, at least during the time of Congressman Leo Ryan’s visit, and two of those tapes have been released to Joey Dieckman, a Peoples Temple researcher who has studied Jonestown’s HAM radio communications.
The tapes, designated Q1289 and Q1290, reveal several interesting events. First, the embassy itself had little contact with Jonestown and relied on eavesdropping on the commune’s HAM radio transmissions and telephone calls over public telephone lines. Second, and more surprising, the embassy did not have direct communications with Congressman Ryan’s party during its time in Jonestown. Instead, they relied on communications with Jonestown’s radio operators and standard telephones calls made to and from various locations where people were stationed, such as Georgetown’s Timehri International airport. The radio operators in Jonestown, however, knew their HAM radio transmissions were being listened to and used codes both to thwart eavesdropping and to avoid FCC regulations prohibiting commercial use of amateur radio. Third, the recordings appear to be taken directly from Douglas Ellice’s home in Georgetown, probably his home office. Indications of this include the sound of children in the background, a housekeeper (or secretary) answering calls, and phone calls made from Ellice’s phone to the ambassador’s office. In addition, the only calls that are recorded are made to and from Douglas Ellice. Fourth, Ellice’s phone calls to the American Ambassador, John Burke, indicate that he was the point man for all communications within the embassy.
There is nothing in any of the recorded conversations to suggest anything other than passive monitoring was occurring during Ryan’s visit. In other words, this was a routine operation conducted by the State Department to monitor the activity of Congressman Ryan’s visit and to accommodate him, as protocol would dictate. This is exactly what we would expect the American embassy to do during the visit of any member of Congress visiting in a foreign country.
The first tape begins on Saturday afternoon, November 18, about the time that Congressman Leo Ryan was wrapping up his investigation of the Jonestown commune, and was due to head back to Port Kaituma to fly back to Georgetown. At approximately 2:00 pm, Sharon Amos made a request to the American embassy for an additional aircraft. The request was to help ferry out six persons wishing to leave Jonestown with the congressional delegation. Tape Q1289 documents not only Amos’ request, but also Ellis’ search for additional aircraft for just this purpose. The Otter aircraft – photographed after it was disabled on the Port Kaituma runway during the massacre – had a seating capacity of 18 people, but initial reports to the embassy staff indicated there were a total of 24 needing transport.
This number was off – the total number of “defectors” was sixteen, not six – and the additional Cessna, which the State Department had arranged, would not have been enough. Even on the next day, when news about the tragedy was beginning to trickle in, the number of people who were leaving with Congressman Ryan was still unclear, and was still being reported as “six to ten people” at the first State Department press conference. As the events of November 18 unfolded, it became obvious that the State Department was ill-informed, ill-advised and ill-prepared for what was happening on their watch.
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The existence of the so-called “death tape” came to light within a few days of the deaths, and of course, the NBC footage taken by slain cameraman Bob Brown played incessantly for days after November 18. The second tape released under FOIA, Q 1290, also seems to have recorded one aspect of the events that were unfolding in Jonestown.
A clue that something ominous was happening came in the form of a message sent from the radio room in Jonestown to the Temple offices at Lamaha Garden. Douglas Ellice had been listening to – and recording – the transmission that had been “in the clear all day” during Ryan’s visit to the settlement. Then the tone of the transmissions suddenly changed. They were now heavily coded. Realizing there was something amiss when only three people at the Temple office were asked to hear the message, Ellice called the Ambassador’s office, and asked Burke to write down a phase overheard from Jonestown. The message was, “A lot of people have seen Mr. Fraser, I think Mrs. Brownfield has offered to help.” FBI documents of the codes taken from Jonestown later revealed what the codes meant: “A lot of people have died. Do whatever you can to even the score.” The “score” was against the Concerned Relatives group that had prompted the investigation into allegations of abuse at Jonestown and against Tim Stoen who, with his former wife Grace, was involve in a child custody battle with Jim Jones over John Victor Stoen. Jones saw Stoen’s actions as the ultimate betrayal, and Stoen’s persistence had helped convince Congressman Ryan to go to Jonestown.
The next recorded phone call to Ellice was a report that the planes were still on the ground at Port Kaituma. Had the planes taken off, they would have notified the air traffic controllers in Georgetown of their destination and approximate arrival time. There is one account that the pilot of the Otter aircraft had made a report to Timehri International Airport air traffic controllers that an attack was underway. This latter message, however, was not relayed to Ellice. Nevertheless, with the limited information and a confusing code he does have, he rightly concludes, “There may be some sort of problem up there,” that the group has been asked to perform some action “at the airport” in Georgetown. He still does not know who is coming out of Jonestown. Later, Vice Consul T. Dennis Reece calls Ellice to inform him that Sharon Amos cannot get in touch with Jonestown. This call could be as late as 7:00pm, but since none of the recorded phone calls has a time-stamp, this may possibly be earlier in the evening, possibly between 6:30 and 6:45pm.
Whatever the time, Reece’s report was not true. Amos had been in touch with Jonestown via the HAM radio. She took another message, one which did not find its way onto the Ellice tapes, escorted her children to an upstairs bathroom at Lamaha Gardens, and killed them and herself, the only other victims besides those at the Port Kaituma airstrip and in Jonestown itself.
(Chris Knight-Griffin is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other articles in this year’s edition are The U.S. Military In Guyana: The Untold Story and What The Military Didn’t Do: Debunking One Conspiracy Theory. His previous articles are here. He may be reached at email@example.com.)