Did Government Assassins Own a Tractor?:
A Response to In Plain Sight

In the 2007 edition of the jonestown report, an article by Laurie Efrein Kahalas entitled “In Plain Sight!” puts forth the theory that the assassination of Congressman Leo J. Ryan was not perpetrated by members of Peoples Temple, but by the CIA. If true, it could potentially be more damaging to the United States Government than that of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the misleading Gulf of Tonkin incident or the faulty CIA intelligence presented by Colin Powell prior to the Iraq War. In the case of Jonestown, over 900 people, many of whom were children, were left dead that fateful November day 30 years ago, and the U.S. Government, she claims, was responsible.

Kahalas, a Jonestown survivor and researcher, has spent a lot of time investigating the deficiencies and gaps in the historical record regarding Peoples Temple, and she is not someone that could be considered to be an outsider. Much of her work does center on the conspiratorial fringe of the historical record which has caused some people to reject her work. This is a mistake. Her work is important because it tells an alternate tale to that of the official record. In fact, Kahalas’ now defunct website, Jonestown.com is presented in full on this website. It contains an amazing amount of research, in addition to some very difficult to explain details that would have otherwise been lost had it not been archived. Having read through Laurie Kahalas’ online work and her book Snake Dance, I must admit that she has a lot more experience and a deeper understanding than most researchers and historians on the issue, including myself, and she cannot be dismissed out of hand.

It is because of her intimate relationship with the issue and events that I took up Kahalas’ challenge to “just look” at the evidence. That is what I did.

In the 2007 printed edition of the jonestown report, Laurie Kahalas makes several points that appear to support her claim. Because of the brevity of the format in the printed version, Laurie Kahalas makes only a few points that most directly support her claim, and those – I assume – are the most convincing pieces of evidence. The main claim is that the assassins were not communards from Jonestown; the rest are supporting details. They are as follows:

  1. A New York TV station airs the full assassination that shows a military-style “hit” on the congressman. The footage disappears and Kahalas is stonewalled from obtaining the full footage.
  2. The tractor and trailer are not from Jonestown, but of “military vintage”.
  3. The eyewitness accounts were in error.

The first piece of evidence is difficult to verify. The claim that a New York TV station aired a clip of the assassins that was more complete, longer, and showed details previously unknown is difficult to substantiate. In Kahalas’ book, Snake Dance, she does mention the film was taken from the NBC news crew at the Port Kaituma airstrip and that it was aired during the “evening news.” The online version of the jonestown report states that it was aired on “WPIX-NY 10”.  The first detail to correct is that WPIX was channel 11 (their slogan was “11 Alive”) and it should not pass unnoticed that this is the first time a channel identification or station ID is mentioned. (In an ironic twist, the tower was atop the World Trade Center that collapsed after the attack on 9/11 and is now the focus of another major conspiracy.) Kahalas does not cite a reporter, nor does she provide a context in which the story was presented, except to say it was “at the time of the first anniversary.” Also important to note, if the film was of the same quality as the NBC footage, it would be impossible to make out identities without corroborating evidence. Since televisions in the early 1980’s were not high definition, a one-time viewing of a short and grainy clip of news footage may not be the best evidence. In addition, the first anniversary took place over a weekend and the big news story on Friday the 17th was the release of 13 American females by the Iranian Government during the hostage crisis. Jonestown may not have received lead-story status, so it may be worth pursuing a transcript of the whole story if the film was no longer available. Where I can agree with Kahalas is that if this film exists, it must be released. This is crucial not only to Kahalas’ case, but because of its historical significance. If on the other hand the film footage was that taken by NBC cameraman Bob Brown who was fatally shot at the airstrip – as Kahalas’ remarks in her book that it was – this film is available and segments of the assassination are available on Stanley Nelson’s documentary of Jonestown. In other words, it’s the same film footage that is commercially available.

However, what we see in these short snippets of the assassination film clearly confirms the official record.

Did this film show a military-style “hit” on Congressman Ryan? If we look at the available film, the answer is a resounding “no.” If they were U.S. military or highly trained assassins from the CIA, they must have forgotten everything they learned about stealth, camouflage, firearms use and selection, basic combat training, communications, escape and even the art of evasion. First, they were anything but stealthy as they drove up to the group in a bright red Massey-Ferguson 185 farm tractor. This particular piece of farm equipment is not quiet, so we may conclude that stealth was not a concern. For that matter, I am not aware of nor could I verify any military tractors that have ever been required to be stealthy. Tractors are not frontline, Special Forces load-out gear. We’ll get the specifics on the tractor a little later.

Still capture from NBC showing the MF-185 Tractor and trailer during the assassination. This photo is taken directly from the NBC news footage used in Stanley Nelson’s documentary. In this photograph, five members of the Temple can be seen on or around the tractor and the trailer. One member, in front of the tractor, has just fired his weapon and a cloud of light gray smoke is visible. The red Massey-Ferguson 185 tractor and the distinctive trailer are also visible. Upon closer inspection, the features of the tractor are clearly visible.
Still capture from NBC enlarged to show detail of the tractor. This image is that of the Jonestown tractor taken from the NBC news footage. It shows a few key points that were specific to the Jonestown tractor as noted on the diagram; the front weight box, 185-logo plate, and the attached rear wheel weights.

The assassins were wearing civilian clothes, not camouflage as might be expected of an elite military assault team. This could have helped them remain slightly anonymous since they decided to attack a national film crew, in broad daylight, on an open runway. The camouflage may have helped them blend into the jungle behind them while they were being filmed.

The weapons too are a cause for considerable doubt.  The guns used, according to the ballistics analysis done by the FBI, show that all the injuries were caused by single shot rifles or pistols that were commercially available. No military style semi-automatic or automatic weapons were used in the shooting. This was not a good selection for a highly trained assassination plot. Yet this was only the beginning.

Upon reviewing the footage, there are five or six figures visible during the shooting as captured by Bob Brown’s camera. Two of the assassins are clearly seen standing upright while firing long rifles. Both of these gunmen were standing completely exposed: one in front of the tractor while firing his weapon; the second just behind and to the right of the trailer. This error breaks a cardinal rule taught during basic combat training. Never stand in the open while firing your weapon because 1) Your aim will be lousy and 2) You become a very large target.

In addition to some basic combat training errors, there are no communication skills being employed. For example, we’ve all seen the war films where the American soldier crouches down without saying a word and gestures orders with his hands that his subordinates obey. This was not done. In fact, the assassins that jump from the back of the trailer pause momentarily as if confused and unsure where to go. There is no one directing them as would be expected from a professional military operation.

Furthermore, after the shooting, the assassins simply jump back onto the trailer and drive off towards Jonestown. They don’t linger long enough to collect the film which recorded their deed, nor do they kill the remaining survivors (including the pilot of the remaining aircraft) thereby leaving witnesses and a pilot with the skills to escape. Nor did they engage the Guyanese soldiers guarding the airstrip, the only other armed group that could have hindered their operation. Are we to assume they were a party to the assassination as well? Is Kahalas claiming the CIA paid local thugs to do their dirty work since that would have been the modus operandi of the CIA?  If so, where is the evidence for this?

The perpetrators did successfully escape, albeit at approximately 10 mile per hours down a dirt road; the tractor just drove off to Jonestown, a trip that probably took about an hour down an unimproved road. They had only two choices for escape, head off toward Jonestown (where they later returned to inform Jim Jones of their actions) or head toward the port. The tractor was later photographed by the FBI in Jonestown during the investigation into the assassination of Congressman Ryan.             

Kahalas’ claim that the assassins did not come from the Jonestown community, but rather from the CIA simply does not hold up to scrutiny. As evidence she cites Jim Jones’ own words. She notes that on several occasions on the Death Tape, Jim Jones tells the congregation that he did not “know who shot the congressman” and that he did not “order the shooting”. What Laurie fails to mention is that Jim Jones had already called a “White Night,” the term for a revolutionary-suicide because he knew the murder would bring more attention and further government involvement. In addition, Jim Jones says, “I know it’s going to happen” in reference to the attack on the pilots and the planes. Jones had contradicted himself in the same speech, an important detail to overlook if you are claiming Jim Jones was not involved in the death of Congressman Ryan. Did he “know” it was going to happen or didn’t he?  To use portions of Jim Jones’ final speech as evidence and while ignoring other quotes is simply cherry picking.

Another piece of Kahalas’ evidence is the tractor the assassins used to approach the Otter—the twin-engine aircraft—the Ryan party was preparing to board. Specifically, Kahalas’ claim that the tractor-trailer used in the assassination was “not from Jonestown” deserves a more detailed examination. She asserts the tractor was “a custom-designed military-vintage vehicle that was never up for public sale.” Additionally, she claims the tractor is a Massey-Ferguson 178 and that the news footage taken by NBC of the assassination agrees with this finding. Here again Laurie has failed to view the evidence. If Kahalas’ point is that the tractor was not from the Jonestown commune, then the photos should bear this out.

FBI photo of the Massey-Ferguson 185 tractor taken after the murder/suicides
FBI photo of the Massey-Ferguson 185 tractor taken before the murder/suicides

There are photos of the tractor in Jonestown before and after the assassination of Congressman Ryan. The tractor on the footage from NBC is actually a Massey-Ferguson 185. The same tractor found in Jonestown after the murders and photographed by the Federal Bureau of Investigations. In the photograph, the tractor has rear wheel weights that are used in thick mud to dig down into the soil in order to grip solid ground and a front weight box. These weights are also visible on the tractor used in the assassination of Leo Ryan. The two tractors have the same “license plate” number in each of the two photographs. The Massey-Ferguson 185 tractor in the color photo taken after the assassination has a tag number of 12434. The black-and-white photo taken before the suicides and the attack on Congressman Ryan has a tag number of 12434. The tractor is also the very same model, a Massey-Ferguson 185.

Is it possible there was another Massey-Ferguson 185 tractor hundreds of miles inside a dense Guyanese jungle that day? Statistically, the chances are slim. Is it possible that Jonestown had a similar looking Massey-Ferguson178? Yes, it is possible, but again, not likely. To add to the confusion, I did find one photograph in the FBI collection that shows what appear to be parts of a dismantled tractor at Jonestown after the assassination. Could this be a second tractor? Yes, but the photo is simply not clear enough to make anything other than an educated guess as to the type and origin the tractor. However, this still does not negate the film footage by NBC, rather only that Jonestown had parts for another tractor.

The conclusion then is that tractor seen in the NBC footage it is the same tractor seen in Jonestown, but before and after the assassination. The only noticeable difference between the photographs of the MF-185 tractor was the damage to one headlamp that had been broken off in the latter photo.

The focus on the tractor ignores the other half of the equation: the trailer. It is the trailer that was also seen in both the news footage and the earlier photos as well. The trailer was in numerous photos of Jonestown that were confiscated by the FBI, the same trailer used extensively during the construction period of the commune.

The claim that this was a military operation or that this was a special government model tractor are simply false. Massey-Ferguson did make a tractor that was used by the military during World War II. However, it was built under the Massey-Harris-Ferguson company. The 1940’s military version was designated the “I” series and had a run of approximately 500 tractors. These are now rare and occasionally available to the public through private sale. In addition, they look nothing like the tractors seen in Jonestown. Unlike the MF-185 tractors, the I-series tractor had a front end or cowling that was rounded, they did not have front wheel weights or weight boxes, they did not have front headlamps and they were painted olive drab. The conclusion then is that this was not a military tractor or special Government Issue equipment, but that the tractor used in the assault on Congressman Ryan was from Jonestown.

Lastly, the conspiracies promoted by Laurie Kahalas promulgate the impression that the United States government and/or the military were involved in the deaths at Jonestown, a claim uncorroborated by the evidence. The foundation for such a declaration is neither supported by the evidence, nor does not hold up to scrutiny. The application of assertions to explain an unknown does not constitute reliable proof of a theory. As an example, Jim Jones felt that the CIA, the FCC, and even the Ku Klux Klan were after him, but this does not make his claims true.

Laurie Kahalas has asked some interesting questions, and raised a few red flags. However, in this case they are misplaced and unsupported.  There are reasonable questions to be asked. However, without firm evidence to conclude complicity, it cannot be assumed or asserted. The State Department and the military may have been remiss in their duty to caution Congressman Ryan about the warnings they received regarding Jonestown, but that does not make them complicit.

 (Thanks to C. Razzano for assistance on this article. Chris Knight-Griffin’s two other articles in this edition of the jonestown report are Documents in Public Domain Beyond Reach of FOIA and Jonestown Conspiracies Revisited. He can be reached at jonestownresearch@hotmail.com.)