Anyone who has spent any time researching the so-called “death tape” from Jonestown – Q 042 in the FBI’s numbering system – knows that there are numerous versions of the transcript around. This website alone has four complete ones and several excerpts from different writers, and no two are alike. This is due to numerous factors, including the quality of the recording, the numerous voices struggling to be heard, the innumerable edits, and – of course – the chaos of the day, the screams and cries of the dying, the overriding efforts of Jim Jones to keep an uncontrollable madness under control.
As a result, everyone hears different things on the death tape. And sometimes, someone believes they hear something new, something that offers a previously-unknown (and unconsidered) piece of information that helps us to have a more complete picture of the day.
When I first started to review the tapes from Jonestown, I was mostly concerned with two tapes Q042 and Q875, the death tape and post mortem tape respectively. I began this exploration in order to find out what really happened at the very end and who was the first to arrive in Jonestown after the “revolutionary suicide.” I believe I have made discoveries on each that rely upon each other for corroboration. My companion piece on Q 875 is here.
We know that Leo Ryan was murdered at the Port Kaituma airfield by members of Peoples Temple who arrived on a tractor-drawn trailer shortly after the congressional party did. That means the “Red Brigade” probably also left Jonestown shortly after Ryan did. Although Jonestown is about six miles from Port Kaituma, it was a bone-rattling six miles: 1) the roads are unimproved and rough, 2) a storm that day had turned the dirt to mud, and 3) the assassins were traveling by tractor-trailer, which is slower than a four-by-four vehicle. Due to conditions, it is agreed by both survivors and researchers that the trip between Jonestown and Port Kaituma would have taken approximately 40 minutes.
Jim Jones called the residents to the pavilion shortly after Ryan left Jonestown. Approximately an hour passed while Jones spoke with his inner circle. When he began speaking to Jonestown residents on the death tape, then, it was too soon for the assassins to have returned from their mission. Given the time frame, though, it was also likely the men on the tractor-trailer would have been en route back to Jonestown when the tape began recording.
Then, 25 minutes and 22 seconds into the tape, a quiet voice speaks, so quiet that the words are missing from every transcript. It is the voice of a Peoples Temple member telling Jones: “Wesley told me there were two GDF not to–” After this reference to the Guyana Defense Force, the tape then cuts off, only to return with Jones’ voice: “They saw what happened and ran into the bush and dropped their machine guns, never in my life, but there’ll be more– You got to move. Are you going to get that medication here? You got to move! Marceline? You got 40 minutes.”
Jones’ words do appear in the transcripts, but without the quiet contextual remark, they do not make sense or – worse – they feed into conspiracy theories that the guards at Jonestown were armed with automatic weapons. The “they” in Jones’ reply refers, not to anyone in Jonestown, but to the GDF. In fact, it places both the assassins and the GDF at the Port Kaituma airstrip, and confirms the GDF account of what they did, and what the men on the tractor-trailer observed.
I believe that the “Wesley” in question is Wesley Karl Breidenbach. Wesley was known to be a member of the security team, and one of his jobs in Jonestown was that that of a tractor driver. He was also identified by survivors of the Port Kaituma shootings as one of those who committed the murders there. Witness testimony also tells us that there was at least one GDF member there as well as a handful of police. The shooters on the tractor-trailer motioned the Guyanese out of harm’s way before firing, according to the Guyanese themselves, and the men did so. Later they said their decision to run for shelter and save their own lives at Port Kaituma was based upon their belief that this was a dispute “between Americans.”
And then what follows leads us to Q 875…
These men who ran away would have gone immediately to report this incident, either to their superiors in Port Kaituma or via radio. Given the nature of the situation – the number of armed men, the fact they were American, the political aspects of the relationship between Guyana and Jonestown, etc. – it is more likely the GDF would have responded than the police, and in fact, the first Guyanese to arrive in Jonestown – on Sunday, November 19 – were GDF. But Jones didn’t know they would wait that long.
The nearest GDF command was not in Port Kaituma, but in Matthews Ridge, 30 miles from Jonestown. The same roads, the same storm would have affect the travel time for the GDF as it did for the assassins. Just as it was 45 minutes from Jonestown to Port Kaituma, so it was at least 90 minutes between Matthews Ridge and Jonestown. Assuming – as Jones likely did – that the GDF in Matthews Ridge would hear about the shootings at Port Kaituma almost immediately, and that it would have dispatched troops immediately, the Temple leader may have believed he had less than an hour to finish his task. That leads to his half of the exchange with the quiet-voiced speaker. And when he states “Marceline, you got 40 minutes,” this means he believes that anyone not dosed with poison within 40 minutes may be alive when the GDF arrives.
Jones’ fear is that the GDF (not the CIA or Green Berets) will be entering the camp.
Q 042 therefore establishes the time constraints Jones felt he was under, the urgency with which he had to act. It also acknowledges that he realizes the GDF will be the first people in from the outside, even if he is wrong about the timing of their arrival. Finally, as discussed at greater length in my companion piece, it also makes it much more likely that Q 875 – made by whoever was in Jonestown on November 19 – was made by the GDF.
(Jason Schwechter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)