Peoples Temple Was Not a “Cult of Assassins”

As many readers may already know, I’ve been among the most vocal of the Peoples Temple survivors. Most, however, do not appear to know: I was never in Guyana; I have never hurt anyone (I mean, in my entire life); I was so aware of abusive patterns with Jim Jones, that I wrote in my book, Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown, that “I would not put up with for seven minutes now, what I put up with for seven years then.”

I have great compassion for all other survivors who endured this unendurable life experience, if only because I am one myself. I wept as hard and long over the tragedy as anyone, with the respectful and heartfelt exception of people who lost their children or other dear relatives, but survived themselves.

I am also notably both sane and rational, and have and will respond to any challenges by way of verifiable facts. Moreover, unlike various other key figures, I have never lied; and although I fully understand the horrendous nature of what happened, I have worked to dissemble the countless smears mixed in with the facts, and to uncover facts that are so conspicuously missing.

We are not frozen in time. Only smears seem to remain the same; people don’t. Moreover, facts don’t change on account of smears, but smears can block out the facts, and even the mental, emotional, even physical access to the facts. But people can change their minds at any time, and learn to discern the difference between lies and truth, and between smears and facts.

Because of what I knew first-hand in 1978, and because of ensuing research that I did, I found myself in a position of historical responsibility. And one facet of that, to which this article is addressed, is refuting the common assertion that Peoples Temple was somehow “a cult of assassins,” i.e., the mythical package of, “bizarre murder/suicide ritual,” complete with “Jim Jones ordered this, Jim Jones ordered that.” That Jim Jones ordered up the whole menu of horrors, and there was no one else with any say in the entire cataclysm.

That is not true. It has never been true.

First witness the attached U.S. government-generated log of events the night of November 18-19, 1978:

U.S. government-generated log of events the night of November 18-19, 1978

In other words, the CIA was reporting directly from Jonestown at 3:29 a.m. No one else was on the scene. Even the Army MEDEVAC plane to attend to the wounded at the airstrip did not leave from Charleston, South Carolina – on the East Coast of the U.S. – until 3:04 a.m. and did not arrive in Guyana until 7:55 a.m.!!

So where did the soldiers who radioed in the deaths at Jonestown over NOIWON, the CIA radio band, come from? The sky? This was a remote jungle location. There were no other planes at the Port Kaituma airstrip but those meant to transport the congressman and his party. So.. yes, my incredulous readers, they were already there!

How could that be? Well, as I have been saying for many years now, complete with evidentiary details, it was not members of Peoples Temple who assassinated the congressman at all. Rather, it was a highly-trained, brutal, professional-military hit team, sent by the CIA.

I saw the actual film of the assassination a year later, on the evening of November 17, 1979, on WPIX-NY, before it was confiscated. (Now even NBC Burbank, the network of Bob Brown, the photojournalist who was killed during the filming, claims not to have the film anymore.) And I read all the early news reports. They were so highly professional, that they shot out the tires of the plane before advancing forward, with cracker-jack shots at a distance. Then they advanced forward in a symmetrical “squad diamond formation” (as identified for me by an Army veteran). After the initial shooting, they advanced towards one body (presumably the congressman) to be sure he was dead. “Mission accomplished.” Then what did they do? Ride off in a Temple truck? No. As eyewitnesses said, “They fled into the bush.”

Oh, “they fled into the bush”? And then where did they go? Did they disappear into the cornfields of Iowa, like in Field of Dreams? And then miraculously re-materialize at 3 a.m. at the scene of mass death? And now, twenty-six years later, everyone is still so shocked and traumatized, that there is no possible way to connect the dots? Well, what about fifty years later, or a hundred years later? Does it just become a discarded jigsaw puzzle that someone throws into the local landfill?

Congress had the chance to investigate the truth back then, but they did little other than to whitewash the tragedy. I personally confirmed with them all the way back in January 1979, that the “positive eyewitness identifications” of the alleged “eight Temple assassins” came from defector Jim Cobb, who was not only suing the Temple for a million dollars with a bogus lawsuit at the time, but who also told the press that he was on the other side of the plane when the shooting began, then headed in the other direction into the jungle! You know, the “eyes in the back of one’s head” kind of identification.

Let’s look further. It turns out that both Congressman Leo Ryan and Annie Moore, a young nurse at Jonestown, were killed by dum-dum bullets (which the community surely did not have at Jonestown), which moreover were believed to have come from the same gun. And even though Moore’s body was autopsied, it – along with the other six bodies selected for autopsies, indeed, all the bodies of Jonestown – was embalmed prior to autopsy, making a test for poison impossible. Not so much as a drop of blood or urine to confirm the type of poisoning, or whether poisoning existed alongside of gunshot wounds.

But then again, how could they? What if a body was both poisoned and shot? Did Annie first poison herself, then shoot herself through the head, or vice versa?

Then there was the matter of the coroner’s report. They cordoned Jonestown off – Jonestown to the CIA, Port Kaituma to the MEDEVAC team (i.e. Army) – and although just seven miles apart, never the twain would meet. Ah, but when Leslie Mootoo, the Guyanese coroner, was finally let into Jonestown on Monday, November 20th, he apparently deduced that hundreds in the community had been forcibly injected with poison, not just from behind, but in exactly the same spot between the shoulder blades! Nurses running amok, he speculated. Temple nurses pursuing the unwilling towards the jungle and forcibly, expertly, injecting “hundreds” of community member in exactly the same part of the back.

I suppose that that must mean that the Temple nurses and the Temple security team were trained together: you know, the bumbling, uncoordinated “Temple gunmen” practicing to shoot out the tires of an airplane with a single shot from a distance, and Temple nurses trained to shoot hypodermic needles right between the shoulder blades of their fleeing relatives and friends.

And what about the story that Jonestown was “an armed camp”? Well, according to both Guyanese and American authorities, no more than 40 weapons, mostly small arms were discovered in Jonestown, to defend a community some 1,200 people. “Armed camp”? They were completely defenseless! In a remote jungle setting, without even a phone, and no viable route of escape, they were cut off, isolated. Defenseless.

Can anyone say “sitting ducks”? All the more so with the publication of the mass suicide threat at an earlier time. Do anything to these people and call it “suicide.” Who cares? A thousand far-left-wing socialists, the majority of them black, making friends with Castro’s Cuba and about to re-relocate to the then-Soviet Union. Who cares? A key conspirator, Joseph Mazor, got right on TV within days after the tragedy when he announced that “It was believed that Jim Jones would become a major political force in the Caribbean within five years.” And who exactly, provided him with that.. intelligence assessment? Who cared? It was a blip on the screen, then gone.

And who reported it when the same man, Joseph Mazor (who can be traced from ex-con, to police informer, to FBI asset, to Interpol), came just two months prior to the tragedy, to “claim credit” for the snipers against the community in September 1977, to announce that the real plan had been “mass extermination,” to drive an already-dangerously-destabilized Jim Jones over the edge deliberately?

Who cares, anyway? “Cult.” “Armed camp.” “Slave labor conditions.” “Hitler.” “Brainwashed.”

But let’s backtrack to the airstrip again. The congressman is dead, and the CIA has soldiers in the bush. They do nothing to stop the suicides, but emerge following the deaths at 3 a.m. in the morning. Not only does the official log confirm their presence at Jonestown then, but there was a eyewitness. Stanley Clayton, having escaped the suicide ritual, watched from the bush and reported what he witnessed to the Matthews Ridge Grand Jury shortly thereafter. And yes, as reported in an article from The New York Times, he also heard gunshots after everyone was already dead. Shooting people who were already poisoned? Well, at least that solves the no-autopsy mystery.

Then a) no one but the CIA gets into Jonestown but them until a day and a half later, only to find mass injections to “prove” that the community went to their deaths by brutal force? So that someone as brutal as Jim Jones had to have also been responsible for (i.e., “ordered”) the assassination of Congressman Leo Ryan? And b) gee, the wounded at Port Kaituma sure could have used military help before 8 a.m.! This was all of seven miles down the road. And CIA soldiers were cordoning off a death scene rather than aiding the still-living whose lives were in the balance?

Is it really that much of a leap to conclude that at the very least, the CIA didn’t care about the wounded at the assassination scene? Much less care about the deaths at Jonestown? Is it really that much to consider that, well, maybe they just didn’t care who died, so long as their archenemy, Leo Ryan, was made the sacrificial lamb, and Jim Jones and his flock would never live to relocate to Russia during the Cold War (a plan that was well in the works by that date)?

It was a classic “kill two birds with one stone”: Leo Ryan and Jim Jones. And one of the “birds” was already suicidal, making their task all the easier. Easier? Easier than what? Well, why did they give “three cheers” upon entering the scene of mass death, according to the only eyewitness at the time? How could coming upon such a horrifying scene mean relief? What were they there to do? We already know they were not there to “save” anybody, either at Jonestown or Port Kaituma, so what were they there to do?

And although we know now that the CIA had soldiers in the area while it was all happening, why is it that the press was never given the body count for several days? And why is it that an Army MEDEVAC plane transported bodies out of Port Kaituma the very next morning, but no one came for the bodies at Jonestown until many days later? Were 900 dead Americans not a priority? What was more important: (1) to remove the bodies; do autopsies; and contact relatives; or: (2) to cordon off Jonestown so no one else even got in for 36 hours, misreport the number of dead; and inject hundreds of bodies in exactly the same spot in the back to confirm the “slaughter”, so that no one would question who was responsible for the assassination of Congressman Ryan?

And what about the congressman? Jim Jones wasn’t the whole picture by far. The enmity between Congressman Leo Ryan and the CIA was well-known (note: though not to Jim Jones. It was not researched at the time.) Ryan co-authored the Hughes-Ryan Act of 1974, requiring the CIA to report classified information to Congress. And he was looking into even more- such as CIA involvement in domestic matters, which was supposed to be prohibited by law – at the time he was killed. And certainly Ryan’s aides knew of Ryan’s anti-CIA investigative bent.

So what happened within a few weeks of the tragedy? A reporter from a paper, The Chicago Defender, nailed down Joe Holsinger, a close Ryan aide, to divert him with a story that Philip Blakey, the mild-mannered Brit who dutifully paddled necessary supplies up and down the river to Jonestown, was really a secret agent for the CIA, one who recruited mercenaries for the CIA in Angola in 1975. When the community was barely established. When Philip’s services were continually needed in that one task.

A trivia quiz here? Hardly! It just so happened that the CIA involvement in Angola was the very first anti-CIA campaign of the crusading Congressman Ryan! What a great way to snag, disinform, and neutralize a key Ryan aide! The story about Philip Blakey was preposterous. But Joe Holsinger might indeed rush to assume that “the CIA did it,” so clear was the enmity between Leo Ryan and the CIA. So why have the real culprit, the CIA, investigated, when key aides like Holsinger could be misdirected to nail Jim Jones as “the CIA culprit”?

Brilliant, yes? Well, in a way. Holsinger wound up rounding up all the Ryan children to sue the federal government over the lie that Peoples Temple was really a CIA front! But in another way, with historical perspective, it was not only “brilliant,” it was also stupidly obvious. Why go to all that trouble when “everyone knows that Jim Jones ordered the assassination of Congressman Ryan”? Why bother to disinform, if this was just “obvious”? Blared in newspapers all over the world. Does thinking even occur to people in the blare of headlines? And can we finally replace lies with facts now?

This is the thing. Jim Jones was dangerously destabilized and had way too much power over peaceful innocents by the time of the tragedy. Were the whole thing to (God forbid) happen all over again, personally I would opt for (and would only opt for) Gandhi. But nevertheless, that community was physically endangered, repeatedly and provably, long before the arrival of that dreadful day. By the repeated mercenary threats alone, the last known one being made by Timothy Stoen directly to the State Department on October 3, 1978, to “rescue my son,” a child that scores of people (including Tim Stoen, the child’s mother, Grace, and even me, who heard this discussed openly and repeatedly by these two!) knew was in fact the son of Jim Jones. Even key reporters knew it. Even the leaders of the anti-Temple crusade knew it. Apparently everyone knew it.

Everyone, that is, except Congressman Ryan. There’s a letter from him. He was going to Guyana “to retrieve Tim Stoen’s son.” So he didn’t know it at all. Why not? Well, why tell the sacrificial lamb the truth? Then he might not make the trip.

Tim Stoen also told a Temple member sent back to the States near the last to pretend-defect, that he was “counting on Jim to overreact,” and that Jonestown would be “destroyed.” Tim Stoen, who, as the top Temple attorney, co-authored the ghastly mass suicide “option” in the first place. Why could Mr. Stoen possibly have meant by “overreact”? And under what circumstances could he “count on it”?

This isn’t speculation – not any of it. This was reality in November of 1978. That that community was not safe to survive anyway.

But lest anyone doubt where I stand on this, I will say it outright: You face death together if need be, and protect the most defenseless as best you can. You save as many people as you can. You don’t do it to yourselves. And you sure don’t do it to your kids.

Am I saying that everyone would have been dead anyway? No, of course not. And God knows, for a single child to have survived would have been the greatest blessing in the world for that child’s mother, and that can never be diminished for any reason.

But I would daresay that in any case, Jonestown was no place of safety that night, Jim Jones or no. Even covering up the truth about an assassination would require killing people. And no one has ever even looked at that, or listened, or considered what terrible pressures that community was under even without the suffocating influence of Jim Jones.

And why really? Who would want to harm them? They were peaceful, they had built a beautiful community, they took joy in their breakaway from oppressive conditions in the United States. They were lavishly praised by visitors, which of course we would know if the guest book had not been confiscated (though many notations do remain). And there were no minor children there without legal consent – even that of Tim and Grace Stoen! (Or why were they going to court to nullify their legal consent if they had not given it?)

There was no viable reason to ever threaten these people’s lives! Yet they were threatened – heavily and provably.

So why? Because of their politics, their racial and economic equality, their defiance of the rules of the Cold War, their international breakaway. I know. I oversaw the record. You can lie and smear and cover-up to others, but you cannot do it to me.

And who has ever been brought to account for that? I can name two, six, ten or more key figures who smeared Peoples Temple and Jonestown for a whole year and a half prior to the tragedy, and no one has ever considered them anything but “heroes and heroines,” even though some of them were transparently government agents (indeed Elmer and Deanna Mertle a/k/a Jeannie and Al Mills got themselves killed over it – but not by Peoples Temple.) But no one questions, no one believes anything contrary to what was reported by the media.

But what is most interesting, is that all of this is facts – there is evidence. “Conspiracy theories,” you say? No, that’s not it at all. These are facts. So is one piece of evidence really worth less than a thousand lies and smears? What about ten pieces of evidence, or twenty, or fifty, or more? And what of the evidence that was confiscated, like the on-site filming of the assassination by NBC cameraman Bob Brown? Nowhere to be found. Nowhere. I know. I’ve looked. It’s as available for the viewing as John F. Kennedy’s brain.

I also know the dark side, the unbearable facts for those who this all hurt the most. I know from the depths of my soul what the worse of it was: hundreds of dead children. No one wants to look any further than hundreds of dead children, especially you can blame Jim Jones and be done with it. End of story. But is it? I spoke up earlier than anyone following the tragedy, but when it got to the subject of the dead children, I was so choked up, I could barely speak at all. So I know. But I also know that the CIA, who sent the soldiers into the bush, thought that those children were “expendable” to politics. They thought hundreds of dead children was fine and good. So they certainly were not people for history to give “a free pass.”

Finally consider the whole of what happened, and its vast lessons for the culture, even today. Rip away the plastic screen and look at all of it. Don’t say, I can’t stand this, I can’t look at that, I’m convinced so don’t try to persuade me with the facts. These were people – real, live, sentient people, and so many of them, wonderful people. Don’t blame them for their own plight when you, and the rest of the world, truly do not know the half of it. The half I have tried to tell because, if only by some quirk of fate, I know what that “other half” is, and can prove it.

Their plight was actually more desperate than ever acknowledged publicly, even past their endangerment by Jim Jones. They were people caught in a vice from pressures from both within and without. For which one must empathize, and love those people even in death, and give them that redemption that secret government destroyers and a corporate press never would.

And the redemption of their plight has lessons for us now as well, that we have been slow to recognize. In its own way, Jonestown was a magnificent breakaway for people who largely had no hope here. And why they were not just left to live in peace goes way beyond whatever anyone knows of, or thinks of, Jim Jones. It is also a story of bravery and determination, and how a crushing boot beyond the power of Jim Jones or anyone else at Jonestown to ward off, landed on those people’s heads just because of their politics, their racial and economic equality, their defiance of the rules of the Cold War, their international breakaway.

So should we start now at the end of that dreadful day, at how those CIA soldiers wound up in Jonestown radioing in their report of mass death at 3:39 a.m. that very morning? It’s as good a place as any. Just don’t close down your minds. Look. The evidence, the facts, are still there.

(Laurie Efrein Kahalas, a long-time Temple member and author of Snake Dance, created the website which now appears on this site here. Her previous articles for the jonestown report are here. She can be reached through