Many Questions Find Answers in Guyana

(Ed. Note: In the 2001 edition of the jonestown report, we published a commentary on the disappearance of U.S. government records related to Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Whether through destruction of seemingly-outdated records, or through attaching internal agency reference numbers which requesters have no way of learning, thousands of pages are no longer accessible. Our article elicited this response from Jim Hougan, a writer and documentarian who has extensively researched Jonestown’s connection with U.S. intelligence agencies.)

When I read the last issue of the jonestown report, I was struck by how many official records have been expunged or “lost” — and I use the quotation marks intentionally. It is astonishing to me that so many, and such important, records can have gone missing. To the records once held by the U.S. government that have disappeared, though, you should add all of Guyana’s official records of the Jonestown affair which went up in flames in a sort of Reichstag fire that imposed institutional amnesia on the country. To this loss, one must also add the trove of video and documentary materials that the FBI confiscated, and then returned to the State Department — which claims to have lost them.

Clearly, an effort has been made — is being made — to conceal some aspect or aspects of the story. That may sound paranoid to some, but it’s also indisputable: Guyanese officials were convicted of arson in the fire that destroyed Temple records. So it isn’t a question, really, of whether or not an effort has been made to suppress certain aspects of the story. We can establish that. The question is: how extensive have these efforts been? Who is involved? Is it just the Guyanese, or are there others who have acted to conceal the truth? And what, in particular, are they seeking to conceal? It is possible (even likely) that the Guyanese were trying to eliminate evidence of bribes paid by the Peoples Temple to various government officials. It is also possible that there is more involved.

A coherent effort should be made somehow to acquire and protect the records in Georgetown which remain intact. I’m thinking particularly of the notes and files of the late Doctor Leslie Mootoo relating to the post-mortem examinations he conducted on numerous — albeit by no means all — of the Jonestown dead. As it now stands, Mootoo’s account of what he learned at Jonestown is known only through contemporaneous newspaper stories. It would be much better to have a draft of the speech or speeches that he gave on the matter before groups of forensic scientists. I am one of those who is convinced that Dr. Mootoo’s evidence is the best evidence of what happened at Jonestown. While his examinations were necessarily “cursory,” they were also the most timely and extensive. No one else conducted anything like the number of examinations that Mootoo did, and no one else seems to have conducted more thorough examinations.

The exception to this might seem to be the relatively few autopsies that were carried out in the U.S. In all, there were seven of these, and in every case the “manner of death” was undetermined, while the “cause of death” could only be inferred in most of the cases. The one exception was Jim Jones himself. It was established that his death was caused by a gunshot wound to the temple. Annie Moore was also a gunshot victim, but doctors were unable to determine if the wound was suffered before or after she’d been poisoned. Lethal levels of cyanide were found in her muscle tissue. Accordingly, Annie’s death was attributed to two causes: cyanide poisoning and a bullet wound.

That the cause of death could only be inferred in six of the seven autopsies was due to two circumstances: first, cyanide breaks down rather quickly; second, the autopsied bodies had been embalmed prior to examination in the U.S. That means that the forensic pathologists in the U.S. relied on military and newspaper accounts of the scene at Jonestown, concluding on the basis of circumstantial evidence that the victims had died of cyanide poisoning. Which they certainly did.

The problem is, of course, the inferences should have been based upon the findings of the medical doctor on the scene, not the observations of untrained reporters and military officers. Indeed, Dr. Mootoo’s findings should be considered — and in my opinion, deservedly are — more authoritative than even the autopsies. And Mootoo, of course, is significant for his conclusion that most of the people at Jonestown were murdered with cyanide, that is, they were poisoned by others or forced to poison themselves.

Clearly, this is a pivotal issue in our understanding of Jonestown. Unless and until the matter is cleared up, the affair will necessarily remain an enigma. The prevailing point of view — which deliberately belittles the evidence presented by Dr. Mootoo — would seem to be that 900 fanatics killed themselves and their children because they were ordered to do so by a charismatic personality. To me, that’s like saying the Jews “committed suicide” at Auschwitz because they went “willingly” (which is to say, under their own locomotion) to the gas-chambers.

Having said that, I of course concede that some, and perhaps many, did in fact “commit suicide” at Jonestown. But I suspect that even more were coerced into their deaths. According to Tim Carter and Stanley Clayton, among others, the cordon of armed guards around Jonestown was facing inward during the White Night episode. In other words, they were keeping people in, not out.

Why this has not been more widely acknowledged is a mystery. I suspect it has to do with the many, and very different, equities that various people and institutions have in the event. For whatever reason, and despite so much evidence to the contrary, most of the media continue to insist that members of the Peoples Temple committed collective suicide — and collective murder of their loved ones — for no other reason than that the boss told them to. It’s a strange paradigm that demeans the many who seem to have resisted (as evidenced by the needle-marks in the backs of their shoulders) — and one can only wonder whose interests that paradigm serves.