The Ghosts of November:
Chapter Two – Death in the Tropics

“Every major horror in history was created in the name of an altruistic motive.”

Ayn Rand

I spent 20 years in the US Army and I cannot recall a congressman or senator ever being killed in the line of duty. Presidents, yes, even one during my life time. Federal Judges have been assassinated, one in San Antonio, where I once lived. I believe this was the first congressman to be assassinated in office and it was a sad and scary time for America.

The fact that it happened in an avowed Marxist country in South America, Guyana, was disturbing to me. It was already known the poor backwater nation relied on Cubans to run its infrastructure. Doctors and other medical personnel from Cuba were assigned to its hospitals. I wondered if the Cubans had anything to do with this killing. No one I worked with or knew ever even heard of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple.

Congressman Leo J. Ryan was born in Lincoln, Nebraska on May 5, 1925. Before being elected to the United States Congress in 1973, Ryan had been a California state assemblyman for ten years and was mayor of San Francisco in 1962.

Ryan’s friends and enemies alike agreed he was brash and flamboyant. He was not afraid of a fight and spent much of his political life drawing attention to and trying to correct social abuses. After the Watts riots in 1965, Ryan, then a state legislator, went there and became a substitute teacher to investigate conditions in the black community. Because he wanted to be totally anonymous, he assumed a false identity.[1]

In 1970, Ryan again went undercover with a different name and had himself sent to Folsom Prison to discover what life there really was like. In 1978, Ryan planned to go undercover as a Postal Service employee during the Christmas season to investigate complaints of bad working conditions.[2] Ryan did not live to see Christmas 1978.

By late 1977, Congressman Ryan had received dozens of unbelievable reports from constituents concerning the bizarre behavior of Reverend Jim Jones and the strange goings-on in Peoples Temple. Unfavorable magazine articles had been published about Jones and he was in a custody battle over a six-year-old boy he claimed was his son.[3] Most members of the church’s congregation had moved to Jonestown, Guyana. By June 1977, Jones had left the United States for the refuge he hoped would be provided for him in the isolated commune his followers had built in the jungle.[4]

By the fall of 1978, defectors from Peoples Temple and Jones’ detractors were deluging Ryan with requests for action. Charges were made that Americans were being held against their will in Jonestown. Reports of terrible conditions abounded, making it impossible for Congressman Ryan to ignore the desperate pleas of his constituents.[5]

In November 1978, Ryan organized a trip to Guyana.[6] His entourage included a small group of journalists and a few concerned relatives of Peoples Temple members who were living in Jonestown.

These were the enemies most hated by Jones and his faithful followers: the dissident family members who had maligned him and his organization, the evil American press that had so willingly spread the lies of the defectors, and the biggest evil of all, the United States government in the form of a cocky and self-important congressman who seemed to enjoy making headlines.[7]

At first, Jones steadfastly refused permission for the Congressman’s group to enter Jonestown. Peoples Temple members living there had written to Ryan, begging him not to visit because they felt sure he was intent upon destroying their way of life. Ryan refused to back down or be dissuaded, and Jones very reluctantly finally agreed to a short visit.[8]

Congressman Ryan’s party arrived in Jonestown late in the afternoon on November 17, 1978. During several meetings, they heard most residents praising conditions in the commune and expressing their desire to remain there.[9] However, on the second day of the visit, some newsmen found living quarters that were full of senior citizens lying in beds set up two or three inches from one another.[10] The media representatives were denied access to the other cottages they asked to visit, instead being led to accommodations that had been prepared for their inspection prior to their arrival.

The discovery of the poor living conditions led to other revelations. Notes were slipped to the congressman and members of his party by residents of Jonestown who desired to be taken to the United States. November 18 was not a good day for Jim Jones. His dreams were turning into nightmares. Sixteen residents of Jonestown had expressed a desire to leave Guyana. More overcrowded conditions were discovered by nosy newsmen.

As the visit neared the end, NBC news reporter, Don Harris, upset Jones as he asked incessant questions about guns, mind control, physical punishment and controlling recalcitrant residents with drugs.[11] It must have been obvious to the embattled cult leader that some of the other residents of Jonestown were talking about things he did not want the world to know.

Tensions continued to mount. As the 16 dissident residents prepared to leave, one of Jones’ most trusted lieutenants, Don Sly, grabbed Congressman Ryan from the back and held a knife to his neck.[12]

“Goddamn it motherfucker, you are not going to…” Sly started to shout as he was tackled by Mark Lane and Charles Garry, lawyers for the Temple, and others. Ryan was slightly wounded during the incident, as was Sly.[13]

Despite the altercation, Ryan told Jones his report would be a positive one. He said he had not seen any coercion being used to keep people in Jonestown.[14] As the Ryan party left for the airstrip, a black pall hung over Jonestown. One woman could be heard screaming because her husband and children were among the 16 leaving.[15]

According to recently declassified FBI affidavits and witness statements, Larry Layton, a member of Peoples Temple who was very loyal to Jones, managed to convince Congressman Ryan’s assistant, Jackie Speier, that he desired to leave Jonestown.[16] Some of the defectors expressed concern that Layton was a plant and up to no good.[17]

Upon arrival at Port Kaituma, a defector, Dale Parks, insisted Layton be searched for weapons. “He will get on the airplane and blow it up,” Parks said.

Jim Cobb, one of the Concerned Relatives Group that had journeyed from California to Guyana with Ryan to try to convince their loved ones to come back home, feared Layton was armed and insisted he be searched.[18]

Layton was searched for weapons and none were found. This eased the stress of some of the defectors, but others kept close watch on him while he shook hands with a group of spectators who had gathered at the airstrip. One defector claimed Layton had been handed a pistol while shaking hands. However, this was never proven.[19]

When the Ryan party of family members, defectors and media arrived at the Port Kaituma airstrip, everyone jumped from the truck and their luggage was removed. Congressman Ryan met with the news media and explained the commotion that had taken place back in Jonestown When Don Sly attempted to assault him.

A small plane arrived at the strip and Larry Layton made a concerted effort to be on that aircraft. Speiers advised him that because he was not one of the original defectors, he must wait for the next plane. Layton then pled his case to the congressman himself, stating he would be the best source for information about Jonestown because he had been a member of Jones’ inner circle. Ryan concurred and Layton was scheduled to leave on the first aircraft.[20]

Before that airplane left, a second, larger one arrived. At the same time, some of the defectors noticed a trailer being towed by a tractor. On it were about half dozen armed men. Layton entered the smaller plane. He pulled a pistol and fired it inside the aircraft.[21] Parks wrestled the gun from him and Layton fled.

The defectors quickly sounded the alarm that assassins had come to gun them down. The trailer pulled by the tractor circled the aircraft as the men on board it fired on people waiting to get on the airplanes.

An unidentified female defector reported hearing bullets pierce both sides of the aircraft just after she boarded. Patty Parks, Dale Parks’ mother, was shot in the head and died instantly. The shooting lasted up to 10 minutes.[22]

After the shooting stopped, all able-bodied men from the group deplaned to attempt to assist the wounded. They were lying all around the two aircraft. Congressman Ryan and several journalists were found under one of the planes. They appeared dead.[23]

FBI documents indicate there were three or four Guyanese Army personnel located at the airstrip, camped out in a tent by the Guyanese Defense Force aircraft they were guarding. They assisted the survivors to hide out, providing them with three stretchers. While first aid was rendered to Jackie Speier and NBC soundman Steve Sung, Larry Layton approached the group and was told to leave.[24]

Killed in the airstrip assault were Congressman Leo J. Ryan; NBC correspondent Don Harris; NBC photographer Bob Brown; San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson; and Peoples Temple defector, Patricia Parks.

Larry Layton served over 20 years in prison for the murders. The other assailants are all dead. They included Wesley Karl Breidenbach, Eddie Joe Crenshaw, Stanley Brian Gieg, Ronal DeVal James, Ernest Jones, Robert Edward Kice, Thomas David Kice, Ardell Touchette, Anthony Simon, Ronald Talley and Joseph Wilson. A last assailant was never located, making the total number of attackers, including Layton, 13.

Crenshaw drove the tractor that carried the attackers. Eye witnesses, who included defectors, identified Tom Kice, Albert Touchette and Joseph Wilson. They were armed with a .45 caliber pistol, rifle and shotgun respectively.[25]

Within an hour or so after the Ryan party left Jonestown for Port Kaituma, an assailant, possibly Layton, arrived back in Jonestown to report his attempt to stop the defectors by killing all members of the Ryan party along with the defectors was unsuccessful.

He approached Jones, who was still sitting on his wooden throne in the pavilion, and carried on a short, whispered conversation with him.[26] One can only speculate on what Layton said to his leader, but by Jones’ reaction, obviously, the news was not good.

Layton returned to Port Kaituma. There, Parks removed a handgun from him and attempted to shoot the Jones lieutenant whom he was convinced had led the attack. But the gun was empty. Parks detained Layton and turned him over to the Guyanese militia men saying, “This is one of the son-of-a-bitches that did the shooting. Please hold him. Put him in jail. I took his gun.”[27]

According to an essay by Frank Bell, one of Layton’s lead attorneys in his first trial in 1981, “…Larry was not guilty of the charges against him. He did not conspire to kill or attempt to kill Congressman Ryan or Richard Dwyer, the Chief of Mission, as the charges claim. His conviction was a miscarriage of justice. I was certain of this at the time and I remain certain of it now.”[28]

This is not to say Larry was blameless. He did some things that were wrong and that cannot be totally excused, even by his mental and emotional fatigue, or the brainwashing, or his mental status at the time. He admittedly posed as a defector and was determined to send a message to others in the Temple and elsewhere, and to prove his loyalty to Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, by shooting the pilot of a small plane taking other defectors out of Guyana at the end of Ryan’s visit.

“His was to be a suicide mission in which the plane would take all of its occupants to their deaths. Yet Larry knew nothing of the plot, which was hatched by Jones and others at the same time, to kill Ryan and others at the airport where they were gathered to leave. When the small plane failed to take off at the airfield, Larry shot people in the plane before he was disarmed.[29]

Bell was involved in Layton’s initial parole hearings in 1991 and also was involved in a campaign asking President Clinton in his final days at the White House to grant him clemency. The noted California attorney also joined in Layton’s final parole petition in 2001. However, everyone involved in that campaign understands it was the testimony of Vern Gosney, one of Layton’s victims and now a police officer from Hawaii. He flew from the islands just days after September 11 to appear on Layton’s behalf. Larry Layton finally won his freedom, being released in April 2002, after 18 years in prison.

Immediately after being given the news of the assault at Port Kaituma by Larry Layton,

Jones called for a White Night. He ordered the commune’s physician, Larry Schacht,[30] and his nurses to prepared the deadly brew that soon would be used to kill most of the residents of Jonestown. Then the maniacal cult leader turned on his tape recorder and methodically began calling upon his congregation to assemble together for the final time.[31]

The chilling audiotape Jones made that November 18, 1978 as the final ritual of this religious group was enacted is shocking in its content; but it does give us some insight into why 913 Americans would, for the most part, follow the dictates of a madman and willingly take their own lives.

At the beginning of the tape, Jones is heard explaining why it is necessary to partake of the potion that will kill them all. He exhorts hid followers to participate willingly in a dignified manner.

He does receive some resistance, primarily from women. However, the scene becomes a bizarre exercise in democracy. Some members of the group balk at Jones’ solution, others agree with him, and all the while, the cult leader seemingly encourages the debate.

In the end, Jones wins out and the mothers of babies and toddlers are directed to begin forcing the cyanide-laced concoction down their throats using syringes without needles. Any mother who held out hope this was another rehearsal quickly and horribly realized it was not as they watched their babies begin to convulse and froth at the mouth violently.

Even the hopeless screams of the mothers could not stop the carnage. Hearing them loudly grieving, Jones told the mothers to follow their babies in death. It was the only merciful thing to do. As they and the older children and teens took the poison, some willingly, others forced, the young mothers joined them. After their cries were silenced by death, the senior citizens were assisted by the remaining able-bodied residents, to participate in this macabre communion.

Finally, with the children, mothers and seniors lying dead at their feet, the remaining adults were given small paper cups of a foaming purple liquid they would use to join friends, neighbors and relatives who preceded them in death.

The contrast of these 913 American lives in Guyana to the activities my family was participating in that November 18, 1978 is bizarre. While Congressman Ryan and his party of concerned family members, journalists and defectors were riding in a truck toward mayhem and death at a small airstrip at Port Kaituma, Guyana, some five miles north of Jonestown, my family and I were driving the five miles or so from Kobe Beach to the Corozal Army Housing Area where we lived.

As the maniacal Reverend Jim Jones was prodding his flock to commit the final revolutionary act of mass suicide, my wife was feeding our three daughters their supper and I was on my way to pick up the babysitter who would safeguard them while my wife and I went to the casino at the Granada Hotel for our bimonthly gambling spree.

As mothers in Jonestown forced a deadly poison down the throats of their children and carefully laid them on the ground to die, the mother of my children was lovingly bathing them, putting on their pajamas and tucking them into their beds. I had no idea that by the next morning, I would be forever connected to this group of now-deceased Americans 1450 miles away in Guyana and that our activities the night before had contrasted so sharply.

We went to the casino that Saturday night just as we had twice monthly since my family joined me in Panama. We conducted our regular recreational ritual at the same time the residents of Jonestown were practicing a ritual they had been rehearsing for well over a year. They were conducting their ritual for the final time.

Life in Jonestown was better than death, but not by much. It was especially bad for those forced to work in the fields for long hours day after day under the hot tropical sun. They worked virtually seven days a week.

The children of the commune didn’t have it much better. While school attendance was less strenuous than the labor their parents performed, the disciplinary measures meted out to youth deemed in need of punishment was brutal and abusive.

Children like 11-year-old Nawab Lawrence were taken to a dry well. A rope was placed under their arms and tied. They were then thrown into the dark hole, while adults playing “monster” grabbed at their arms and legs.[32]

Other punishments imposed on children as young as 12-years-old included being put in a three feet by six feet plywood box and being kept there for weeks at a time with nothing but a can for a toilet. Children as young as six had to perform hard labor and were kept in Cottage #11, so crowded it was dubbed the “slave ship.” Beatings by the security force were commonplace.[33]

Is it any wonder many of the able-bodied people said they welcomed death and forced it upon their children. To some, including Deborah Layton Blakely, white nights brought the prospect of peace.

Odell Rhodes, one of the few survivors of the Jonestown Massacre, graphically described to reporters the horror he witnessed in Jonestown as Reverend Jim Jones summoned his faithful congregation to their final white night.[34]

“They started with the babies,” Rhodes told journalist Charles Krause. He told him that most of the adults who drank the cyanide-laced Flav-Or-Ade did so willingly.

Larry Schacht, Jonestown’s doctor, and his nurses mixed the deadly potion. Rhodes said the mothers poisoned their own children before taking the drink themselves. Several who tried to escape the mass suicide ritual were herded back into the center of the pavilion where the poisonous brew was forced upon them. This was before the mass killings and suicides began.

Rhodes then reported, “It just got out of order. Babies were screaming and there was mass confusion.” He confirmed it took about five minutes for the victims to die from the cyanide.

Young and old, black and white, all grouped themselves near family members, often with their arms around one another, waiting for the cyanide to take affect, according to Rhodes. Despite the cocktail of other medications and drugs that were mixed with the cyanide, Rhodes reported those who partook of the poison would go into convulsions. Their eyes would roll up, they would gasp for breath and then they would be dead.[35]

Apparently Doctor Schacht was not as knowledgeable of the effects of the psychotropic drugs he added to the evil brew as he was the poison he used to kill the residents of Jonestown. If the tranquilizers and sedatives were meant to stave off the horrible convulsions that mark a cyanide death, they didn’t do their job. While it would have taken 15 minutes, at a minimum for them to work, the cyanide killed in less than five.

Rhodes watched this final white night in horror. He was desperate to escape but knew if he panicked and fled, the poison would be forced down his throat as it had been to others. But when Schacht said he needed a stethoscope, Rhodes saw his opportunity to get away from the center of the mass suicide/murder activity and he volunteered to accompany a nurse to the infirmary, about 300 feet away.[36]

The fortunate Rhodes told Krause the armed guards let him through with the nurse. He hid under a building when she went into the infirmary to collect the stethoscope.

By 7 PM, all sound had ceased in Jonestown. No one could be heard whimpering, no gasping for breath. Even the barking dogs had been silenced by their now-dead masters. The entire murder/suicide of over 900 people had taken place in less than two-and-one-half hours.

As the sun began to set, the eerie silence became disarming. The voice of Jim Jones, usually heard live for at least six hours a day over the loud speaker system and on tape during other times, was never to be heard in Jonestown again. Blessed silence had replaced the maddening sounds of crying children and wailing mothers. The dogs had all been shot, hence their silence.

Still Rhodes waited for several minutes before leaving his sanctuary. Were there other unseen enforcers wandering silently through the enclave seeking stragglers like himself who wanted to live? He listened intently for any sound of human origin. After 20 minutes or so of only normal jungle sounds, Rhodes slowly crept out from under the cottage that hid him.[37]

Suddenly a single gunshot penetrated the unnatural silence. Rhodes instinctively dove back under his cottage and waited, hoping he had not been discovered.

Within a short time, surely no more than two minutes, four more shots rang out, “BANG, BANG, BANG, BANG.” They seemed to be fired more out of frustration rather than at a target or enemy. Rhodes continued to wait it out.

A few minutes later, another shot rang out. This one was not as loud; in fact, it seemed to be muffled. It was the last of about six shots to be fired in about as many minutes.[38]

Rhodes slowly left his sanctuary for the final time, venturing out into the compounds. Death was everywhere he looked. Bodies, mostly lying in groups, could be seen in every direction.

He walked to Jim Jones’ cottage and found the charismatic leader lying face up, his black eyes staring intently at the dark tropical sky. A small hole from a gunshot wound could be seen at his temple. There was no firearm near his body.

Rhodes went into Jones’ cottage where he found registered nurse, Ann Moore, apparently dead from a gunshot wound to the mouth; the muffled shot. A pistol lay at her side.

Investigators and journalists who were told of this account by Odell Rhodes, surmise Jones, realizing the agonizing death cyanide causes, ordered Moore to shoot him. A devoted follower who would do Jones’ bidding without question, Moore complied.

Once she took the life of the man she worshipped, Moore held the pistol in the air and fired four consecutive shots in anger or frustration. We also know Ann Moore drank the cyanide-laced potion because it showed up in the autopsy performed on her remains in Delaware. She apparently had second thoughts of her own about dying from cyanide and decided a bullet was preferable.

Initially reported to have committed suicide by the U.S. government, the lack of powder burns on the gunshot wound to Jones’ temple make it extremely unlikely. I examined Jones on the 20th of November. There were no powder burns.

Rhodes walked wearily from Jonestown to Port Kaituma where he alerted Guyanese authorities to the tragedy that befell his community and friends a few hours before. The next morning, a contingent of Guyana Defense Force troops was dispatched to Jonestown to verify Rhodes’ bizarre story.

News of the events that occurred in Jonestown on the afternoon and evening of November 18, 1978 took a very short time to filter out to the rest of the world. When it did, the United States government reacted with uncharacteristic speed. On November 19, military troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Fort Lee, Virginia, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, and the Panama Canal Zone, were put on alert for movement to Guyana.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Speculation was unrestrained. Rumors of hostile cult members hiding in the jungle waiting to ambush us ran rampant. Why were these Americans living in Guyana and why did they choose to take their own lives? Was this mysterious crisis being perpetrated by the Russians or Cubans who were known to have close relations with Guyana?

The rumor mill ground out every possible scenario. All too soon we were to witness the aftermath of what grotesque carnage had been wrought against 913 souls by the twisted but persuasive mind of one Reverend James Warren Jones.

Notes:

[1] John Peer Nugent, White Night: The untold story of what happened before and beyond Jonestown (New York: Rawson, Wade, Publishers, Inc. 1979), 90-95.

[2] Nugent, 90-9.

[3] Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy, “Inside Peoples Temple,” New West Magazine, July 1977.

[4] U.S. House of Representatives, The Assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana Tragedy Report of a Staff Investigative Group to the Committee on Foreign Affairs (hereafter, House Report) May 15, 1979.

[5] House Report; Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project Transcripts, Tape Number Q736, Press Conference via ham radio from Jonestown to reporters in San Francisco, Spring 1978.

[6] Federal Bureau of Investigation RYMUR (Jonestown) 135.

[7] Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Tape Number Q323, Ryan visit discussed, November 11, 1978; RYMUR, 135.

[8] RYMUR, 260; Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Tape Number Q050, Ryan visit discussed, November 14 or 15, 1978.

[9] Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Tape Number Q048, Ryan Speaks to Jonestown, November 17, 1978; RYMUR, 20-21.

[10] Nugent, 190-191.

[11] Nugent, 192.

[12] Nugent; RYMUR, 261, 369-370

[13] Nugent; RYMUR, 66.

[14] Nugent, 194.

[15] Ethan Feinsod, Awake in a Nightmare: Jonestown the Only Eyewitness Account (New York: WW Norton & Co, 1981), 181.

[16] RYMUR, 67.

[17] RYMUR, 74.

[18] RYMUR, 74.

[19] RYMUR, 60-61, 214-215.

[20] RYMUR, 75.

[21] RYMUR, 95.

[22] RYMUR, 85.

[23] RYMUR, 73-75, 214-216.

[24] RYMUR, 228-229, 247.

[25] RYMUR, B-1-F.

[26] Feinsod, 177; RYMUR, 191.

[27]Feinsod, 177; RYMUR, 383.

[28] Frank Bell, Larry Layton and Peoples Temple: Twenty-five Years Later. Retrieved June 25, 2004.

[29] Bell.

[30] Bell, RYMUR, 115.

[31] Jonestown Audiotape Primary Project, Tape Number Q042, so-called Death Tape (see App III).

[32] Kenneth Wooden, The Children of Jonestown (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991), 7.

[33] Wooden, 7.

[34] Charles Krause, with Laurence M. Stern, Richard Harwood and the staff of the Washington Post, Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account (New York: Berkely Publishing, 1978).

[35] Krause.

[36] Krause; Feinsod, 202.

[37] Feinsod, 204-205.

[38] Conversation with Jim Hougan regarding his interview with Odell Rhodes, August 1, 1998, New York City, NY.

Originally posted on January 23rd, 2015.

Last modified on June 25th, 2021.
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