The Ghosts of November: Epilogue

“It is remarkable how insane and unimaginative Utopias have generally been… The possibility of essential progress is bound up with the tragic possibility that progress and human life may one day end together… Mortality has its compensations: one is that all evils are transitory, another that better times may come.”

Jorge Santayana

It is an understatement to say the Jonestown Massacre had a profound effect in my life. Practically everything that has occurred in it since I spent nine days in Guyana that November of 1978, can be directly attributed to changes in my psyche and philosophy that began evolving in Jonestown.

I was raised in a Christian home by a Baptist mother who, late in my fifth decade of life, still attends the church in which I was raised, when she is physically able. She lives in an adult living community less than 50 yards from that church. My brother is a trustee there.

As a child, I participated in Christmas and Easter pageants in that church. In high school, I gave a sermon on youth Sunday. I attended a Christian College after graduating from high school. I was the epitome of a big time Christian.

But church is a place I am suspicious of now. For me it isn’t a place of solace and peace, but a potential cause of pain and suffering. I have become suspect and cynical, not trusting churchmen and constantly finding my distrust being validated when someone my mother respects, like Jim Baker or Jimmy Swaggart fall.

I am still haunted by the ghosts of November. While they don’t cause me to behave strangely or lose sleep during the anniversary dates of their deaths anymore, they affect me nevertheless. I see them in the eyes of children as young as four-years-old, begging on the street corner of Lagos, Nigeria. They were with me during six years of living on the streets as a homeless derelict and even today, after I brought myself back to the respectable world of the employed, I see them in the eyes of the homeless panhandlers in Indianapolis.

I survived 635 days in a combat zone so I know I can persevere through the worst of circumstances. Yet, the experiences of Vietnam, watching my fellow soldiers die in my arms, helping amputate limbs and getting knee-deep in blood and gore was nowhere near as traumatic to me as the nine days I spent in 1978 in that twilight zone called Jonestown.

To those of us who were part of that infamous event known as the Jonestown Massacre, the past 30 years since it occurred have flown by. It’s hard to believe that many of the people who read this book weren’t even born when the events described in it occurred.

I lost contact with almost all the other people who participated in the task force. Eric Vega did get in touch with me by e-mail when he stumbled across my blog quite by accident. In June 2006, I had the opportunity to meet his lovely wife and him when I went to San Diego. He seemed unaffected by the nine days he spent carrying body bags in the hot Guyanese sun 28 years before. But I suppose the same could be said about me. Our wounds are not obvious but they are there.

Eric is still a medical records specialist. He works in a VA hospital. He has a lovely wife and seems to be living a happy life. We went to dinner while I was in San Diego and we discussed good times in the 601st Medical Company and in Panama, but we did not talk about Jonestown.

The Jonestown Massacre was one of the biggest news stories of 1978, possibly of the entire century. It still stands as the largest mass murder/suicide in history. I use the term “murder/suicide” because it is obvious the infants and small children were not given a choice in the matter. In fact, many researchers feel the majority of the victims of Jonestown were murdered.

Conspiracy theories abound regarding the truth about what happened in Jonestown three decades ago. To some, it simply represents nothing more than a social experiment that went terribly awry. Others opine that members off the Army’s elite Special Forces perpetrated the deaths and still others insist that Jonestown, by its very nature, was destined to self-destruct.

Much of the mystery surrounding Jonestown and the deaths that occurred there is due to the government secrecy and reticence of government agencies to declassify documents or respond to Freedom of Information Act requests in a cooperative and timely manner. Fielding McGehee of The Jonestown Institute has been successful in obtaining documents and tapes of radio transmissions, telephone conversations and sermons from the government and he provides transcripts to the public.

Rebecca Moore, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University, is the author or co-editor of more than half dozen books on Peoples Temple. She lost two sisters and a nephew at Jonestown. After the remains of her loved ones and other American Jonestown victims were returned to Dover, Delaware, Ms. Moore and her family had some difficulty and unpleasant experience dealing with the U.S. government. Her essay, Last Rights, outlines these problems and is found in the appendix.

While Jonestown seemed to be an isolated albeit incredibly horrifying event in human history, the mass murder/suicides were the precursor to several other events that occurred on a smaller scale.

  • On December 13, 1990, 12 people died in a ritual in Tijuana, Mexico, after drinking fruit punch tainted with industrial alcohol.
  • In 1991, Mexican minister, Ramon Morales Almazan, and 29 followers suffocated after he told them to keep praying and ignore toxic fumes that filled his church.
  • In October 1993, 53 Vietnamese tribal villagers committed mass suicide with flintlock weapons in the belief they would go directly to heaven.
  • On April 19, 1993, 84 Branch Davidians led by David Koresh, died in a fire and shoot-out with out-of-control federal agents near Waco, Texas, ending a 51-day siege of their cult compound.
  • In October 1994, the burned bodies of 48 Solar Temple members were discovered in farmhouse and three chalets in Switzerland. At the same time, five other bodies, including an infant’s, were found in a Solar Temple house north of Montreal, Canada.
  • In December 1995, 16 Solar Temple members were found dead in a burned house outside Grenoble in the French Alps.
  • On March 23, 1997, the charred remains of three women and two men were found inside a house in Saint Casimir, Canada. All were members of the Solar Temple.
  • On March 26, 1997, the bodies of 39 men were discovered in a mass suicide near San Diego. These members of the Heaven’s Gate cult also believed their deaths would lead to their rebirth and future life with aliens.
  • In March 2000, a bizarre cult led by a defrocked Catholic priest and a prostitute, committed mass suicide/murder when more than 1000 members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments in Uganda, were killed after being doused with a flammable liquid and being locked in the sanctuary of a church that was burned to the ground.

Many cult experts predicted an upsurge in cult-related deaths as the year 2000 approached. Fortunately, the mass murder/suicides in Uganda seem to be the only instance in the new millennium. The absence of any more mass deaths tied to religious cults since 2000 must be counted as a good sign.

Thirty years following the Jonestown Massacre, what happened in that isolated jungle enclave is still a matter of curiosity. There remain more questions unanswered than answered and as long as there are survivors or people who knew survivors, as long as there are people who went there for the clean-up and their children and grandchildren who have heard their awful stories, there will always be questions about Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and the Jonestown Massacre.

The Jonestown Institute, part of San Diego State University, has done much to keep the issue alive. It publishes an annual newsletter, The Jonestown Report, which is available on line. Dr. Rebecca Moore, its director, has been an invaluable contributor and resource for this book. As the thirtieth anniversary of the tragedy draws near, a play about Jonestown has been written and performed in various parts of the country.

The People’s Temple: Docudrama by Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Stephen Wangh and Margo Hall opened in May of 2005 in Berkely, California. Fondakowski also directed the two hour 55 minute play.

The play has been described as The Laramie Project of Jonestown and it has played as far east as Minnesota. “Temple” was the brainchild of Z Space Studio Artistic Director David Dower, who commissioned “Laramie” head writer Fondakowski to take a similar approach to Peoples Temple story (the apostrophe in the title is meant, in part, to distinguish the play from the actual church).

Marshall Kilduff, a San Francisco Chronicle editorial writer who covered City Hall and the crime beat during his long tenure at the newspaper said of the continued thirst for information about Peoples Temple, including the docudrama, “What hangs me up were the people under Jones… as a reporter, I encountered Jones a number of times. I always walked away, shaking my head at the sublime strangeness of him and his entourage.

“None of his inner circle smiled. Banter, sports scores, the weather — none of my brilliant conversation-starters ever worked with this deadpan crew. Whenever I talked with Jones, temple members would call me later, sometimes late at night. Jim appreciates your interest in his work, the callers said, but he doesn’t want it in the paper.

“Who were these guys? It became my biggest wonder. It’s also what the Berkeley Repertory Theatre play “The People’s Temple” zeroes in on, too. It’s a big, unmade bed of a stage drama filled with dozens of personal accounts stretched over three hours.

But the play avoids giving answers to any of Kilduff’s questions. He said that as a reporter, he pursued Jim Jones and people he knew were killed in the final hours of the temple’s existence. He said, “I wrote a book about it all and then walked away. I thought I had a grasp of what went on.

“But the final summing up never made me feel easy. Take your pick among the common explanations for Jonestown: The followers were all crazy; Jones turned nice folks into demonic zombies; they were idealists driven mad by a merciless world. Add in race, faith-healing and the hey-whatever California culture. You could fashion your own answer and then fold it up and put it away.”

But as Kilduff came to know the survivors, he had to reevaluate his cookie-cutter ideas of the past. They didn’t work. He came to know the survivors personally. They joined the temple for a myriad of reasons. Some liked its leftist socialist slant. Others were there because for the interracial qualities. Some liked the security of living in a disciplined and regulated society. Some joined because other family members did, not out of any doctrinal or dogmatic beliefs.

The play makes it clear, the survivors had reasons to both like and hate Jones. As Kilduff says, “They seem to be marked by guilt and shame that won’t wash away. More than a quarter of a century later, they are still trying to figure out how it happened.”

Razor grass, vines and a few wild daisies cover the site of Jonestown today. A fire in the early 1980s literally destroyed the cottages and the weeds and other tropical flora growth eventually obliterated all signs that humans once occupied this space.

Residents of Port Kaituma, where Congressman Ryan and four others were murdered, remain suspicious of strangers visiting the area. People from Nigeria and South America come into the area claiming to be considering one project or another. This newfound multiculturalism, reminiscent of Jones’ dream of a Utopian multiracial society, is not welcomed by villagers whose collective psyche was scarred by the mass suicide.

The town as has more than quadrupled in size and population since the Jonestown massacre. Most of the 7,000 residents are native Amerindians and descendants of African slaves and East Indian indentured laborers imported centuries ago to Britain’s only colony in South America.

An interior covered by impenetrable jungle and dissected by snake-infested rivers prevented the Guyanese government from monitoring Jones’ activities, and accounts for a different kind of lawlessness today.

Port residents complain that President Bharrat Jagdeo’s government, preoccupied with growing anarchy in the capital, Georgetown, is not doing enough to prevent foreigners stealing Guyana’s wealth. Locals say, Brazilians and Venezuelans who have joined a gold rush often mine without permits and smuggle their gains across unpoliced borders.

Others complain the government is too trusting of foreign churches and missionaries. Baptist pastor Dean Runyon, from Cleveland, Ohio, has gathered more than 400 followers in four years for his church, which offers services and helps with small community projects.

“Why I came to Guyana? That’s a long story,” says Runyon, hurrying to a sermon and referring other questions to his parishioners. “I have nothing to hide, though.”

“Pastor Runyon is no Jim Jones,” said parishioner Raymond Wong, 32. “He preaches the word of God, but that’s it.”

Few churchgoers are old enough to remember Jonestown.[1]

Jonestown survivor and former pastor of the temple’s church in Los Angeles, David Wise lived as a fugitive until the year 2000.

“I was thoroughly investigated by the FBI. They informed me that I was no longer “wanted” anywhere. Apparently charges against me were dropped after the Jonestown deaths, and I never knew it. Over the years I had done some research to find out what parts of the Jonestown story were true, and which were not, since I hoped to confirm that no Mafia contract had really been taken out on me. I was especially interested in the involvement of the FBI or the CIA. By providence or by fluke I eventually made personal contact with some of the Green Berets who landed in Jonestown and finally felt I had most of the story.”

During his 24 years on the run, Wise did most forms of blue collar work as well as white. He is a carpenter, plumber, electrician, and mechanic. He worked as a dance teacher and stunt man. He was a singer in Las Vegas, manager of a radio station in Maine news director of one in Kansas.

Jackie Speier is running for the office of Lieutenant Governor in the state of California for the 2006 election. She is currently a Democratic State Senator representing Burlingame south of San Francisco and was a legislative assistant to Rep. Leo Ryan and accompanied the congressman on his trip to Guyana.

Ms. Speier includes that experience in her campaign material. The introduction to her campaign website begins with these words: “In 1978, I dared to survive what should have been a fatal shooting. While on a congressional fact finding mission in Guyana, our party was ambushed by followers of the Reverend Jim Jones. I was left for dead and spent 22 hours on the tarmac waiting for help to arrive. It is this defining moment that helped me fully appreciate the importance of fighting… fighting for what you believe in and the essential importance of never giving up, no matter what the odds against you. It taught me that we all must strive to make a difference.”

In December 2005, Eddie Mills, the son of Al and Jeannie Mills, was detained by California police in connection with the murder of his parents and sister Daphene almost 26 years earlier. A few days later, the prosecutor in the case declined to press charges, and Eddie was released. He has since returned to Japan where he lives with his wife and two children.

Al and Jeannie Mills – who were known as Elmer and Deanna Mertle during their years in Peoples Temple – left the church in 1974 and became two of its most vocal critics. They founded the Human Freedom Center as a refuge for other Temple defectors and were active in the Concerned Relatives organization which was founded to focus media, political, and government pressure on Jim Jones. Because of their defections and their high-profile campaigns against him, Jones often lashed out at the Mills, calling them traitors and threatening retribution against them.

The three members of the Mills family were shot in their Berkeley home in February 1980, more than a year after the deaths in Jonestown. Nevertheless, their murders raised the fear that Temple “hit squads” – ex-members who would supposedly avenge the deaths in the Jonestown community against its perceived enemies – had become active. Those rumors dissipated when the police turned their attention to Eddie as a suspect.

The initial investigation was eventually shelved, but early in 2005, the police re-focused their attention on Eddie, who was 17 at the time and who was in the house when the shootings occurred. He was left unharmed. According to several surviving members of the Mills family, the police asked them to turn over any evidence they may have of Eddie’s involvement. Family members answered police questions, but – since they maintained their belief in Eddie’s innocence – felt there was no evidence to turn over to officials.

The reason for the renewed “cold case” investigation was unknown, since apparently no new evidence was uncovered, nor have advances in forensics technology assisted in reviewing existing evidence. Nevertheless, Eddie was arrested at the San Francisco airport on December 3 upon his return to the U.S. for the first time in several years. He spent several days in the Redwood City jail before being transferred to the East Bay. On December 8, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office declined to file charges, citing a lack of evidence, and Eddie was released.

Records released during the U.S. Senate’s examination of newly-confirmed Chief Justice John Roberts revealed that – while working for the Reagan White House in 1983 – the young attorney had harsh criticism of slain Congressman Leo J. Ryan.

Five years after Ryan was assassinated at the Port Kaituma airstrip in Guyana during his fact-finding tour to Peoples Temple facilities in Georgetown and Jonestown, Congress awarded the California Democrat a posthumous gold medal for his service. Ryan remains the only congressman killed in the course of his duties in American history.

Roberts’ view of the legislator was not as charitable as those of Ryan’s former colleagues. In a November 18, 1983, memo to then-White House counsel Fred Fielding, Roberts wrote: “The distinction of his service in the House is certainly subject to debate, and his actions leading to his murder can be viewed as those of a publicity hound.” The attorney added, however, that there were no legal problems with Reagan signing the legislation authorizing the award of the Congressional Gold Medal.

Roberts’ comment was in a memo among 420 documents which the National Archives released to Senators looking into the nominee’s background during the summer of 2005. Denice Stephenson, archivist of the California Historical Society, published a book of primary source documents about Peoples Temple entitled Dear People.

Former Temple attorney and Jones’ confidant Tim Stoen asked former religion reporter – and longtime Temple antagonist – Lester Kinsolving for forgiveness earlier this year, apologizing for his role in the Temple’s campaign to discredit the newsman. Stoen, who eventually left the Temple and joined his wife Grace in an unsuccessful effort to retrieve John Victor Stoen from Jonestown, helped the Temple to organize pickets around the San Francisco Examiner, where Kinsolving worked, following a series of negative articles in 1972. He also filed a libel suit against the writer over the same articles.

In his letter of February 11, 2005, Stoen said that he had been wrong – and that Kinsolving had been right – about the Temple. Stoen wrote the letter a few weeks after Kinsolving had a heart attack, an event which Stoen said was the impetus for the letter.

Tim Stoen is currently the financial crime prosecutor for Mendocino County. Kinsolving is a talk show host for a radio station in Baltimore and a member of the White House press corps.

The time is fast approaching when there will be no more need to update this epilogue. With most of Peoples Temple and other principles in this drama either passed or very old, there is not much news to come out of the Jonestown Massacre. Hopefully, we all will remember, “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it,” and never let another Jonestown happen again.

Notes:

[1] AP, Paisley Dodds, “Decades after Jonestown Massacre, villagers distrustful of new foreign influences,” 18 November 2002.

Originally posted on January 23rd, 2015.

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