(This blogpost by Kelly Lavoie was originally published on April 7, 2019, and is reprinted with permission.)
Among the multitude of disturbing images and ideas that my imagination produces when I’m thinking about the massacre at Jonestown, one of them has always captured me a bit more than the rest. We’ve all seen the striking, sickening aerial photos: bodies. Hundreds of bodies, lined up and piled atop one another. I’ve always imagined what it would be like to be among the first to step into Jonestown after everyone was dead. Horrific, no doubt, for obvious over-900-decaying-corpse-reasons. But after taking in the initial scene, the “first responders” were met with the leavings of a miniature society – personal belongings left in cabins, pages and pages of notes, letters, and records, boxes full of audio tapes. Just hours before, over 900 souls were present. Those first investigators, with the bodies those souls had inhabited being assimilated into the jungle earth lying just yards away, became privy to what was really left of them. These pages and recordings, alive with ideas and showing their ways of living, were more poignant indications of the souls than the decaying organic material that was the bodies.
That is why my curiosity really zones in on, so much more than those bodies, those tapes, notes, and records. Maybe this makes me weird, but I find them to be a whole hell of a lot more ghostly than any dead flesh. I’ve discovered such a wonderful Jonestown resource in this website; one of the many things that they have archived and made available are audio and transcripts of the tapes, as well as transcripts of many notes and letters.
Among the many tapes of interest (and, really, they are all very interesting in terms of understanding the people) are two that deserve close scrutiny. One, of course, is the haunting “Death Tape,” the recording of the lead up and eventual massacre that took place. This is the audio that left me with a knot in my stomach for weeks when I first began researching Jonestown. I remember thinking that this must be one of those homemade hoax things, made by some jerk looking for clicks. I was absolutely horrified when I realized that it was real.
The Mystery Tape
The “mystery” tape that we are going to discuss is far more ambiguous and perplexing; it was recorded after the deaths. Meaning people were there, among nearly 1,000 dead people, making this tape.
What, the what?
The contents of the tape are ambient recordings of four radio news broadcasts talking about the previous day’s events (the murders of Congressman Leo Ryan and his party). The reports are preliminary, discussing only basic details of the shootout on the Port Kaituma airstrip that killed Ryan, and that there had been “unconfirmed reports of mass suicide” at Jonestown. There are the sounds of people in the room; squeaky chairs, a sneeze, and voices in the background, but they are so brief and muffled that they are unintelligible. MP3 recordings and transcripts of the tape can be found here if you’d like to hear it yourself. There is even a supplemental transcript with “cleaned up” audio clips and an interpretation of what could be being said in the background.
There was apparently nothing remarkable about where the mystery tape was found; it was simply left among many other tapes.
Who made it? To what purpose? Precisely when? Where? All of these questions have been asked and, despite the best efforts of interested parties, many of them former Temple members or their families, no one can seem to definitively answer them.
So, what comes next? Well, if you guessed “a big fat juicy conspiracy theory,” you win! After all, the accepted motive (from Jones and the Temple’s perspective) for “revolutionary suicide” was the constant perceived oppression and spectre of invasion by the fascist, communist-hating CIA, right? If you listen to the death tape, this is what Jones is claiming. So, in order to speculate on who may have recorded the mystery tape and why they were apparently present after all or most of Jonestown residents were dead, we need to talk about the background.
The real tragedy of Jonestown is not only that it occurred, but that so few chose to ask themselves why or how, so few sought to find out the facts behind the bizarre tale used to explain away the death of more than 900 people, and that so many will continue to be blind to the grim reality of our intelligence agencies. In the long run, the truth will come out. Only our complicity in the deception continues to dishonor the dead.
The most prominent conspiracy theories surrounding the events that took place at Jonestown involve covert U.S. government operations and the CIA. It is most often some variation of:
- Jonestown was an MK-ULTRA mind control experiment, with Jones himself as some sort of CIA asset, or…
- Jim Jones was an “informant” for the FBI or CIA meant to spy on the leftist black community, or…
- Jonestown was destroyed by the CIA because their dealings with Russia and communism posed a threat to the U.S.A.
The ground has been extra fertile for such theories, given the long history of colonial activity in countries like Guyana. There is a book that I’m hoping to get ahold of soon called White Night by John Peer Nugent; a review of it that I was able to find online distills this point:
There was, in fact, a tragic inevitability about the Jonestown story, and in this regard John Peer Nugent has rendered a valuable — if painful — service. A veteran foreign correspondent specializing in the third world, he brings a longer view that is necessary to understand the ‘why?’ of Jonestown, a view that must precede efforts to prevent anything like it happening again.
Mr. Nugent‘s thesis is that American foreign policy decisions made years ago contributed directly to Guyana’s being ripe for a Jim Jones to settle there. the hand of the US Central Intelligence Agency was heavy in Guyana, just as it was in Cuba and later in Chile. Times changed, but the government there became no less inefficient, hanging on to vestiges of British colonialism even as it spouted anti-American rhetoric.
Isn’t it easy to imagine why suspicion would surround the massacre, with such a strong foreign presence in the location in which it occurred? It seems like the U.S. would have been well aware of the powder keg that was Jonestown; why didn’t they do anything about it?
There is a wealth of supposed evidence to support the conspiracy theories, but a great deal of it is either difficult-to-verify hearsay, or subjective interpretations of things (I do not personally feel that this constitutes hard evidence). For example, take this excerpt from a paper about Jonestown conspiracies:
Under the circumstances, only the most naive could fail to be skeptical of the disinterested stance that the FBI and the CIA claim to have taken. But what does it mean? Why would these agencies give a de facto grant of immunity to Peoples Temple? And why would the CIA maneuver its Chief of Station into position to surveil Congressman Ryan, the co-author of legislation curtailing CIA activities abroad, on his trip to Jonestown?
There are two assumptions going on here: that the CIA and the FBI gave “a de facto grant of immunity” to Peoples Temple, and that the individual who escorted Leo Ryan to Jonestown (the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, Richard Dwyer) was a CIA Chief of Station (we will get into why it is suspected that Dwyer was with the CIA later). While one might interpret certain evidence to suggest that these things were so, they are not verified facts.
There are a great many assumptions of this nature when researching this subject, and it can be a challenge to untangle them from objective, verified facts. This doesn’t mean that none of these assumptions could be true; obviously, the CIA is not known for sharing much about its operations publicly. I’d end up filling volumes if I detailed every suspicion ever expressed about Jonestown, and this is simply my lowly blog. For that reason, I am going to try to share with you what I feel are the most salient facts in order to distill what are, in some cases, quite multifaceted theories. I will also link all sources, so if you choose to go even further down these rabbit holes, be sure to get at me on Twitter so we can discuss it!
Particularly toward the end of Jonestown, Jones was extremely paranoid. There was a PA system set up throughout all areas of the encampment, through which he would ramble on and on, for hours, (often in a drug-addled state) about operatives who were out to destroy them. One of his frequent claims was that CIA intelligence were covertly monitoring Jonestown from deep in the jungle. Here are some quotes from the infamous death tape that demonstrate the norm of paranoia that led up to this point:
We’re in a compound situation, not only are there those who have left and committed the betrayal of the century, some have stolen children from others and then seek right now to kill them because they stole their children, and we are sitting here waiting on a powder keg. I don’t think it is what we want to do with our babies. I don’t think that’s what we had in mind to do with our babies. It was said by the greatest of prophets, from time immemorial, ‘No man takes my life from me, I lay my life down.’
Jim Jones, Q 042
Jones is referring to some of the people who had, over the years, “defected” from the temple, returning to the United States and talking to the media, exposing the more disturbing aspects of life with the Temple. He saw this as the whole reason behind the Congressman’s visit, and, ultimately, why they’d have to die; that former Temple members betrayed them, conspiring against them. There were, indeed, former Temple members in contact with the concerned relatives back in the states, who did prompt a visit from the Congressman to assess whether people were being held against their will.
What’s those people gonna get done once they get through? They make our life worse than hell, they’ll make the Russians not accept us. When they get through lying … They told so many lies between there and that truck that we are, we are done in as far as any other alternative.
Jim Jones, Q 042
Here, Jones is referring to the assurances that Leo Ryan had just before given them; he said that people seemed happy to be there and alluded that he’d have positive things to say about Jonestown back in the states. He is saying that they should not believe him; that the cavalry is coming soon and Jonestown will no longer be allowed to exist.
I have never, never, never, never seen anything like this before in my life. I’ve never seen people take the law … and do … in their own hands, and provoke us and try to purposely agitate and murder of children. There’s no use, Christine, it’s just not worth living like this … not worth living like this.
Jim Jones, Q 042
I think that Jones is referring to his belief that operatives are monitoring them from the jungle, and claiming that they will murder their children.
There’s, there’s no point, there’s no point to this. We are born before our time. They won’t accept us. And I don’t think we should sit here and take any more time for our children to be endangered, for if they come after our children and we give them our children, then our children will suffer forever.
Jim Jones, Q 042
Again, he is claiming that the U.S. are imminently coming to take their children.
It’s all over, all over … what a legacy, what a legacy. But the Red Brigade’s the only one that’s ever made any sense anyway. They invaded our privacy, they came into our home, they followed us 6,000 miles away. The Red Brigade showed them justice, the Congressman’s dead … please get us some medication. It’s simple, it’s simple, there’s no convulsions with it, it’s just simple, just please get it before it’s too late. The GDF will be here. I tell you get moving, get moving, get moving …
Jim Jones, Q 042
The “Red Brigade” (so named in reference to the Italian militant communist organization) that Jones refers to here are essentially a group of Jonestown men who act as “enforcers.” They are the armed ones. They are the ones who pursued Leo Ryan, the journalists, and the Temple defectors, and fired on them on the airstrip. At this point, it’s been confirmed to Jones that they’ve done this, so he begins to rush the actual killings in hopes that they can kill everyone without interference from any authorities.
As many reading this will already know, expressing socialist, communist, and otherwise leftist views was met with lots of suspicion in the midst of the Cold War. A group of over a thousand avowed leftists who openly pledge their allegiance and admiration for Russia? A group so extreme that they literally bought land in another country and relocated a large portion of their group? Temple officials were even in contact with the Russian ambassador to Guyana, hoping to eventually relocate to Russia. Personally, I’d be surprised if the U.S. government wasn’t keeping an eye on the Temple.
The Possible Evidence & Possible Explanations
The first point of suspicion, or potential evidence of conspiracy, is the fact that the initial estimates of dead provided by Guyana authorities were less than half what they’d ultimately come to find after the arrival of U.S. troops (Judge). The Guyanese government was saddled with a mass-casualty situation in which literally only one (that I know of ) of the casualties was Guyanese. No authorities got there until three days later; the Guyanese were not about to go charging in since, for all they knew, there could be plenty of armed survivors waiting for them. So, these bodies were doing what dead organic material does: rotting and putrefying. Many were unrecognizable, and hundreds were never “officially” identified.
To add another sad thought on top of a big pile of sad thoughts: nobody seemed to want to deal with the remains. The U.S. was hoping the Guyanese would either bury them there in the jungle, or cremate them all and scatter the ashes to sea. Guyana wanted no part in any of that; these were Americans, so it was up to the U.S. to deal with them (Malcolmson, Ch. 2). When they were eventually flown back to the states, it was difficult to find a state to accept them for burial. When planes full of corpses arrived at Dover Air Force Base, Malcolmson writes,
General sentiment is openly hostile. Delaware state officials publicly stated that they will not even consider burial there due to an absence of death certificates, a similar tactic to what was used by the Guyanese government. Delaware officials also initially would not release the bodies out of concern that they would end up buried in Delaware.
Malcolmson, Ch. 2
The explanation for the initial discrepancies with the body count was that bodies had been piled atop one another in ditches and such, so there were additional “layers” of bodies not seen at first. There were also bodies scattered about in different parts of Jonestown that weren’t found right away. Elderly and infirm who could not get around easily, as well as people being kept incapacitated in the “Extended Care Unit” (see my other Jonestown addendumfor more on that), were killed in their respective buildings rather than being brought out to the pavilion, where most of the bodies lay. But still, suspicion surrounds the fact that the discrepancy between the initial numbers and the final numbers is so significant.
Of course, conditions were primitive, and the circumstances ghastly. Mistakes were inevitable. Nevertheless, 789 American passports had been found at Jonestown within a few hours of the troops’ arrival…skeptics wondered how it was possible that 363 bodies had concealed 550—particularly when 82 of the 363 were said to have been small children.
Identification was also a struggle, and many of the dead were never officially identified due to decay (as earlier discussed). Could this have been on purpose? Perhaps the U.S. authorities dragged their feet, knowing that the bodies would decompose quickly in the jungle heat, with the aim of concealing evidence?
The Guyanese medical examiner, Dr. Leslie Mootoo, who arrived before U.S. authorities,
…examined over 100 of the bodies during a 32-hour period and found that the adults had all been injected with cyanide in places which they could not have reached without assistance, such as between the shoulder blades, and that many of them had also been shot. (Charles Huff, one of the first U.S. soldiers on the scene, also reported having seen “many gunshot victims”, as well as other victims who had been shot with a crossbow, all of whom appeared to have been attempting to flee.) Mootoo also felt that the children were incapable of consenting to suicide. Based on his preliminary findings, Mootoo speculated that the majority of those who died in Jonestown may have been murdered.
There is also a great deal of suspicion surrounding the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, Richard Dwyer. He accompanied Leo Ryan and his party on their visit to Jonestown. The theory goes that he orchestrated Ryan’s presence on the airstrip that evening, setting him up to be murdered. He had a long history of working for the State Department, and is alleged by some to have been CIA operative.
Dr. Julius Mader, an East German author with ties to the Stasi intelligence service, alleged as much in a book that he’d written ten years prior to Jonestown: Who’s Who in the CIA. Joseph Holsinger, Leo Ryan’s best friend and chief of staff, echoes the charge, citing congressional sources. Not finally, the same allegation is made by the defense attorney for Larry Layton, recently convicted for his role in the assassination of Congressman Ryan. Unfortunately, Justice Department attorneys (representing Dwyer) and the judge (who presided over the Layton case) refused to let Layton’s defense attorney question Dwyer about his work for the CIA.
Just to be clear: to my understanding, it is not a known fact that Dwyer worked for the CIA. It is alleged by some based on the statements outlined above. I just wanted to be very clear, since people who believe that to be the case tend to frame their speech patterns based on that assumption.
Suspicions surrounding Dwyer do not end there. According to his own account of the events of that evening, he remained at the Port Kaituma air strip for that entire evening trying to assist those wounded in the shooting. But the death tape, happening concurrently with the time he would have been doing this, depicts Jones calling out directives using his name.
JONES: “And what comes, folks, what comes now?”
UNMAN[ [in background]: “Everybody…hold it! Sit down right here…” [loud background noises, agitated]
JONES: “Say peace, say peace, say peace, say peace…what comes, don’t let…take Dwyer on down to the middle (?) of the East House. Take Dwyer on down.”
UNWOMAN: “Everybody be quiet, please!”
UNMAN: “Show you got some respect for our lives.”
UNMAN: “Let me sit down, sit down, sit down.”
JONES: “I know… (Jones begins to hum, or keen.) “I tried so very very hard… Get Dwyer out of here before something happens to him.”
JONES: “I’m not talking about Ujara, I said Dwyer.”
Weird, right? According to Dwyer, he never left the airstrip that night. So why on earth would Jones be referring to Dwyer on that tape? Further, if Dwyer had returned to Jonestown that night, why was Jones protecting him by directing that he be taken to the East house, the same location where Temple lawyers Mark Lane and Charles Garry had been sent away with a suitcase full of money to be delivered to the Russian embassy? If Jones knew that Dwyer was indeed a CIA operative, it would have some truly earth-shattering connotations if he was protecting him, wouldn’t it?
UPDATE, 4/12/19: Since originally publishing this post, I came across this in Rebecca Moore’s Understanding PeoplesTemple:
FOIA documents received from the CIA as part of the decision in the lawsuit filed by Fielding McGehee III (McGehee v. Central Intelligence Agency) revealed that the CIA had also been monitoring activities in Jonestown. It is likely that several embassy staff members- including Ambassador John Burke, Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Dwyer, and possibly consul Richard McCoy- were CIA operatives. McCoy personally told me that the embassy knew of the visits Jonestown leaders made to Communist embassies, including those of Cuba, North Korea, and the Soviet Union. CIA records clearly show that the agency was keenly aware of events in Jonestown.
This gives me more pause than before in terms of Dwyer’s connection to the CIA.
Jones, The CIA Informant
Yet another narrative that is attached to Jones is that perhaps he was an informant for the FBI or the CIA, who were attempting to use him to monitor communists and African American left-wing organizations. From what I’ve been able to gather, the main basis for this theory is that, apparently on one of the many tapes of Jones’ sermons, he mentions having known a man when he was a teenager, from back in Richmond, Indiana, by the name of Dan Mitrione (Hougan, II.2).
Mitrione was the chief of police in Richmond at that time, and Jones would preach on the streets; they’d likely had some interactions for this reason (Hougan, II.2). In this theory, however, Jones was recruited by Mitrione to spy on the black community. This would have been while he was chief of police, in 1945, but later in his career, Mitrione worked for the state department in Uruguay, as an advisor to their law enforcement agencies. In 1970, he was kidnapped and held for ransom by a militant left-wing organization called the Tupamaros, who ultimately murdered him.
There are two big allegations levied toward Mitrione that I have not so far been able to verify as fact: that he was working for the CIA, and that his advising of Uruguay and Brazil LE involved teaching them torture techniques (Wikipedia). There are lots of books and good information on the subject of American activities like this in South America during that era…but I’m going to be real with you; I have not read them. If anyone reading this can point me toward verification of these allegations other than hearsay and conjecture, please let me know!
Other than their connection from back in Richmond, further conjecture as to a relationship between Jones and Mitrione is raised due to the fact that Jones traveled to Belo Horizonte, Brazil in 1962, where Mitrione was also, apparently, stationed at that time, working with local law enforcement. It is known, however, that Jones traveled to several locations in South America, scoping them out after seeing this Esquire article highlighting Nine Places to Hide in the event of a nuclear attack. Belo Horizonte is one of the nine locations.
If you want to read all of the details on their alleged connection, check out investigative journalist Jim Hougan’s piece on the subject. In fact, he has written many pieces that can be found here. Clearly a gentleman who knows what he’s talking about, I don’t want to pigeonhole him as the representative of all Jonestown conspiracy theories. He’s taken umbrage with being referred to as a conspiracy theorist; here’s what he has to say about it:
Nothing that I’ve written about Jones’ background suggests the existence of a government conspiracy to destroy Peoples Temple. On the contrary. What I’ve tried to suggest is that the mentally unstable and physically ill Jim Jones, while under pressure from Congress, the media and the Concerned Relatives, initiated the last White Night in what amounted to an act of vanity. Fearful that his deepest secrets were about to be revealed, with the result that he would be discredited in the eyes of his followers, Jones pulled the plug on his congregation and the world.
Mind Control/ MK-ULTRA
The other big theory, and the last one I’m going to get into here, is that Jonestown was a CIA mind control experiment in the vein of MK-Ultra. MK-Ultra was a CIA program, active between 1953 and 1973.
Experiments on humans were intended to identify and develop drugs and procedures to be used in interrogations in order to weaken the individual and force confessions through mind control. The project was organized through the Office of Scientific Intelligence of the CIA and coordinated with the U.S. Army Biological Warfare Laboratories.
This theory suggests that,
The US government or any of its intelligence arms entered Jonestown after the deaths for the purpose of covering up aspects of what was discovered there, or for the purpose of manipulating crime scene evidence…a unit of Green Berets was tasked with a ‘mopping up’ after the horrible events of November 18, 1978, including the rounding up and killing of survivors who may have fled into the jungle.
The facts used to support this theory include:
- The fact that “…a huge cache of psychoactives and tranquilizers were found on site at Jonestown after the suicides and murders” (Sacks).
- “It is a matter of public record that the CIA conducted experiments on unsuspecting US citizens during the MK-ULTRA period” (Sacks).
The “facts” (quotations to indicate my sarcasm) used to support this theory include:
- Death by cyanide poisoning causes the following:“The facial muscles draw back into a deadly grin, called ‘cyanide rictus.’ All these telling signs were absent in the Jonestown dead. Limbs were limp and relaxed, and the few visible faces showed no sign of distortion” (Judge) [This lands in the sarcastic-quotation-marks column due to the fact that a.) a cocktail of drugs were given to victims, not only This could have changed the typical cyanide poisoning reaction. b.) What significance would the needle marks be if they weren’t poisoned? c.) There were vats of purple Flavor-Aid with cyanide in them present (Farrell). ]
- “Dr. Mootoo found fresh needle marks at the back of the left shoulder blades of 80-90% of the victims. Others had been shot or strangled” (Judge) [This lands in the sarcastic-quotation-marks column due to the misleading “80-90% of the victims.” Dr. Mootoo only examined around 200 bodies (Farrell).]
- Suspicious events surrounding Temple survivors: “Back in California, Peoples Temple members openly admitted that they feared they were targeted by a ‘hit squad,’ and the Temple was surrounded for some time by local police forces…Rumors also persisted that a ‘death list’ of U.S. officials existed…A congressional aide was quoted in the AP wires on May 19, 1979, ‘There are 120 white, brainwashed assassins out from Jonestown awaiting the trigger word to pick up their hit.’…there have been continuing suspicious murders…Jeannie and Al Mills, who intended to write a book about Jones, were murdered at home, bound and shot. Some evidence indicates a connection between the Jonestown operation and the murders of Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk by police agent Dan White. Another Jonestown survivor was shot near his home in Detroit by unidentified killers. Yet another was involved in a mass murder of school children in Los Angeles. Anyone who survived such massive slaughter must be somewhat suspect. The fact that the press never even spoke about nearly 200 survivors raises serious doubts.” (Judge) [I am going to call “dubious” on this; separate murders at separate places and times are unlikely to be connected, and connecting them requires some serious confirmation bias.]
- Of the Port Kaituma airstrip shooting, it has been said that “Witnesses described them [the shooters] as “zombies,” walking mechanically, without emotion, and ‘looking through you, not at you’ as they murdered” (Judge) As if they were being mind-controlled, perhaps? [Well, as Farrell points out, we don’t have to speculate on this, since there is video footage: “I’ve got an nth-generation VHS copy of the Bob Brown video that includes the airport shootout. The assailants are moving quickly as they dismount the tractor and assault the congressman. Granted, ‘zombie’ is a subjective descriptor, but it’s honestly not the adjective I’d use”]
I would agree with the assessment that most of the dead at Jonestown were murdered. I’m just not so sure about the implication that they were murdered by the CIA. Based on the evidence, such as:
- Frequent “White Nights” where suicide “rehearsals” occurred to test loyalty and get people comfortable with the idea of suicide. Complete with witness accounts, audio recordings, and written recordings of these events.
- Documentation proving that cyanide and other drugs were purchased by temple members significantly before the night of the killings.
- An abundance of written communication between Temple members discussing how best to achieve…well, exactly what was achieved; the deaths of all present members. Seemy other post for excerpts from these communiques.
- Witness accounts of several people who were present as the killings were occurring.
- Several suicide notes from Temple insiders alluding to what they had done.
- And, of course, the death tape, which provides audio of what was happening.
In my view, all of this evidence, combined with assertions from first responders (both Guyanese and American) that many of these people were murdered, suggests that Temple insiders orchestrated and carried out the murders of fellow Jonestown residents. The documentation and planning that went into it are too compelling, in my view, to believe otherwise. Whether by needle, gun, crossbow, or coercion, most of those people were murdered by the hardcore inner-circle of Jones’ acolytes.
I do not find the initial discrepancies and issues related to the bodies to be compelling evidence of anything outside of the obvious. The scenario was beyond the pale, and early mistakes would be inevitable. The problems bringing the bodies back to the U.S. and finding a place to bury them are not mysterious when considering the immediate stigma surrounding them as killers of children.
When it comes to Dwyer, I think that the confused responses of the people in the background of the death tape might indicate that Jones was simply referring to someone by the wrong name. Scroll back to the excerpt of the tape transcript for a moment; see how someone says “Ujara?” in response to Jones yelling about Dwyer? Ujara was a nickname for Temple member Don Sly, who had earlier that day attacked Leo Ryan with a knife shortly before the airstrip shooting. Maybe they were like, “Who are you talking about?” because Dwyer wasn’t there. It wasn’t exactly a calm situation. Some have suggested that he was actually looking at the lawyer Charles Garry, wanting someone to usher him away by the East House so that he could bring the Temple’s money to the Russian embassy (which he was told to/attempted to do that night). If we suspend the confirmation bias that Dwyer was a CIA operative and that he had nefarious motives, something that we don’t know for a fact, is this part of the tape as compelling? To me, not so much. *4/12/19 – Please see the noted update above in the paragraph about Richard Dwyer. Although I still maintain that Jones could have said Dwyer mistakenly on the tape, his possible connection to the CIA is somewhat bolstered in my view upon confirmation of the CIA’s direct monitoring of Jonestown as described in documents obtained in a FOIA request.
When it comes to Mitrione, I simply don’t see enough evidence of 1.) a significant relationship with Jones, or 2.) That he worked for the CIA. Of the two, the latter seems a bit more plausible to me based on circumstance, but I still don’t see it as fact. The former…well, I just can’t logically make the jump from “Mitrione was a cop in a city Jones lived near when he was a teenager and may have come across due to his cult-leader-training-exercise-street-preaching” and “Mitrione recruited Jones to be an informant for the CIA (by the way, this would have been when Jones was a teenager, and Mitrione verifiably was not in the CIA ), and the rest was history.” The points made to back up the claim that Jones worked for the CIA just don’t hold up to close scrutiny, in my view.
When I get down to brass tacks, I find the most logical conclusion to be based on hard evidence. That Jones systematically built up a loyal following over many years. He manipulated his following by promoting an “us vs. them,” “the ends justify the means” mentality. He then isolated them in the middle of the jungle, and promoted an environment of fear and constant imminent crisis. He staged “mass suicides” as tests of loyalty, ones that members would be ostracized for if failed. He and a select group planned and discussed how best to carry out the killing of all members when the time came. They brought in the materials to be able to carry out their plans. After Congressman Leo Ryan threatened Jones’ complete control, Jones and his select insider group instigated and carried out the killing of men, women, and children, whether willing or not, by physical force, by coercion, and by threats.
So, What About The Mystery Tape?!
Bearing the abundance of both verified facts and speculation about precisely what happened at Jonestown and why…what’s up with that tape? Well, we can try to answer that with as many facts as possible. First, listen to it again.
A map of Jonestown shows the close proximity between the radio room and the bulk of the dead bodies, by the Pavilion.
- When was it made?: It was definitely madeafter most, perhaps all, present Jonestown residents had either died or fled; likely November 19th. We know this because the news broadcasts speak about the Port Kaituma airstrip shooting, and mention that a “possible mass suicide” had happened at Jonestown. So it stands to reason that enough time had passed for someone to raise the alarm.
- Where was it made?: This is not known, but Temple survivors who have listened to the tape claim that, based on 1.) the sound of it, and 2.) where they would normally search for news broadcasts like that, it was likely made in the radio room.
- Who made it?: The million dollar question. This is unknown. If it were known, the title of this post would make me quite the fibber, wouldn’t it? What we do know is that we hear more than one distinct voice in the background. It sounds like at least one is male, and at least one is female. Conversation is happening in the background, but you can’t make out what they’re saying for sure. We hear what sounds like a female voice say “Oh boy” when the news segment with Leo Ryan’s mother comes on. We also hear what sounds like a male voice say “Shit” at some point. Most who listen interpret what they hear to be in English, and some hear American accents, while others hear Guyanese. Was it Jones and the “inner circle”? Just Jones and Annie Moore (see myother post), perhaps, since they were likely the last to die based on being the only ones with recognizable gunshot wounds? Guyanese Defense Forces? Guyanese looters? CIA/ Other Special Forces?
- Why did they make it?: I find this the most difficult to answer. If I imagine any of the previously mentioned parties as the ones to make the tape, I just do not get why they would take the time to record news broadcasts.
Maybe the very people who left behind so much audio and paper records of what they had to say, what they did, and what they are about, wanted to close out their saga with clips of the world’s reaction to them? After all, they saw themselves as revolutionaries, and they saw what they did as a glorious act of resistance and a message to the world. The anonymous letter left behind demonstrates their grand view of themselves:
Collect all the tapes, all the writing, all the history. The story of this movement, this action, must be examined over and over. It must be understood in all of its incredible dimensions. Words fail. We have pledged our lives to this great cause.
Maybe the mystery tape is really just a perverse act of vanity carried out by the last to die. Before they killed themselves in a more painless fashion than that afforded to their victims.
The author of the anonymous letter did get their wish; Jonestown sure has been examined. But not for its greatness…for its horror and tragedy.
In my continuous education on Jonestown and Peoples Temple, my thoughts and opinions are ever shifting as I learn. Learning should always be counted as a journey that never ends, as we can always learn more.
It was brought to my attention that musician and audiophile/sound engineer Joel Thomas had written this piece, detailing his analysis of tape Q 875 (The mystery tape in question!). His focus was on the audio itself, abandoning all prior assumptions about its purpose and origin.
Thomas found that the mystery tape shared no similarities, in terms of audio, with any other recordings made at Jonestown. I encourage you to read his article to go over the details that he has noted.
He additionally posits that the background sounds that have often been assumed to be a door opening and closing sound more like a soda machine; there actually was a soda machine at Port Kaituma.
So, if the tape wasn’t recorded at Jonestown, why was it found there? Well, Thomas has a simple explanation – perhaps someone from the Guyana Defense Force made the recording of news broadcasts at Port Kaituma prior to venturing forth into Jonestown. Perhaps it was simply dropped at Jonestown accidentally after being stuck in one of the GDF’s pockets, and got mixed in with all the other tapes taken into evidence.
To my mind, this fits with other evidence I’ve come across as well, such as the accounts of the couple of hiding survivors that heard gunshots – in my opinion, probably the ones that killed Jones, Annie Moore, and the pet chimpanzee – that, I would think, would have occurred much earlier than the news reports on the tape were likely to have been broadcasted. So, it stands to reason that no one in Jonestown would be alive at that point (other than those few hiding survivors), knowing that Jones and Annie were the only ones to die by gunshot.
Additionally, Tim Carter notes here that he does not recall screen doors, which can apparently be heard on the tape, on most (if any) buildings in Jonestown (he is sure that the radio room did not have one), and that they did not get clear reception from American news stations, as can be heard on the tape, at Jonestown.
There is a simplicity to this theory that appeals to me as well – it doesn’t require near as much speculation as to why and how on earth people would be sitting down to make this tape in Jonestown, among the terrible scene at that time. I think the theory is certainly compelling, although, like so many aspects of Jonestown and Peoples Temple, I’m left with a small amount of nagging ambiguity.
But it does make you wonder what other mysteries could potentially have incredibly simple answers, doesn’t it?
Escaping the Event Horizon (a rebuttal to John Judge’s The Black Hole of Guyana) by Matthew Thomas Farrell
Jim Jones and the Conspiracists by Jim Hougan
The Secret Life of Jim Jones: A Parapolitical Fugue by Jim Hougan
The Black Hole of Guyana: The Untold Story of the Jonestown Massacre by John Judge, 1985
“Jonestown and after; White Night, by John Peer Nugent,”a book review by Brad Knickerbocker, Christian Science Monitor,February 13, 1980
Evil Dead: The Problematic Story of the Jonestown Corpses by Ted Malcolmson
Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories About Jonestown by Rebecca Moore
Dispensing With The “Conspiracy Theory” Label by Bryan Sacks