The NBC Videotapes: Pathway to Oblivion

One of the unanswered questions in the aftermath of the deaths in Jonestown is what happened to the videotape that NBC cameraman Bob Brown shot in Guyana during the week he covered Leo Ryan’s trip to Guyana.

The most compelling portion of the tape – the final moments at the Port Kaituma airstrip on November 18, as the congressional party prepared to board the planes, and as Temple gunmen opened fire, killing Ryan and three others (including Brown himself) – is here. In addition, in 2014, NBC posted an hour-long compilation of footage ­– primarily scenes from Jonestown that NBC cameraman Bob Brown filmed, but also including some early scenes from the military’s walk-through of Jonestown afterwards – but it omits much of what was known to be in the network’s possession, including the Kaituma shootings and an hour-long interview which NBC correspondent Don Harris conducted with Jim Jones earlier on the last day.

In fact, the amount of total footage in existence and its current location – if it still exists – is unknown. According to NBC producer Pat Lynch, she personally reviewed three hours of tape from that day alone. Within a few days of the tragedy, NBC acknowledged it had 13 hours from the entire week, including the occasions that Ryan met with members of Concerned Relatives, U.S. embassy staff officials, and Temple members in the Georgetown headquarters of Lamaha Gardens.

The tape traveled extensively in the first few months of the tragedy. RYMUR serials from the first weeks following November 18 describe the tape being turned over to the FBI, and the FBI using it in the questioning of witnesses. In early April 1979, the FBI Field Office in San Francisco acknowledged that the tape was in its possession, complaining that the cassette “does not contain time readout.” About the same time, the field office reported that it was furnishing copies of the tape, an action it was taking “in response to request of [the] Congressional Investigative Committee.”

Whatever the cause of the ensuing delay, it wasn’t until more than a month later, in mid-May, before the San Francisco office reported that it was forwarding “10 video tape cassettes furnished by NBC” – not just the one – to FBI Headquarters with the intention that they be “exhibited to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.” By that time, though, they would have arrived too late for the committee to consider for its report.

On page 15 in its May 15, 1979 report on the assassination of Leo Ryan, the House Committee of Foreign Affairs wrote:

NBC, in response to a committee request for all of the footage relevant to Jonestown, furnished only the televised portion. NBC refused to provide the committee with the balance of the footage and advised it had been turned over to the Justice Department through which it could be acquired.

The committee staff nevertheless reviewed the ten videos in late May.

While the tapes traveled extensively over the next three years, all of the paths seemed to lead back to San Francisco.

• On May 25, a few days after the committee reviewed the cassettes, the FBI returned them to San Francisco via registered mail.

A RYMUR serial dated November 19, 1980 – some eighteen months later – suggests that at least the video cassette depicting the Port Kaituma attack was back in Washington, as the San Francisco office had requested that “the Engineering Section, Technical Services Division (TSD), make efforts to develop quality still photographs” from it. TSD eventually complied with the request, but in the cover memorandum accompanying the cassette back to San Francisco, said that it “was unable to obtain [the requested] quality reproduction” of the photographs.

• In January 1981, San Francisco informed headquarters that NBC was furnishing additional copies of the tapes – these with time stamp readouts – that an agent from the New York office would “hand carry … to San Francisco for viewing and then transport to FBI Technical Service Division for stop action photographs.”

RYMUR’s final mention of the tapes came in September 1982, when headquarters “[e]nclosed for San Francisco … the seven NBC videotapes previously sent to FBIHQ for the viewing of Departmental Attorney Frank Marine.”

And there, almost 40 years ago, the trail goes cold. Specific FOIA requests for the NBC tapes have been made to the FBI field office in San Francisco, as well as to the Justice Department, FBIHQ, and other field offices in Washington, and New York, but all have resulted in “no record” responses. NBC has declined to give a full account of what tapes it might still have in its possession, although snippets of footage, both from Jonestown and Georgetown, have appeared periodically on the internet.

1. Responses to FOIA Requests

2. FBI RYMUR serials

Serial 121, from San Juan, Puerto Rico to FBI Headquarters, November 20, 1978 (RYMUR 89-4276-121)

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“Copy of NBC video tape regarding incident at Jonestown being made available to FBI, San Juan, this date. This video tape will be reviewed by witness Beverly Oliver who is also hospitalized at Roosevelt Roads Naval Hospital (RRNH), Puerto Rico, for expected identification of any and all persons shown in the video tape.”

Serial 220, from New York to FBI Headquarters, November 22, 1978 (RYMUR 89-4276-122)

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“NBC, NYC, has thirteen hours of motion picture filee [likely ‘film”] regarding captioned matter. NBC only has the master copy and a duplicate would cost several thousand dollars to print. NBC’s position as of this date is: 1. They will make this film available for viewing at NBC, NYC; or 2. The government should bear the cost of reproduction. If this alternative is not acceptable, a subpoena duces tecum should be directed to [deleted name] at the above NBC corporate address.”

Serial 453, from New York to FBI Headquarters, November 27, 1978 (RYMUR 89-4276-453)

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“San Francisco desires of obtaining copy of thirteen hours of NBC video tape concerning People’s Temple.… [FBI New York] should make arrangements for FBI to pay for reproduction of tape and transmittal of same to FBI, San Francisco.”

Serial 589, from New York to FBI Headquarters, November 29, 1978 (RYMUR 89-4276-589)

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“[Deleted name], Legal Division, NBC T.V., New York, New York, advised this date that it would take at least ten days to two weeks to make a copy of this tape. The copy will be videotape cassettes containing approximately twenty minutes of tape per cassette. The delay in taping is caused by the demands placed on the limited personnel and facilities available for this purpose.”

Serial 652, U.S. Justice Department Daily Summary, November 28, 1978 (RYMUR 89-4276-652)

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“Arrangements have been completed for the sale of NBC news film to the Justice Department. NBC will be paid $1,300 for 13 hours of video tape that culminates with the actual shooting scene. … It is anticipated that the New York Office will secure these tapes and deliver them to FBI HQ in the near future.”

Serial 1656, from FBI to San Francisco, January 21, 1979 (RYMUR 89-4276-1656)

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“Enclosed for San Francisco under separate cover by registered mail are … eight video tape cassettes furnished by NBC News, New York which represent film taken in Guyana, including the actual shooting scene by NBC photographer Bob Brown (deceased).”

Serial 1801x, evidence receipt, December 20, 1978 (RYMUR 89-4276-1801x)

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This serial is an evidence receipt dated 12/20/78 for a “K35 video tape cassette marked NBC News Guyana 78M0337 Dub 5 of 7”, which had been located in “Room #3974” in “ADIC, NY,” the report of which was to be sent to the San Francisco and New York offices of the FBI.

Serial 1968×1, from Brooklyn-Queens to FBI Headquarters, February 4, 1979 (RYMUR 89-4276-1968×1)

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“Brooklyn-Queens now in receipt of bills from National Broadcasting Corporation totaling $1410.00 for videotape of assassination delivered to the Bureau and Chromatography Drug Screening.”

Serial 1976, from Brooklyn-Queens to FBI Headquarters, March 5, 1979 (RYMUR 89-4276-1976)

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“In connection with captioned matter, the following expenses were incurred by this office through week ending 2/24/79: National Broadcasting Company (videotape of assassination): $1410.00.”

Serial 2127, from San Francisco to FBI Headquarters, April 4, 1979 (RYMUR 89-4276-2127)

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“Enclosed for the Bureau is one copy of 10 minute NBC news videocassette.”

Serial 2093, from San Francisco to FBI Headquarters, April 5, 1979 (RYMUR 89-4276-2093)

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“San Francisco determined through independent lab, this date, that 10 minute NBC video cassette depicting assassination at Port Kaituma in possession San Francisco, does not contain time readout. Cassette has NBC designation ‘Guyana 78MO337DOV (5 of 7)’.”

Serial 2193, from San Francisco to FBI Headquarters, May 16, 1979 (RYMUR 89-4276-2193)

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“Enclosed for the Bureau are 10 video tape cassettes furnished by NBC, New York. Above NCB [NBC] cassettes represent film taken in Guyana by NBC newsman and includes the actual shooting scene at Port Kaituma. Above is being furnished to Bureau to be exhibited to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA).”

Serial 2196, from FBI Headquarters to San Francisco, May 25, 1979 (RYMUR 89-4276-2093)

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“Enclosed for San Francisco under separate cover by registered mail are 10 video tape cassettes which represent film footage of the incident in Guyana obtained from NBC news. These tapes, which were furnished to FBIHQ from your office, were shown to staff investigators of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, on 5/22-24/79.”

Serial 2756x, internal memorandum at FBI Headquarters, November 19, 1980 (RYMUR 89-4276-2576x)

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“United States Attorney (USA) William Hunter, Northern District of California, San Francisco, California … has requested … quality still photographs of the Port Kaituma assault from the FBI’s video cassette of the assault… [The FBI’s Personal Crimes Unit] is in receipt of the Sony video cassette of the Port Kaituma assault.”

Serial 2594, from FBI Headquarters to San Francisco, February 13, 1981 (RYMUR 89-4276-2594)

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“Enclosed for San Francisco are 64 photographs developed from the Port Kaituma assault video cassette.”

Serial 2593, from San Francisco to FBI Headquarters, January 30, 1981 (RYMUR 89-4276-2593)

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“NBC has agreed to furnish duplicate copies of NBC Jonestown, Guyana videotapes identified by NBC designation, ‘Guyana 78M0337, Reels 1-7’. These tapes are supposed to have SMPTE, time code generator converted to a time clock readout which appears on the screen. This request was formalized by the United States Attorney’s Office, San Francisco, through a letter dated January 25, 1981.”

Serial 2685, from FBI Headquarters to San Francisco, September 21, 1982 (RYMUR 89-4276-2685)

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“Enclosed for San Francisco are the seven NBC videotapes previously sent to FBIHQ for the viewing of Departmental Attorney Frank Marine… Marine has viewed the seven enclosed videotapes and advises that the tapes may be returned to San Francisco.”

Originally posted on January 4th, 2020.

Last modified on November 18th, 2020.
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