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. Similarly, on page 15 in its 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.

Subsequent FBI memos released through the Freedom of Information Act on the Ryan investigation paint a more uncertain picture, as described below, to the extent that its whereabouts are now unknown. Specific FOIA requests for the NBC tapes made to the FBI, the Justice Department, and FBI field offices in San Francisco, Washington, and New York, 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.”

Originally posted on January 4th, 2020.

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