Veteran recalls recovery after Jonestown suicides

South Bend Tribune/November 15, 2000
By Linda Mullen

Bremen -- It was 22 years ago Saturday when Air Force Col. Al Heeter received a telephone call from Gen. Bob Tanguy telling Heeter to report to South America.

The first call said 600 Americans had committed suicide in Guyana in a village called Jonestown. Heeter was put in charge of returning bodies to the United States. When the Fulton County native arrived and began counting, he found 913 bodies.

He was assigned the responsibility of making sure that the body of Jim Jones, the leader of the suicide cult as it became known, was accounted for and returned. "It was my responsibility to make sure Jimmy Jones' body was properly tagged. I had to watch them put him in a casket. And then I had to call the Pentagon and tell them, 'Jim Jones has just now taken off from Georgetown (the capital of Guyana) to Dover, Delaware,' " Heeter said.

When Heeter, now 64 and retired in Rochester, first entered the compound in a clearing surrounded by dense jungle, he had to pass by signs that said, "Greetings. Everything grows well in Jonestown, especially the children." The children were found lying under three and four layers of dead bodies, evidently killed first by their parents and other adults, Heeter said.

Heeter was stationed at Howard Air Force Base at the Panama Canal on Nov. 18, 1978, when that call from Tanguy came. Tanguy is also now retired and lives in Culver. Heeter was the guest speaker Tuesday at the American Legion Post in Bremen at the annual Veterans Day dinner. He presented a slide show of what he found at The People's Temple communal village in Jonestown.

Photographed were the bodies, piled three and four deep, as well as the caskets they eventually filled. As he showed the slides, gasps could be heard from the audience of about 50 people.

Heeter also photographed the large water trough that had been filled with cyanide-laced grape drink. He showed the piles of cups, used by the suicidal residents, which held the poisoned drink.

Stacked on a table next to the litter of cups were hospital syringes. Adults would fill the syringes, and then squirt the poison into the mouths of babies. Gathering the bodies was hard for Heeter to discuss. As he recounted those days in Guyana, Heeter would pause as he described the site.

He said that it took four to five days to finally transport the bodies, and in the meantime, soldiers had to spray the bodies with antiseptics and insecticides to contain any contamination.

Identification of the victims was easier than expected. Jones had required extensive medical charts, including dental X-rays, to be done and kept for the residents of Jonestown.

Heeter said the mass suicide used the entire supply of caskets from the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. Even then, more caskets had to be purchased.

Initially, there was talk of burning the bodies and placing them in a mass grave, but officials in Guyana required U.S. officials to reclaim all of the victims. At that point, Heeter said, it was decided that each body would be treated with respect. Even in moving the bodies from the compound to warehouses in Georgetown, military workers would not stack the body bags. That slowed the process.

With that system, only 21 or 22 bodies could be moved per helicopter run from the commune to Georgetown. And while the bodies were being counted, Heeter said military guards had to protect the bodies from hungry, jungle animals.

Heeter said Jones' body was found lying next to a chair in a pavilion, in the center of the activities so he could oversee the suicides. Jones was from Lynn, Ind., but had started his church in Richmond, Ind., before moving to California and then Guyana.

Jones had died of a gunshot wound to the head, fired from someone about 30 to 40 feet away from him. "He didn't drink the cyanide," Heeter said. "Someone shot him. It should have happened sooner in Richmond, Indiana."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.