Remembering Jonestown Massacre

Mercury News/November 16, 2003
By Peter Delevett

Nine hundred members of the People's Temple committed suicide in Jonestown, Guyana in Nov. 1978. The Rev. Jim Jones urged his disciples to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Survivers find different ways to deal with the pain.

Two fathers. Two children. Too many lives destroyed.

Twenty-five years ago this week, former Peninsula Congressman Leo Ryan met the Rev. Jim Jones in a steamy South American jungle. Within hours, both men would be dead, part of one of history's worst mass murder-suicides.

On Tuesday, the congressman's daughter, Erin, plans to join the mourners at Oakland's Evergreen Cemetery, where more than 400 victims of the Jonestown massacre are buried in a common grave.

There she will encounter Jim Jones Jr., a Pacifica man who, along with his two brothers, survived the murderous events of November 1978. They were playing basketball hours away from the Guyana jungle compound where their father led 912 of his followers to their deaths. Among the dead were more than 200 children.

Erin Ryan says she met the younger Jones once before at a previous memorial. She says she doesn't blame him for her father's killing, which was carried out by Jim Jones' gunmen after Ryan tried to lead several Jonestown defectors out of the commune-turned-death-camp.

"He's got a lot to live with as well,'' she says of Jones Jr. "He has to carry the name.''

Jones Jr. says many Jonestown survivors, and the families of victims, have embraced him.

"Twenty-five years later, you kind of forget your differences, what side of the argument you were at,'' he says. "You realize that you all have a common loss, that you are memorializing together.''

It's a loss that Erin Ryan prefers not to dwell on. And one the younger Jones, his father's namesake, cannot avoid.

Born in Indiana

The Rev. Jim Jones was born in a tiny Indiana hamlet to a father who was said to have belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Jones broke with his father's racist teachings, adopting a multiracial family of children and, in the 1950s, launching the Peoples Temple Full Gospel Church in Indianapolis. By 1970, it had moved to San Francisco.

The temple preached racial equality and integration. Jones ran programs to aid drug addicts and the elderly. With his knack for fundraising, he attracted powerful allies, including then-Mayor George Moscone, then-Assemblyman Willie Brown, Glide Memorial Church pastor Cecil Williams and former newspaper columnist Herb Caen.

And when reports began to surface of abuse, threats and fraud within the Peoples Temple, few leaders of official San Francisco were willing to investigate. "He could turn out the votes,'' Erin Ryan says. "That makes him a very powerful political force.''

Jones rode high until 1977, when New West magazine published an exposé of the Peoples Temple. Jones moved his followers to Guyana, nestled on the Atlantic Ocean between Brazil and Venezuela.

But reports of abuse continued to leak out. In November 1978, Ryan's father -- a popular three-term congressman -- decided to investigate. He led a fact-finding mission to Guyana.

"When you first got there, you couldn't help but be impressed by what they had done,'' says state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, who was a young aide to Rep. Ryan at the time. "They had carved a viable community literally out of the jungle.''

But horrors lay beneath the surface. Hue Fortson, a Los Angeles preacher who was then a bus driver and archivist for Jones and bodyguard to Jones' wife, says he and the other Jonestown residents were compelled to work long hours swinging picks and shovels. Anyone who complained was subject to public humiliations and beatings. Sometimes, Fortson says, Jones would proclaim himself to be Jesus.

As Speier and Ryan talked to Jonestown residents, they began to sense the lurking troubles, she says. Later, a few people passed notes to the delegation asking to leave with them.

When Ryan's group left Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978, several defectors from the camp joined them. As the delegation boarded planes at nearby Port Kaituma airstrip, a team of Jones followers opened fire, killing Ryan and four others.

Speier was shot five times in the back, leg and arm and was left for dead on the runway. The following morning, she and the other wounded were rescued by Guyanan soldiers, but Speier still carries two bullets lodged within her body.

Back at camp, Jones told his followers the end had arrived and put into play a mass suicide plan camp members had rehearsed. Parents injected cyanide into their children's mouths. Just how many adults went willingly remains unclear. Many drank cyanide-laced grape punch, either of their own volition or at gunpoint; others' bodies reportedly had needle marks in their backs. Still others, including Jones, bore bullet wounds.

Lost wife and son

Fortson's wife and toddler son were killed; he survived because Jones had sent him to San Francisco two months before the massacre.

Erin Ryan, who was 21 when her father died, now works for Speier. Her sister, Pat, has dedicated her career to fighting cults. But Erin Ryan says she's been less interested in digging up the past.

"It's kind of easy to compartmentalize it away,'' she says. "And 25 years is a long time.''

But Ryan sees the silver anniversary as a milestone. "I think it's probably the last time we'll get a lot of attention to it,'' she says. She hopes to use the occasion to remind younger generations about who her father was -- and what he gave his life for.

So she has made herself remember, sitting at the kitchen table with her sister and sifting through old articles about Jonestown.

Closer to dad

"I feel closer to my dad, I think, as a result of really going back again and reading that,'' she says.

Like Ryan, Jones Jr. is used to getting phone calls from reporters every five years. "Personally, I'll be happy when it's Nov. 19th,'' he says.

Jones Jr. was 18 when the "Jonestown event,'' as he calls it, took place. He says he didn't know about "a lot of things that went bad in Jonestown'' -- the beatings, suicide drills and his father's paranoid ravings over a loudspeaker.

Ryan, sounding a measure of sympathy, says a teenage boy couldn't have been expected to realize what was going on. "It was a cult,'' she says. "There was a great deal of mind control.''

Jones Jr., who now works for a life sciences company, remembers "a sense of obligation, a sense of loyalty'' to his father, who adopted him in Indiana and later enrolled him in a prestigious San Francisco prep school.

"The alternatives of being an African-American child in the 1960s, in a foster home, were drugs or crime or both,'' Jones Jr. says.

A quarter century later, he has no illusions about what happened in Guyana. "The events of Jonestown were horrific. And that's the legacy of Jim Jones,'' he says. "Forget all the things he did that were phenomenal. His legacy really is that he created the largest mass suicide in history.''

Still, Jones Jr., who has a young son of his own, says he refuses to be stigmatized by his father's deeds. He recalls how a woman recently stopped him on the street to praise him as an example of overcoming tragedy.

"I'm creating my own legacy. My son is creating his own legacy,'' Jones Jr. says. "And that's the great thing about life.''

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