Brief sojourn to hell still vivid 25 years later

Chicago Sun-Times/November 23, 2003
By Michael Sneed

I don't remember much about my birthday in November of 1978.

All I know is that a few days later I was en route to cover a nightmare: the cult deaths of nearly 1,000 people in Jonestown, Guyana.

Last week, I turned 60 and was given an old photo taken of me by my Jonestown sidekick, photographer Val Mazzenga, who -- along with reporter Tim McNulty -- accompanied me on a brief sojourn to hell.

"It's a great shot of you, Sneed," said Val, who did not tell me when or where it had been taken. I was mystified. Who were the young men standing next to me in the photo?

It turned out they were two brothers -- the Carter brothers -- who had escaped death the night of Nov. 18, 1978, and the cyanide-laced vats of grape Kool-Aid that made headlines all over the world.

They escaped because cult leader Jim Jones had sent them on an errand while their families were being led by gunpoint to their deaths. They were Jones' hand-picked couriers of cash to the Russian embassy in Georgetown ... only they never made it.

It all seems so implausible now ... but what was horrific is that these young men watched their wives and babies die and did nothing to save them.

Last week was the 25th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, so I thought I'd reprint excerpts from an article I wrote about that experience.

Here goes:

Sometimes, when the night is clear and filled with stars, I hear children screaming.

It is not a loud scream. It is more like an old whisper.

It is the two-decades-old sound of children dying on a starry night in Jonestown, Guyana. It is the white noise of cyanide-induced death that inhaled the breath of innocent children and sucked the life out of nearly 1,000 cultists led by a monster named Jim Jones.

I never really heard the children die, but I covered the story of Jonestown.

And I clearly remember walking away from my typewriter, stepping onto the balcony of my squalid hotel room, looking up at the sky and wondering where all the screams of the children went.

I recall the odor of the shoes worn by my sidekick, McNulty, left outdoors on the balcony on purpose; shoes permeated with the smell of death (human fluid ... while walking through the death camp) in the South American sun.

Now, two decades later, I recall bits of that nightmare story, shards that didn't appear in bylined stories.

The key to getting scoops was hiring a driver who not only knew the lay of the land but had connections.

Our driver was a Guyanese named Roland, who was able to buy a new car and refrigerator with what we paid him. He arrived at our hotel one evening with news that a group from Jonestown had survived "White Night" by escaping through the jungle and were being secretly detained at a hotel.

That was where I found Stanley Clayton, whose story resulted in a copyrighted exclusive that drove the New York Times nuts. Clayton was the first proof that what happened at Jonestown was murder, not suicide. That guards with guns had forced people to the cyanide vats; that babies were injected with cyanide.

I found Clayton sitting on the floor between two beds in his hotel room and listening to music on a radio. In a monotone, he described how he survived by pretending to be looking for survivors by poking bodies in front of armed guards . . . and while engaged in this ruse, working his way to the front of the tent, telling a guard he was ready to die . . . hugging the guard . . . and then diving under a tent to escape. (In other words, Clayton had pretended to be a guard.)

Roland also led us to Tim Carter, a cultist who watched his wife and son die and did nothing to save them. (It was the picture of his baby's son's feet wedged in between two dead adults that became the classic Jonestown picture.) I still squirm when I recall his brainwashed demeanor.

Jonestown has now been reclaimed by the jungle.

And I wonder if the Carter Brothers ever returned to the jungles of Guyana and found the place where they buried/left behind the cache of millions given them by Jim Jones.

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