'Slavery of Faith': Survivor recounts escape from Jonestown

CNN/November 13, 2008

Editor's Note: On Nov. 18, 1978, a young mother, Leslie Wagner-Wilson, began walking away from Jonestown, carrying her 3-year-old son on a 30-mile trek through the jungle to safety. That very evening, the 900 people left in Jonestown would die in a mass murder-and-suicide pact. This excerpt is taken from the author's forthcoming book, "Slavery of Faith,"

As we began our journey, I was so nervous I could barely keep my footing. One of the women had made Kool-Aid and measured out enough Valium in it to keep the children calm. As we trekked up the side of the banana field, my heart was beating wildly. Someone is going to see us, I kept thinking. I prayed to God to please get me to the top of the hill, and when I put the other foot down on top, sudden warmth engulfed my body from head to toe.

We were running for our lives, for if we got caught we would wish we were dead, because the discipline would be intense. We have to move fast, I thought. Once they find we are missing, they will start the search. We started going deeper into the jungle and our leader, Richard Clark, lost his way. He could not find the markers he had placed in the jungle to help guide our way.

We sat down, gave the children some Kool-Aid and waited while Richard and the other men tried to find the path out. We were so close to the front gate as we could hear the guards talking. "Oh, no," I said. We had to keep the children and ourselves still, not speaking at all; we were so close they would be able to hear us, too. The men came back and motioned to us to move. We did, trying to move silently like cats.

We came out on a road. Richard said "Port Kaituma is a couple of miles down the way." I told him I did not want to go there, it was too close. He said that Matthews Ridge was 37 miles away. I told him, I'll go that way. I instructed them to take my son, Jakari, if my husband, who was a security guard, caught up with me. If they saw me shot dead, they needed to get my child out.

Jakari was becoming sleepy, so I tied him with a sheet to my back, like a papoose, and carried him as far as I could. The men then took turns. All the children were carried, not walked. The Valium had taken effect and their legs were slower than normal.

We heard a loud rumbling noise, a train was coming. We moved off of the tracks, and as the train slowed, the conductor asked us if we needed a ride. We told him no, we were heading the direction from which he came. He waved goodbye with a puzzled look on his face and the train began to move forward. People on the train gathered at the windows to look at us. Dirty by this time, we looked probably like hobos.

How many miles we had covered, I don't know. We had to have been on the road for maybe four or five hours now. We came to a narrowing in the road high above a river. We had to get on the railroad tracks to go across. My fear of heights paralyzed me. I asked one of the brothers to take Jakari across the bridge. On my hands and knees, I crawled across. I was scared I would fall off and my comrades kept saying, "Don't look down." They did not have to worry, my test was to keep breathing. When I finally made it, my knees were scratched, with pebbles stuck in some of the areas.

I sat down for a minute. We all did. After a 10-minute break, we picked up the pace. The day turned to dusk. We did not know how far we had traveled or how far we had to go. We just kept moving. As it got dark, we heard the train coming back. We tried to run as fast as we could to hide, but the train was faster. The conductor stopped and we were waiting for the shots to ring out: "Kill the Defectors!" That's all I could think would happen. When the conductor stuck his head out and asked if we wanted a ride, the men said yes. We climbed on board and sat down.

The town of Matthews Ridge was small, with little houses scattered across in different directions. We followed a man up a road to the police station. As we got closer, we could see that there were guns drawn on us. A voice yelled, "Halt, put your hands up."

He had another officer lead us inside and search us for weapons. They took my knife. Others had an ice pick, knives and a machete. The captain introduced himself and asked us what we were doing. We told him we had escaped from Jonestown and wanted to call the American Embassy. He asked us if we knew about the shootings at Port Kaituma. "What shootings?" we said. He went on to explain that he got a report that people had been shot at the air strip.

The conductor came up and told the police captain that it could not have been us because he saw us so many miles away from the airport and gave the captain the time. That man saved us.

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