Local who survived Jonestown dies

The Daily Iberian, Louisiana/July 22, 2010

For New Iberia resident Robert Paul, being a survivor of one of the worst mass murders in American history did not win him a million bucks on some television show but rather something more valuable: His life.

Only 33 at the time, Paul was one of 33 survivors of cult leader Jim Jones' Jonestown massacre Nov. 18, 1978, a mass suicide that killed more than 900 people in the South American country of Guyana.

Paul, 64, died Saturday in New Iberia, after a life that was, in his cousin Geri Brown's words, "a living hell."

"I know he really went through a lot, he always put his head down when he talked about it," Brown said. "He really had a lot of hurt."

Born Nov. 3, 1945, on Jefferson Island, Paul moved when he was 5 to live with Brown, her mother, Lena James, and their grandparents, Ida Vincent Davis and Robert Davis, in New Iberia.

After serving in Vietnam, Paul made his way to California, where he joined Jones' Peoples Temple church, a predecessor to the compound Jones built south of the equator.

Brown said Paul joined the church with his then-girlfriend Ruletta Paul and their 1-year-old son Robert Paul Jr., who was born at Iberia General Hospital (now Iberia Medical Center).

"At the time, it was just like a regular church," Brown said.

Paul eventually rose through the ranks of the church, becoming a security guard for Jones while in California.

When Jones went south to set up his compound, Ruletta Paul took Robert Jr. with her in February 1978 and was "brainwashed" by Jones, Brown said.

Brown said Paul missed his first two flights to Guyana but was successful on his third try, making it down to Jonestown in the spring of 1978.

Brown said Paul quickly discovered Jones had taken the church in the wrong direction and repeatedly tried to leave by telling Ruletta Paul he was "going to wash their clothes," a code phrase for trying to escape.

Paul eventually joined a group of 11 members who escaped through the jungle and caught a train out of Jonestown before making it back to the United States. Ruletta Paul and Robert Jr. were among the 900-plus people who drank the cyanide-laced Flavor Aid drink and died at Jonestown.

"He tried to leave with his child, but Robert Jr. was putting on a play for the congressman (U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, D-Calif., who was assassinated while in Jonestown on a fact-finding mission)," Brown said. "That really hurt him a lot."

Upon returning to New Iberia, Paul raised a son named Javon with then-girlfriend Sandra Monique. While Paul and Monique did not stay together, Javon considered Paul to be a father figure in his life.

"He was like my father, more like a role model to me," Javon Monique said. "We went fishing and watched football games. He taught me black belt karate."

Back home, Paul worked as a janitor at New Iberia Senior High and Park Elementary School until his retirement.

Through it all, Brown said while Paul tried to live a normal life, the experiences he had in Jonestown were something from which he could never escape.

"He spent a lot of his time mentoring, wanting children to know his experience," Brown said. "But he never went to any survivor's reunions. He just couldn't participate in that."

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