Maui is a long way from Jonestown for veteran police officer Vernon Gosney but not far enough to distance himself from daily thoughts of the son he lost in the mass suicide and murder more than three decades ago in South America.
He is a survivor of the tragedy on Nov. 18, 1978, in the compound of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in the Guyana jungles that left more than 900 members - including 300 children - of the American cult dead. In the tragedy, the largest nondisaster-related loss of American civilian life until 9/11, according to Wikipedia, cult members either drank or were forced to drink juice laced with cyanide.
Gosney survived three gunshot wounds as he tried to leave Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan, who was killed that day. Gosney's son, Mark, 5, was one of the children who perished.
"I think about my son every day of my life," said the Maui police officer with more than 25 years on the force. "I think about him, and I think about how he was a small child and had no choice about where he went. I was his custodian, and I was steward to that child, and I was not able to protect him. Through my adventures or misadventures, he lost his life."
There also is the occasional documentary, such as one that was televised this month on the History Channel, to remind him of those days decades ago when he was an inexperienced and idealistic young man, who was estranged from his parents because of an interracial marriage and had a wife, Cheryl, in a vegetative state after a Caesarean section during Mark's birth.
He appeared in that documentary on the History Channel, "Jonestown: Paradise Lost." He said he was recently interviewed for a National Geographic program that will be televised in the spring.
Gosney said he is at the point in his life where "I can talk about it, but I want it to be purposeful."
One of his primary reasons for doing the interviews is "to humanize" the people who died that day, to tame the conception of the dead as "crazy people in the jungle drinking orange Kool-Aid poison."
"Actually, they were human beings with dreams and ideals and that they were willing to sacrifice a lot of their own personal agendas so . . . they could make a change in the world," Gosney said. "They were deceived by this person (Jones)."
He likened cult members to being in a bad relationship.
"It doesn't start out that way," he said, pointing out that Jones was a drug addict and paranoid about people leaving him. "It starts out good, and maybe there are a few little bumps in the road and then things get worse, but you are still holding on to the dream of love, of having a family.
"Then it turns into a nightmare until at some point you say 'I gotta get out' - or you don't and stay in the bad relationship because you are holding on to the dream. That's what the people were doing. They were holding on to the dream of socialism, the dream of a better world . . . but really the dream had turned into a nightmare.
"The relationship had turned into the abusive relationship, and people weren't able to leave."
Gosney held no leadership position in the Temple, calling himself a "grunt" who had occasional contact with Jones, usually for punishment. Penalties at the Peoples Temple included paddling and boxing and, later in Guyana, beatings and relegation to a 4-by-6-foot box.
"He was always authoritative, but he was charismatic," said Gosney of Jones, who at one time fought for the noble causes of desegregation and racial equality when it was not popular in the 1950s and '60s. "The people in the Peoples Temple were attracted to the ideals and the dream."
Jones' message resonated with the young Gosney, who lived in the Peoples Temple in San Francisco and Jonestown from ages 19 to 25.
"In my situation, where my wife was in a coma or vegetative state, I was desperate and despairing," he said. "I had a small child. I was estranged from my family. I was very, very vulnerable."
In an article titled "A Thousand Eyes," Gosney wrote that he joined the Peoples Temple because he wanted to bring his life back to normal, to make a difference in the world, a respite from the bigotry and racism of his family and acceptance and belonging in an extended family. His wife died in 1980 in a rest home.
Jones and other cult leaders like him work their evil spells - to the point where some followers will willingly give their lives.
"If you have an ideal you believe in, how far are you willing to go for it?" Jones would ask, Gosney said in an interview. "Are you just fly by night or do you have real commitment? Show me what your commitment is. Are you willing to give your money? Are you willing to give your time? Are you willing to sacrifice your selfish desires? Are you willing to dedicate your life to a cause? How far are you willing to go?"
"What people like Jim Jones do is they take people up to the limit, up to a line, and they move the line, and they move the line even more," said Gosney. "It's a gradual process. It's not something that happens overnight. And if you really believe in something, then you are going to sacrifice . . . including your life."
The popular and politically connected Jones ended up being a fraud with no socialistic society. Instead, the Peoples Temple was a fascist dictatorship, Jones' "own little kingdom," he said.
Gosney was not mature enough as a 19-year-old to see the truth.
"I believed everything," he said. "I had no discernment . . . I took things at face value. Wasn't too critical in my thinking about a lot of things. So that's something that I learned the hard way about discernment."
He has developed a "litmus test" in determining whether a group is a cult or not. People should be concerned if members of the group are not allowed to dissent, not free to leave the group, threatened with punishment, financially exploited, isolated from family and friends and information from the outside world. Another warning sign is if the leader is having sexual relationships with members.
"Cults use different tactics to compromise people's ability to choose," he said. "When you are in a cult or a group like that you know what's right, you know what's wrong. There's no gray area," he said. "You are not encouraged to think; you are not encouraged to discuss. Logical processes are not encouraged.
"Part of being free is being able to disagree and have other people disagree with me and not hating them as an enemy."
Cults and groups with cultlike tendencies have continued to operate since the Jonestown tragedy. In 1993, David Koresh and more than 70 of his followers, including children, were killed in a fire after an FBI raid on the Branch Davidian ranch in Texas. Gosney drew a parallel between suicide bombers and cults. On a smaller scale, the brutality, isolation and controlling tendencies of cults may be found in cases of domestic violence, he noted.
The best thing families can do for loved ones they suspect of being in a cult is to "maintain the lifeline between themselves and that person, because there may come a time when that person will want to leave and that family member is going to be the lifeline."
"They will be their connection to their old world, to the person that they were before," he said.
Gosney did not have that lifeline when he arrived in the isolated Jonestown after a 19-hour boat journey in March 1978. His contingent was met with Temple members holding guns.
"I wanted to leave as soon as I got there, because it was an armed encampment," he said. "Guns were supposed to be for the enemy, but guns were pointed within as well as out."
When the congressman's delegation arrived in Jonestown eight months later to investigate allegations of abuse, Gosney got a note to Ryan - at the risk of his life - saying that he wanted to leave. In a private conversation, the congressman said that Gosney was the first one to ask to leave and had a seat on a plane.
"So the next day, I met with the congressman, and he said to remain in his sight at all times, because if I had not, I would never be seen again," Gosney said.
Ryan and his group, which included Gosney and other Peoples Temple defectors, left Jonestown. The departure was hastened after an attempt to slit the congressman's throat. Other members wanted to leave. Gosney remembers a man with a child in each arm, asking to leave with the group. The congressman said he would come back the next day.
"We are going to come back tomorrow," Ryan said.
"Of course, there was no tomorrow," Gosney said.
In the swirl of the chaos, he ended up leaving his son behind with the intention of coming back later to get him, though admitting that his thinking was far from clear.
"To leave my child there was unthinkable yet my thinking was so off kilter," Gosney said, looking back. "I cannot explain it."
As he was headed to the airstrip with the congressman to freedom, he still had a "very strong sense of foreboding."
"I never thought we would leave. I never thought we would get out of there alive," he recalled.
There were two planes, and he got into the smaller Cessna.
"I heard the gunfire of the other people being shot outside on the airstrip," he said referring to the larger plane with Ryan.
"I turned around to the person sitting next to me, who was Larry Layton, and he pulled out a gun and shot me and shot my friend. . . . He shot me three times. He turned to shoot the person sitting in the back of me in the face."
After the shooting, the gunman left the plane. Gosney, with serious wounds to his diaphragm, stomach and spleen and with a collapsed lung, fled to the bushes nearby.
"It's called adrenaline, you know that adrenaline where people can lift up cars," he said. "That's something that takes over your body. And I actually felt no pain until I was at safety. . . . I ran until I collapsed in an enclosure of bushes."
Ryan was killed in the ambush, along with a reporter and cameraman from NBC, a photographer from the San Francisco Examiner and a female Peoples Temple member, according to History.com. After the ambush, Jones ordered his members - at gunpoint - to drink the cyanide-laced punch.
Gosney was found in the bushes and eventually made it to a military hospital in Puerto Rico.
"They did not expect me to live," he said.
His spleen was removed and due to injuries to his liver, he wore a bag for a while. Gosney said he experiences no ill health effects today from the shooting. He does have colorful tattoos that were done in part to hide the bullet wounds and surgical scars.
While in the hospital, Gosney made the identification of his son. The boy was cremated, and his ashes scattered at sea.
Many years of therapy and "epiphanies" helped deprogram Gosney.
"My life is much more complex than Jonestown," he wrote later in an email. "I am responsible for my life, my decisions and my mistakes, not my family or Jim Jones."
He moved to Maui in 1982. Working two jobs in Lahaina to survive, he saw an ad for becoming a police officer. Gosney said he signed up "looking for a better life" and the challenge.
Jonestown did not come up during the hiring process.
"No one asked that on the application: Have you ever been involved in a dangerous cult and almost killed in a foreign country?" he said chuckling.
He has had no problem with fellow officers. The department has treated him well, he said.
The community has been good to him too.
"I have found healing here on Maui and an extended family I never dreamed of," he said. "I have a vast support network of people from all walks of life. . . . I have been embraced, accepted and loved here by so many. My heart is filled with gratitude for the life I enjoy today."
He has worked to give back as well. Living with HIV for the last 25 years, Gosney, who is gay, has raised money for the Maui AIDS Foundation, with his fellow officers among his greatest contributors.
"I love Maui, and I love the community that we are," Gosney said. "It's more family oriented. Everybody kokua one another. We all help each other. . . . That's not how it is in other places.
"It's a long way from Jonestown."