Five more Jonestown victims buried in Oakland mass grave

San Jose Mercury News/October 21, 2014

By Matt O'Brien

Oakland -- Irene Mason was among the oldest victims of the Peoples Temple mass murder-suicide, having turned 86 a week before her horrific death. Tony Walker was a 20-year-old security guard who patrolled the cult colony and its livestock in the Guyanese jungle.

Nearly 36 years after the Jonestown massacre, they now have a place to rest.

Their long-forgotten remains, and those of three others discovered this summer in an abandoned Delaware mortuary, have now joined more than 400 other unclaimed or unidentified Jonestown victims in an East Oakland hillside memorial.

Rain drizzled over a small ceremony at the Evergreen Cemetery organized Monday by the son of Jim Jones, the cult preacher who led more than 900 followers -- one third of them children -- to their deaths in November 1978 after instructing them to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Those who survived the suicidal poisoning were shot and killed.

"I have to accept the horrific event, the tyranny that Jim Jones created, but I also have to respect the people who were trying to build a new world," said Jim Jones Jr., 54, who remembers many of the dead. "They were trying to build a new world and they really believed that."

Painful memories of the tragedy resurfaced in August when Delaware authorities announced the discovery of nine cremated remains of Jonestown victims in a foreclosed funeral home near Dover Air Force Base, where all 918 bodies were shipped from Guyana in 1978.

Why their remains were stored for three decades in the Minus Funeral Home might never be known. The funeral home closed after its owner died in 2012.

All nine were African-American, and five lived in the Bay Area before they followed Jim Jones in shifting his Peoples Temple headquarters from a San Francisco church to a remote jungle clearing in Guyana.

The South American settlement advertised itself as a hub for socialism and racial integration where more than 1,000 followers worked the land and gathered for daily assemblies. Defectors who fled back to the United States recounted physical and emotional abuse under a paranoid cult leader.

When a fact-finding team led by U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, D-San Mateo, flew to Guyana to investigate in November 1978, Jonestown followers ambushed the congressman on an airstrip, killing him, three journalists and a defector, and wounding others. Hours later, the mass suicide and murder of the Jonestown colony began.

When Evergreen Cemetery owner Buck Kamphausen said he would welcome any unclaimed remains of Jonestown victims at his Oakland property in 1979, he went against the trend of other cemeteries and politicians that wanted nothing to do with the bodies.

The U.S. military trucked more than 420 victims to Oakland and laid their airtight coffins like dominoes in a hillside excavation site. Many of the unclaimed and unidentified were children whose parents had also died.

Until this summer, all of the unclaimed victims were thought to be in Oakland.

With help from The Jonestown Institute, a San Diego State repository of research on the Peoples Temple tragedy, Delaware officials made contact with relatives of seven of the nine victims rediscovered this summer.

Not all of those relatives wanted the remains.

"One of the things we've noticed is that 36 years after Jonestown, it still has the power of stigmatization," said Fielding McGehee, a co-founder of The Jonestown Institute who helped track down reluctant families. "There are still people who don't want to have anything to do with their relatives."

Family members did claim four of the victims, including Maud Perkins, whose remains were shipped to her husband in Antioch.

Delaware state officials were unable to find any relatives of Ottie Mese Guy, 34, and Ruth Atkins, 74, so they arranged with McGehee and Jones Jr. -- co-directors of the Jonestown Memorial Fund -- to send them to Evergreen Cemetery, which is still owned by Kamphausen.

Investigators also made contact with relatives of Tony Walker, Irene Mason and Wanda Bonita King, a 39-year-old Jonestown teacher originally from Indiana, where the Peoples Temple was founded. Their relatives agreed to let them be interred in Oakland.

"Sweet and feisty" is how one former Peoples Temple member described 86-year-old Mason, who belonged to the church's Los Angeles branch before moving to Guyana. She was born in 1892 in Alabama.

Oakland resident and Jonestown survivor John Cobb, 54, was part of the same security team as Walker and remembered him as a quiet and hardworking young man.

Cobb stood with Jones Jr., the cult leader's adopted son, and cemetery executive director Ron Haulman under a canopy on Monday morning and made some brief remarks as gravediggers placed the five small boxes of remains in a hole just outside the existing memorial wall.

Jones Jr. and Cobb helped build the four-stone Jonestown memorial in 2011. Other victims' family members sued, arguing that it was an insult to the victims to include the name of Jim Jones, the architect of the killing, on the list of dead. The California Court of Appeals dismissed the case and formally closed it last month.

Cobb, who lost eight family members at Jonestown, said he was saddened that these forgotten five victims were just joining the memorial ground Monday.

"They were unidentified and sitting somewhere for a long time," Cobb said. "It's good to have this kind of closure."

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