When the bullets started spitting his way on that day in 1978 on the jungle airstrip in Guyana, Bob Brown did what he had always done as a news cameraman. He kept filming.
As the half-dozen gunmen sent by cult madman Jim Jones bounded off a tractor-trailer, rifles in hand. As they aimed at him. As he took a bullet to the leg. And as he fell to the ground, the wounded leg crumpling under him.
Within seconds he was dead with a final shot to the head. And the film in his camera, shakily showing the attack that ended his life and those of four others, including the first U.S. congressman ever to be killed in the line of duty, became one of the most grimly riveting video clips in history.
Brown was the NBC-TV cameraman who accompanied Rep. Leo Ryan as the Peninsula congressman led a team to Jonestown to investigate reports that Jones’ quasi-religious compound there was holding people captive through coercion and mind control.
On Nov. 18, 1978, the charade of spiritual harmony that Jones had begun with his Peoples Temple in San Francisco years before vanished as he ordered a hit squad to kill Ryan’s party as the delegation prepared to return to the Bay Area, and then exhorted more than 900 of his followers to commit “revolutionary” suicide — or what historians now consider mass murder.
Brown filmed the only video account of those final moments leading up to the murderous attack on Ryan’s party — the departure from the Jonestown compound, the attempt to load onto planes for departure at the nearby Port Kaituma airfield, then the shootings. And until now, nearly 40 years later, the family Brown left behind had never spoken publicly at length of that time.
Brown’s widow, 76-year-old Connie Brown Henderson, who lives quietly in a secluded mountain home in Grass Valley (Nevada County), said the cult massacre took away “the smartest man I ever knew.” She wants others to know that journalism is just as dangerous today — as evidenced by the 43 journalists killed doing their jobs in 2018 as of last month, by this year’s mass shooting at the Capital newspaper in Maryland, and by the recent killing of a Washington Post columnist in Turkey.
“My husband gave his life to expose the truth over there, but people forget,” Henderson said. “They forget that journalists are still being killed today while doing their jobs, and that cults will happen again — not if, but when.
“We just don’t teach history anymore.”
Henderson, a retired radio station manager, said she experienced a lot of history from her marriage to the swashbuckling Brown, who in the 1970s covered some of the biggest news stories of the day — from combat in Vietnam, where he was shot out of a helicopter, to a police shootout in Los Angeles that virtually destroyed a leftist militant organization known as the Symbionese Liberation Army.
But there was a more personal history the couple had to endure together: the scourge of Jim Crow racism.
Henderson is white and Brown was black, although few people knew it. But when campus administrators at the Indiana college they were attending in 1962 got wind that the two 20-year-olds were dating, the couple were immediately called in. Interracial marriage was illegal in Indiana, and dating between blacks and whites was considered trouble in Franklin, the town where their campus was located.
“The president called us in on a Sunday night and said, ‘Miscegenation is illegal in Indiana,’ and we had to stop seeing each other,” Henderson said. “I was so oblivious — I’d grown up in New Jersey — I didn’t even know what that meant. But Bob sure did, and he let him have it.”
Brown had grown up in New York, a top-flight student. And he told the president, Henderson said, that if he threw them out for dating he would tell the federal authorities who were funding his school loan, and the school might lose federal dollars. This apparently worked: The campus brass turned a blind eye to their relationship after that.
But then relatives on both sides weighed in to express disapproval of the relationship.
“We split up for a little while, but then got back together and told them, ‘too bad if you don’t like it.’ Some of our family didn’t talk to us for a long time,” Henderson said. “Eventually they got over it, and a lot of the relatives were fine all along. But it was hard for a while.”
Indiana legalized interracial marriage in 1965, but by then they’d had enough of Hoosier attitudes. They moved that year to San Francisco to get married. And that’s where they began their broadcast careers — she in radio, he as a cameraman and sometime on-air reporter for a series of TV stations including KTVU and the NBC network. Brown had always had a yen for adventure, a flair for drama, a thirst for justice. And he had dashing good looks. Broadcast news was a perfect fit, relatives said.
“Even as a kid, Bob wasn’t afraid of anything,” said his cousin Tyrene Peterson of Monroe, N.J. “He had a very vivid imagination — phenomenally intelligent, interested in everything.” She chuckled. “Plus, he was always very handsome. He did some modeling in college, and I think that’s probably how he got into photography because he knew it so well.”
As a camera operator from San Francisco to Los Angeles throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Brown river-rafted with President Jimmy Carter, filmed war protests in Berkeley, and covered so many bloody horrors, including the Juan Corona serial murders, that he earned the nickname “Gory Brown,” Henderson said.
“Bob’s way of dealing with that stuff was coming home and telling me all about it,” she said. “It surprisingly never bothered me. We were both pretty straightforward people. Dealt with reality as it was.”
In 1970, they both went to Vietnam so Brown could cover the war, and that’s when he was shot out of a helicopter. He was filming a battle in Cambodia, and when the chopper took rounds it pitched to one side, and he plunged 40 feet to a field of thick grass and cracked his neck and collarbone.
“Bob just picked himself up and ran to a landing zone,” Henderson said. “He had a very high threshold for pain.”
He also had iron nerves, which came in handy four years later when police got into a shootout in Los Angeles with SLA members who had earlier kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst, whose family founded the corporation that owns The Chronicle. As the two sides blasted off hundreds of rounds, Brown found himself on his belly under the fire line — shooting footage, just like in Vietnam.
It was the same composure that led him to keep filming four years later outside Jonestown even as bullets whizzed around him, said his family. No one who knew him was surprised.
“That was just Bob,” Peterson said. “He always had that calm composure, even when he was angry. He never lost his cool.”
Rep. Jackie Speier, an aide to Ryan who was shot five times on the airstrip, remembered him the same way.
“Bob Brown had a rugged take-no-prisoners Hollywood flair,” said Speier, who now represents Ryan’s district in Congress. “He carried the heavy camera like it was a light pillow. And he didn’t have any qualms about playing with fire.”
Along with Ryan and Brown, also killed on the airstrip were Don Harris, the NBC reporter sent with Brown to Guyana, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson and Peoples Temple defector Patricia Parks. Speier as well as Brown’s sound man Steve Sung and eight others survived their wounds, although a couple of bullets remain embedded in Speier’s body.
Henderson carried on to raise a Vietnamese refugee they’d taken in like a daughter, and she remarried 28 years ago. She credits her husband, retired psychologist Kevin Henderson, with helping her immensely in dealing with the emotional toll of losing Brown so suddenly, so violently. They are retired and spend mostly quiet days with their wheaten terriers, Gus and Maisie.
But sometimes it’s still tough.
“You don’t ever really heal from something like that,” Kevin Henderson said as his wife stared at her shoes. “You just get used to it. But there are times she goes quiet and turns within, or if some TV show mentions ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’” — a term that emerged in the aftermath of the tragedy and refers to blind obedience to a leader, but is derided by survivors as a flip reference to the cyanide-laced punch that killed the hundreds at Jonestown.
Connie looked up. “He keeps me calm,” she said.
It’s been 40 years since two horrendous events — the massacre of more than 900 people at Jonestown, Guyana, and the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk — shocked the world and changed the course of San Francisco’s future. This week, The Chronicle begins to look back on those dark days and their effect on the city. Today we profile Bob Brown, the TV cameraman who recorded some of the final images from Jonestown, even as he was being shot dead by Jim Jones’ disciples. Later this week, eight people with distinct perspectives on those tragic 10 days convey in their own words what happened and the impacts still felt today.
The Chronicle also will publish an oral history of that tragic time, including dozens of archival photos, audio recordings and “Dark Days,” a two-part episode of our documentary podcast “The Centerpiece.” Chronicle subscribers will receive an email Thursday giving them access to the project first on SFChronicle.com. It will be released in full on the site Friday and appear in print Sunday.
Brown was awarded a posthumous Emmy for his film work in Guyana, but Henderson remembers very little of the ceremony. Likewise his funeral in Los Angeles, where Geraldo Rivera — with whom Brown had worked — eulogized the slain cameraman.
“I never did see Bob’s body. Didn’t want to,” Henderson said. “He was bigger than life. Had that huge smile, was so funny, could dance like nobody else.” Her face brightened at the memory.
“I wanted to remember him like that,” she said. “And that’s how I remember him today. Always.”
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