Survivor recounts the Jonestown Massacre 40 years later

NBC News WTHR 13, Indiana/November 17, 2018

By Rich Van Wyk

Indianapolis — It’s been 40 years since the horror and tragedy of Jonestown. Indianapolis minister turned cult leader, Jim Jones, ordered the mass murder and suicide of more than 900 followers. A third of Jones’ victims were children.

Decades later a handful of survivors and Indiana families are still tormented by what occurred in the jungle home of the People’s Temple.

It is a tragedy Thomas Beikman can’t forget. “I miss my parents, my brother and all the people that died, I grew up with,” he said.

Beikman, now in his 60's, grew up and nearly died in the church Jones created.

Jones started preaching in Indianapolis in the '50s. In the '60s he moved his Peoples Temple congregation to the San Francisco area, and then into the South American jungle of Guyana.

The promised utopia followers say became a hellish prison.

When California congressman Leo Ryan went to Jonestown to investigate, he and his entourage of staffers and reporters were attacked and killed.

Hours later the mass suicide and killings began.

“I think about them every day.” Beikman said.

He has only memories and old pictures of Ron, his 11-year-old brother, and his mom Becky. Some of the photos have pictures of Beikman's friends.

“This is Chris. We went to high school together.” Beikman said. “They died for no good reason, and it wasn’t by choice. It wasn’t mass suicide. That’s a fallacy. It was murder."

We first met Beikman 40 years ago. He was a skinny 21-year-old coming home from Jonestown with a casket bearing the body of his mother. “I remember that day it was like somebody ripped my heart out," he explained.

Beikman's little brother’s remains were never identified.

“I would just hope, I would have rather died and let my brother live because he was younger and that’s bothered me," he said. “That’s bothered me for years.”

For 30 years, Beikman said he kept quiet and never spoke of Jonestown to even his wife Cheryl or their son Todd.

“It got so bad, I had to block it," he said. “Between the dreams and ... I just pushed it out of my mind and pretended it didn't’t happen. I just let it get the best of me a few times.”

Times were good when the Beikmans and scores of other Indianapolis families were swept up by the hopes and promises of a charismatic Jones.

In a largely segregated city Jones preached equality and inclusion. Half of the Peoples Temple thousand member congregation was African American. In 1960 he became the first director of the Indianapolis Human Rights Commission.

Beikman was just a kid. “We were singing 'Jesus Loves Me' out in the congregation, up front in a circle on the floor.”

But later the church became less about Jesus and more about Jones.

Beikman also remembers the day the minister was supposedly shot in the church parking lot. “A shot rang out and he fell to the ground," he said. Jones was rushed into the church. Members were shown his bloodstained shirt. Then a short time later Jones appeared in front of them. “I don’t know anyone who gets shot in the chest and gets up and comes back.” Beikman explained. “He made people think he had the power to heal himself.”

Jonestown wasn’t even close to what Jones promised his followers. “He preached it was the promised land, a utopia,” Beikman said. "Hell on earth. The worst hell. I wouldn't’t send my worst enemy there.”

Beikman labored as a welder. His dad, Charles, was a shoemaker. His mom, Becky, was a seamstress.

According to Beikman, the work was long and brutal. The food was terrible. Armed guards and the jungle made Jonestown an inescapable prison.

He said a broken arm saved his life.

When Jones ordered his followers to swallow a concoction of cyanide and fruit drink or be killed. Beikman and his father were 125 miles away seeing a doctor.

“I knew something was going to happen at some point, but in my mind I didn't’t realize it would be that bad," Beikman said.

Only 33 people survived.

Beikman's dad spent years in a Guyana prison. When he was released, he struggled and passed away in 2001.

Beikman struggles too when he sees the faces of all of Jonestown’s victims.

“The sad part about it is there were a lot of good-hearted people, meant to do well they got caught up in it," he said. “I won’t allow myself to live in the past. But I am never going to forget. I am not going to let that rule me.”

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