Remembering Detroiters who survived, died in Jonestown, 40 years ago

Detroit Free Press/November 17, 2018

By Meira Gebel

Odell Rhodes was fairly closedmouthed when it came to recounting his experience with the People's Temple in Jonestown.

Eugene Smith is writing a memoir about his.

Anthony Hicks was just 12 when he died, alongside his brother, mother and aunt — all Detroit natives — during the devastating massacre that took place 40 years ago this Sunday.

More than 900 people died on Nov. 18, 1978 in the mass murder-suicide known as the Jonestown Massacre, one of the largest mass deaths in American history. 

The horrific news stunned the world. Families in Michigan and across the country scrambled for answers as  details made their way to the forefront of national conversation. Relatives lined up at U.S. Air Force bases hoping against hope their  loved one would not be identified among those found in Guyana. 

"I realize that the majority of so-called survivors were traumatized teenagers and young adults who were expected to come back to a society that shunned us in 1978 and that still stares at us in 2018," Smith wrote in a recent post on the Jonestown Institute blog. 

What happened in 1978

Jonestown was an an agricultural project established in Guyana — a South American nation located east of Venezuela — by the Peoples Temple, a religious group based in California founded in the early 1960's by the Rev. Jim Jones. 

On Nov. 18, 40 years ago, Jones, commonly referred to as the cult leader and often called “father” by his followers, urged his disciples to drink a cyanide-laced grape-flavored punch. Many were poisoned forcibly. Survivors recall members lining up to take the poison, children first, then adults. The tragedy spawned the phrase "Don't drink the Kool-Aid," referring to the danger in blindly following a person or cause.

The massacre happened just hours after Rep. Leo Ryan, a California congressman, was shot and killed alongside three journalists by Jonestown followers at an air strip in Guyana. Ryan had come to the country to investigate claims that people were being held at Jonestown against their will. 

According to the San Diego-based Jonestown Institute, 87 Temple members survived, including the 36 people who started the day in Jonestown. Some members in Guyana were able to slip out of Jonestown or happened to be away from the camp that particular day. 

Detroiters in Jonestown

Six people known to be from Detroit were in Jonestown. Only two survived the massacre.

Marthea Hicks, her two sons, Anthony, 12, and Romaldo, 13, along with her sister, Shirley, died. Marthea and Shirley were R&B singers and musicians in Jonestown, and even performed on occasion.

Rhodes, then 36, was one of the first to describe the tragedy to the world — his quotes documented across national newspapers. He said Jones killed himself with a gunshot to the head. 

Rhodes described himself as an electronic technician for Ford Motor Co., and a former U.S.Signal Corp officer who joined the Peoples Temple in 1976 while living in California. He said he arrived in Guyana a year later, Rhodes said during an FBI inquisition one month after the massacre. 

A Free Press story from July 26,1974 described Rhodes as a drug user, having “apparently ransacked” the room of two federal narcotics agents at what is now the Westin-Book Cadillac hotel in Detroit.

The next time his name appeared in print — the Nov. 21, 1978 edition of the Free Press — Rhodes was described as a “36-year-old convicted heroin addict with a long police and Army arrest record.” He said he took refuge in the jungle when the cyanide vat was brought out, and remembered security guards patrolling the campgrounds.

At the time of the article, Rhodes was believed to be the lone Detroit survivor of the massacre in Jonestown.

Eugene Smith survived, too. But that is not the way he sees it. 

“None of us survived Jonestown — none of us — because the world ended on that day," Smith told the Free Press. "That meant that you started over that day, completely."

He was in Georgetown clearing items from customs on Nov. 18, 1978. His mother, his wife, Ollie, and infant son, Martin, died that day. 

"I came back to nothing," he said, adding that his impending memoir begins on the evening of the massacre. "I had to recreate myself, you definitely didn't want to mention you were a Jonestown survivor."

Smith was born in Detroit at Highland Park Hospital. He remembers meeting Rhodes during a temple recruiting event, but didn't interact much afterward since they were both in different age groups. 

Since Smith was so young when he joined The Peoples Temple, he didn't have the same support system one would normally have. 

"I spent a decade trying to figure out the whole world and how to do it without being on the radar," he said. Since Jonestown, Smith has worked for the state of California and as a lab technician. 

Smith also appeared in a 2015 panel on Jonestown for C-SPAN. He is retired and living in California. 


Laura Johnston Kohl, 71 and also a survivor, remembers Rhodes as a sort of elder to the children of Jonestown, his cane always by his side.
Johnston Kohl, during her time in Guyana, was as a typist and would often work late into the night. In the mornings, she said, Rhodes would come and knock on the window of her cottage with his cane. 

“He was my morning alarm clock,” she told the Free Press. “I wouldn't really know how I would have woken up without him.”

Rhodes, Johnston Kohl said, would frequently spend time teaching crafts to the camp’s children, 300 of whom died. 

“He was a role model for the kids in a lot of ways,” she said. Ten years ago, Johnston Kohl saw Rhodes for the first time since Jonestown, at a 20-year memorial in Oakland, California. She said he seemed “distraught” and left early before speaking to some of the other survivors. Rhodes died in 2014. 

One of the survivors was Odell Rhodes, who hid while the suicides were carried out. Weeks before, he had written a letter to Jones expressing a desire to leave the settlement. 

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