Shawn Vestal: Longtime Spokane newsman, slain reporter’s son remembers Jonestown

The Spokesman-Review/November 21, 2018

By Shawn Vestal

Forty years ago, as he prepared to leave his California home to cover growing concerns about a cult community in Jonestown, Guyana, for NBC News, Don Harris packed a pistol in the false bottom of his suitcase.

A TV news veteran of wars and riots who had covered Saigon in the final days of the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War in the Middle East, Harris liked to be prepared. But neither he nor his son, Jeff Humphrey, nor the rest of the family – Jeff’s mom and two sisters – were that concerned about this assignment.

Still, Jeff took note of the Browning 9 mm Hi-Power.

“I said, ‘What’s up with the gun, Dad?’ ” said Humphrey, who was 17 at the time.

His dad said there were reports of people stockpiling weapons in Jonestown, but it was just a precaution.

“ ‘It’s not a big deal,’ ” he said.

Within days of Harris’ arrival in South America, though, the news out of Jonestown turned impossibly grim: More than 900 members of the People’s Temple had died on Nov. 18, 1978, many after consuming a poison-laced fruit drink.

But the first news reports that trickled out in the day that followed concerned a shooting at an airstrip, involving journalists and a congressman.

Humphrey and his family went to bed that night not knowing whether their dad was alive.

Newsman and father

Humphrey, who was a TV reporter in Spokane for 26 years, grew up watching his father on television and tagging along on assignments when he could.

Don Harris – whose legal name was Roy Darwin Humphrey – worked at stations in Tampa, Florida; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles. He started one of the first morning news shows in Dallas. He became an NBC correspondent in 1975 and was sent to cover Vietnam. His career included provocative investigations and reporting from dangerous places, as well as commentary pieces.

To Humphrey, the work had always looked enticingly glamorous, whether in the studio or the field – he got to ride in helicopters and be on TV and hang around important news events. Humphrey was 6 years old when he first asked a station manager for a job in TV news. He always wanted to do what his dad did.

“I loved being with him,” said Humphrey, 57. “Loved being around television. … I got to do really fun things that most kids just didn’t get to do.”

Humphrey grew up mostly in Woodland Hills, California, the oldest of three kids. His mom took care of the family and supported Harris’ career – which often took him off to news events for days at a time, at the ringing of a telephone. Humphrey recalls helicopters would sometimes land at the end of their street to spirit Harris off to a breaking story.

“He’d fly all over the West,” Humphrey said.

But he also remembers Harris as a committed family man. When he wasn’t working, Harris had the kids helping him in the yard, or he played games with them, or took them on road trips. “If he wasn’t working, he was with us,” Humphrey said.

“We were the original Griswold family,” he said, referring to the clan from the “Vacation” movies. “We would get in that Lincoln Continental and drive for hundreds of miles.”

Today, Humphrey’s regard for his father includes both his journalistic endeavors and his devotion as a family man. And he’s tried to follow his father’s example in both arenas. He went into journalism as soon as he could – “I never thought of doing anything else.” – and after stints working at stations in Florida, Colorado and Nevada, he came to Spokane in 1990, working then for KREM.

His plan then was the common one for journalists at the time, in both print and television: Stay a couple of years and head on to bigger markets in Seattle, Portland or elsewhere. But he and his wife, Lori, instead formed bonds here and made it their home, raising their children and enjoying the ample outdoor recreation.

He moved to KXLY in 2003 and spent another 13 years doing what he became so well-known for here: covering public safety, courts and crime. About 18 months ago, he left to take a job as media content coordinator for the city government. He and his wife have two adult kids – a son, Brad, who works as a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy, and a daughter, Jessica, who works as a nurse in Pullman.

Melissa Luck, who worked with Humphrey at KXLY, said that it’s evident his father’s legacy – as a journalist and as a man – has been a lodestar for Humphrey. Luck reported on Humphrey’s father and his connection to the Jonestown events a decade ago for KXLY; she’s now the news director at the station.

“Jeff carries the responsibility and the legacy of his dad with him all the time,” she said. “It guides his decisions as a journalist, guides his decisions as a father and guides his decisions as a husband.”

Ambush at airstrip

Harris went to Jonestown with a group of other journalists and California Congressman Leo Ryan. They were going to investigate rumors of torture, kidnappings and other illegal behavior by members of the People’s Temple, a religious movement founded in Indiana by Jim Jones. The group had formed an agricultural commune, which Jones envisioned as a “socialist paradise,” at a remote location in Guyana called Jonestown.

Harris, Ryan and the rest of their delegation arrived in Jonestown on Nov. 17 and spent parts of two days negotiating access and seeing the commune. They were taken to a reception at the pavilion in the center of the community, and were presented with a peaceful, happy picture of life there. But a member of the commune covertly handed Harris a note at one point – apparently thinking he was Ryan – that said, “Please help us get out of Jonestown.”

Harris went back to Jones to ask him about it.

“Someone came and passed me this note,” he told Jones in the footage from the interview.

Jones, clearly irritated, said that people at the commune would leave whenever they wanted.

“People play games, friend,” he said. “They lie, they lie – what can I do about liars?”

As Ryan, Harris and the delegation left, they were joined by about 30 People’s Temple members who had decided to leave. But when they reached an airstrip nearby, they were ambushed by an armed contingent of People’s Temple security forces. Ryan and Harris were killed, along with two other journalists and one defector.

Later that night, Jones ordered his congregation to drink a grape-flavored fruit drink that had been laced with cyanide and other substances. More than 900 people died, including many children.

Before 9/11, it was the largest loss of life among civilian Americans in history.

‘Your father’s dead’

Humphrey’s mom woke him up at 4 a.m. the day after the first, incomplete reports had emerged from Guyana.

“Son, it’s time to wake up,” she said. “Your father’s dead.”

His mother, as heartbroken as she was, had also recognized how important it was for them to begin informing and supporting Harris’ family back in Georgia. They traveled there for the funeral, where he was remembered by friends and family – and by Tom Brokaw.

Eventually, his father’s belongings were returned to the family by the State Department. Inside, still hidden away, was the pistol Harris had taken. In the heat of Guyana, people had to dress lightly, and it was impossible to carry a concealed pistol, Humphrey said.

“The gun came back to us, but my dad did not,” he said.

Humphrey kept his father’s gun until it was stolen some years later. His wife gave him another one as a gift before their marriage. He carries it, permitted, to this day.

“I had vowed long ago,” he said, pausing to collect his emotions, “to do everything in my power not to leave my family alone.”

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