The LuLac Edition #642, Nov. 18th, 2008
PHOTO INDEX: THE LATE CONGRESSMAN LEO RYAN AND THE INFAMOUS VAT OF KOOL-AID AT JONESTOWN FLANKED WITH DEAD BODIES.
30 YEARS AGO TODAY
Three decades ago an unusual series of events led to the deaths of more than 900 people in the middle of a South American jungle. Though dubbed a "massacre," what transpired at Jonestown on November 18, 1978, was to some extent done willingly, making the mass suicide all the more disturbing.
The Jonestown cult (otherwise known as the "People's Temple") was founded in the mid 60s by Indianapolis preacher James Warren Jones. Jones, who had no formal theological training, based his liberal ministry on a combination of religious and socialist philosophies.
After relocating to California in 1965, the church continued to grow in membership and began advocating their left-wing political ideals more actively. With an I.R.S. investigation and a great deal of negative press mounting against the radical church, Jones urged his congregation to join him in a new, isolated community where they could escape American capitalism—and criticism—and practice a more communal way of life.
In 1977, Jones and many of his followers relocated to Jonestown, located on a tract of land the People's Temple had purchased and begun to develop in Guyana three years earlier.
Relatives of cult members soon grew concerned and requested that the U.S. government rescue what they believed to be brainwashed victims living in concentration camp-like conditions under Jones's power.
In November 1978, California Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana to survey Jonestown and interview its inhabitants. After reportedly having his life threatened by a Temple member during the first day of his visit, Ryan decided to cut his trip short and return to the U.S. with some Jonestown residents who wished to leave. As they boarded their plane, a group of Jones's guards opened fire on them, killing Ryan and four others.
Some members of Ryan's party escaped, however. Upon learning this, Jones told his followers that Ryan's murder would make it impossible for their commune to continue functioning. Rather than return to the United States, the People's Temple would preserve their church by making the ultimate sacrifice: their own lives. Jones's 912 followers were given a deadly concoction of a purple drink mixed with cyanide, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Jones apparently shot himself in the head. U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Jonestown on November 17 without an invitation. Jim Jones had stalled the California politician's delegation for days in Guyana's capital, Georgetown, and for another several hours at Port Kaituma. Yielding to pressure from his attorneys and some in the Temple leadership -- who argued that they had nothing to hide -- Jones eventually allowed Ryan, several relatives of Peoples Temple members, and the news media covering the story into the community. American authorities had visited Jonestown before, but always announced days in advance. According to survivors, official visits were days when they were given half a day off work and meat to eat, and were authentically happy. For Ryan's visit, the camp rock band, the Jonestown Express, played for a joyful crowd. In a private meeting after the festivities, Jones complained to Ryan and the journalists about American government interference in his church.
"Help Us Get Out" The next morning, Ryan invited anyone who wanted to leave to join him on his return trip to the United States. Publicly, none of the residents had asked to leave, but a reporter showed Jones a note he was given: "Help us get out of Jonestown." Jones's temper flared. Ryan and his aide, Jackie Speier, canvassed the crowd. Edith Parks, an elderly woman, stepped forward, and then the rest of her family asked to go home as well. "My most vivid memory -- it's one that haunts me still -- is of a couple pulling on the arms of their child, who was 3 or 4," Speier recalls. "One parent wanted to leave; the other wanted to stay, and the child was caught between." Sixteen people asked to leave, and Ryan volunteered to stay behind as the truck made its first run to the airstrip. Then came the shouts. Congressman Ryan staggered forward, his shirt covered in blood. He had been attacked by a man with a knife, but other Peoples Temple members had pulled his assailant from him; the blood belonged to the attacker who had cut his own hand in the melee. Unhurt, Ryan hurried to join the truck.
The size of the group at the airstrip had swelled with the number of defectors, and a second plane had to be chartered from Georgetown, delaying their departure. As the group waited, a vehicle drove out of the jungle. Peoples Temple members rode up and fired at the group around the airplanes. NBC cameraman Bob Brown, correspondent Don Harris, San Francisco Chronicle photographer Greg Robinson, defector Patricia Parks and Congressman Leo Ryan were all killed. Eleven others were shot. They survived by pretending to be dead until the killers drove off.
The people outside the planes weren't the only victims. Larry Layton, who had pretended to defect but instead pulled out a gun when the firing began outside, wounded two before he was overpowered and disarmed. Layton would be the only person arrested for murder.