Remembering the Jonestown massacre

November 18, 2008 7:17:11 PM PST
Jim Jones was a fiery San Francisco minister who preached racial equality and social change at the People's Temple. But by the time he led his followers to South America and carved out a Utopian village in the jungles of Guyana known as Jonestown, he had distorted his own message and turned his flock into a cult.

It was November 18th, 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana at commune seven miles wide and 12 miles long -- deep in the middle of a jungle.

More than 900 members died in a mass murder-suicide.

They were followers of a charismatic faith healer Reverend Jim Jones, who founded a church called People's Temple.

On that same day at a small airstrip not far away, Jones loyalists killed San Mateo Congressman Leo Ryan and four others.

Ryan's 28-year-old aide Jackie Speier was shot five times.

"When I think back to the experience, I never want to forget it because it's what has given me the strength to do what I've done with the rest of my life," said Rep. Jackie Speier (D) San Mateo.

Speier is now a Congresswoman. She was re-elected just two weeks ago.

"I still have the picture of everyone being alive and happy, and I don't have that imprint of people being sprawled out across the ground, being dead and bloated," said Jim Jones' son Jim Jones Jr.

Jim Jones Jr. carries his father's name. At the time he was 16 -- one of Jones' seven adopted children. Today he is a medical equipment sales executive.

In the early 1970's, Jones set up his church in San Francisco. It attracted thousands of followers. He promised them a better life, a perfect society. They were drawn to the spellbinding preacher.

Mayor George Moscone was among his many political friends.

"He had a reputation in the community for being able to give peace and harmony to people who are poor and very frustrated," said late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone in the early 1970's.

Many of Jones' followers signed over property and social security checks to the church.

When reporters began investigating, Jones sent his flock to Guyana to carve out that perfect society in the jungle. He joined his followers after the settlement was built.

You had to be somewhat impressed. There were crops growing in the fields, there were cabins everywhere, there was a medical clinic and a childcare center," said Rep. Speier.

Ryan's fact-finding party, accompanied by concerned relatives and news crews visited Jonestown the day before the massacre.

Their mission was to investigate charges that Jones was holding members against their will and that lives were in danger.

Jones Jr. says Jonestown had changed dramatically after his father moved there.

"The mood changed, work was not an enjoyment, it was a punishment," said Jones Jr.

Jones Jr. says his father become more irrational after getting hooked on drugs.

Speier says at first there were no signs of trouble -- just happy, smiling residents of Jonestown who seemed content.

They rolled out the red carpet for the visitors. But in the evening, two members slipped them notes which confirmed their greatest fears.

"They said I want to get out of here," said Rep. Speier.

The next morning, Ryan and Speier gathered the defectors for a ride to the airstrip to fly home. But word got out others wanted to leave.

"There was this outcry of anguish, family members taking their children. One wanting to stay, one wanting to leave and pulling either arm of the child," said Speier.

Jones tried to stop people from leaving. At the airstrip as Ryan and his group prepared to leave, gunfire broke out. Armed men aboard a tractor trailer had followed them. They killed Ryan and four others.

"I was lying with my head down pretending I was dead, and all of sudden they shot me and the whole right side of my body was blown up. So I'm 28-years-old and I'm looking at my body, saying 'oh my god' this is it," said Rep. Speier.

Speier says she waited 22 hours for help.

Jones Jr. had no idea what happened.

"I was in Georgetown the capitol of Guyana playing basketball," said Jones Jr.

His father called him on the two-way radio at their compound in Georgetown. He told Jones Jr. about the shooting and that they were going to kill themselves.

"I argued with him about, isn't there a different way? Isn't there something else we can do? And that's when the radio broke off. Our conversation was never finished," said Jones Jr.

The world saw the shocking pictures of what happened next. The bloated bodies of more than 900 people lying in Jonestown ? most were poisoned.

Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide laced fruit punch. Others, including Jones, were shot.

"I always bristle when people say it was a mass-suicide because it was not a suicide. Those people were murdered," said Speier.

"My father who had the potential to do all of these great things destroyed it all," said Jones Jr.

A marquee once stood over the gates of Jonestown. It said: "if you don't remember the past, you're doomed to repeat it."


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