Do you know how or why close to a thousand people died at Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978? Has anyone ever told you a remotely coherent story? In the following, Laurie Kahalas, a People’s Temple survivor, presents us with an account of the events from an insider’s perspective. Her book, Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown, is one of the most significant works on the subject published on the subject.
My name is Laurie Efrein Kahalas, and I was with the Peoples Temple for eight-and-a-half years. I was living in the Temple building in San Francisco when tragedy struck, along with a tiny crew left back in the States for organisational work. While others were wildly shredding documents, I quietly saved them, squireling away documents and files for a later, brighter day. There was nothing there that could incriminate us (for indeed, we were not criminals at all, we were humanitarians); and I realised I held in my hands the keys to some day exculpate my friends. As if such a thing could be possible! But I vowed to try.
I am here to humanise the events at Jonestown, or as the Preface of Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown, says: “To be fully human in the face of infamy.” The world spent so much time demonising Jim Jones, there was none left to humanise the people of Jonestown, or to comprehend the terror of their plight.
What was the real story? Were the elements human, political, circumstantial? Preventable, not preventable? Were there demons, villains, heroes?
In fairness to researchers, it has been next to impossible to research, in thatJonestown was one of the worst cases of yellow journalism in the entire history of the American media. It all began with the power of the press.
All “research” goes back to the “original sources,” an unseemly amalgam of three components: 1) Ex-member plants in the group; 2) their non-member government-based handlers; and 3) the tiniest handful of aggrieved ex-members who were used as pawns. Of the ex-member group who did not have the earmarks of being government plants, most lost relatives in the tragedy.
The horrendous mass death at Jonestown burst onto the world press in November, 1978, complete with gory details and fingers of blame. Although it was breaking news, all the background, the analyses, the witnesses, the media heroes, were ready-made for the press; nor was there any other candidate for blame but Jim Jones. The people at Jonestown were “brainwashed”; their defenders “apologists”; the only “credible sources” were the people who had “exposed” Peoples Temple a year and more prior to the tragedy.
We say we know the crushing power of the press, but no one knows that in full measure until you experience a Jonestown. So intense and widespread was the deluge, that it never even occurred to those within the press to question whether it may have been the very same people so intent upon destroying the church’s reputation, who had moved to destroy Jonestown physically.
The most notorious precursor of such methods was the Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels, who advised laying down a barrage of bad press to indoctrinate the Germans into exterminating the Jews. “Repeat a lie often enough and people will believe it.” With Peoples Temple, it was rendered all too easy, for the group had virtually relocated thousands of miles away, leaving no viable voice to defend the church.
At first, it seemed a great shock, for the church had been “the toast of the town,” for its humanitarian service work. A mere six months before Jim Jones’ exodus to Guyana, a Testimonial Dinner featured plaques of commendation from the Mayor of San Francisco, the City Council, the State Senate, and accolades from the Lieutenant Governor, the Police Commissioner, Assemblyman Willie Brown (now Mayor of San Francisco) and many others. Yet in the very first smear, in New West, a fledgling Murdoch publication, a 25-year record of humanitarian service was merely held up, then dumped in the trash, in favour of “What is going on behind closed doors”?
Although Jonestown was the church’s crown jewel accomplishment, an acclaimed breakaway from the inner cities of the United States, with their racism, unemployment, drugs, crimes, substandard housing and more, the destroyers merely used people who had never even been to Jonestown as “sources,” and began with “Jonestown: Paradise or Prison?” From that time forward, until the arrival of reporters at the end, no reporter had ever visited Jonestown, yet horror stories from the most suspect people were all the mainstream press would print. By the time the reporters arrived, they had been so manipulated to suspect the worst, they actually wrote that they thought it “odd” that black and white, young and old, were singing and swaying together, and that “I wondered if they had been drugged or hypnotised”! Another reporter broke into a senior women’s residence, saw bunk beds (for building individual cottages was ongoing for a large exodus), and concluded “It looked like a slave ship.”
Who lay the groundwork for the Congressman and the press to come to Jonestown? Who led Congressman Ryan into what turned out to be a death trap? More pointedly, who was it who set that trap for him, and how can we be sure?
Jonestown Targeted by Agent Provocateurs
It is time to examine the “valiant crusaders” who “exposed” Peoples Temple in the press and forced the investigatory visit to Jonestown.
Their leaders were a combination of agency plants and provocateurs, as directed by their non-member government handlers. A year-and-a-half smear campaign preceded the tragedy, destroying an acclaimed church in absentia, during which time the Murdoch and Hearst presses blacked out any dissent.
Moreover, no one was who they said they were, and their stated motives were “cover stories,” not fact. The story was not “courageous ex-members who dared to step forward,” but rather the tiniest handful of vindictive ex-members with suspect personal motives, being used by people with a far-right-wing political agenda.
The leaders of the parade, Elmer and Deanna Mertle (a/k/a Jeannie and Al Mills), were right-wing extremists,veterans of the notorious John Birch Society; and Timothy Stoen, veteran of clandestine spying missions into East Berlin in the early sixties. The Mertles were murdered in February 1980 in their home in Berkeley, California, by people the police surmised “they knew,” for there were no signs of forced entry or burglary. The killings of these two, and their daughter Daphene were done very professionally – dum-dum bullets, “execution style,” and leaving no traceable clues.
Most tellingly, they were murdered a mere five days after announcing they no longer wanted to speak out against Peoples Temple! Their murders prevented them from posing a life-long liability… but for whom?
Timothy Stoen, former top attorney for the church, and founder of the “Concerned Relatives” group, had no relatives in Jonestown, but aggressively pushed his slander factory to bring Congressman Ryan to Jonestown on false pretences. He deliberately and knowingly pressed a false paternity claim to Jim Jones’ own child, repeatedly threatening to send in mercenaries, as recorded in newspaper editorials and State Department logs. A previous mercenary attack against the community came within a few days after his attorneys had travelled to Jonestown to serve legal papers, with the implicit threat: “Release the child or else violence will ensue.” To justify ongoing threats of violence against defenceless families, Stoen meanwhile persuaded Deborah Layton, an ex-member who swore to many lies, to claim that she had personally seen “hundreds of guns,” although both Guyanese and American authorities later discovered all of thirty-nine – .22 calibre and none automatic. These people were transparently defenceless.
Within two weeks of the tragedy, Stoen bragged that he would “destroy Jonestown,” and specifically that he was “counting on Jim [Jones] to overreact.” As America viewed on screen through one of its major networks, ABC, Congressman Ryan addressed the community of Jonestown saying, “I hear many of you saying that this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you!”, leaving any motive for assassinating him quite thin. It seems quite unbelievable that a Congressional visit alone, much less a positive one, could possibly create such an “overreaction.” Stoen surely knew that his “concentration camp” charges could not stick, so to what would Jim Jones “overreact”? A mere visit? Or an assassination?
It was also Stoen who was later exposed as the one who had continually tried to pushed a non-violent church onto a terrorist course (called an “agent provocateur”), it was Stoen who made all the threats against Jonestown, and it was Stoen who led Congressman Ryan into Jonestown on false pretenses. More tellingly even, Stoen had secretly been a far-right-wing zealot all along, and Congressman Leo Ryan was known to be the most vocal anti-CIA Congressman in the entire United States Congress! We want to bear this in mind when we ponder what is known about the assassination.
Stoen, who had been living communally and was now visibly unemployed, spent huge sums of money on lobbying in Washington, cross-continent travel, and it was discovered that he had several secret bank accounts in foreign countries where the church had done no banking at all.
Other key movers and shakers in the ongoing campaign had never been members at all – not of Peoples Temple, anyway. More like “membership” in the Treasury Department, Interpol, and some deadringers for ties with both FBI and CIA. Most notable were two shadowy characters by the names of David Conn and Joseph Mazor.
David Conn admitted being close friends with the Mertles all the years they were members, and moreover, of “investigating” the church throughout that time. He claimed he was concerned about “black people being ripped off.” (Note: In point of fact, Jim Jones was such a careful steward of the people’s money, Tim Stoen never even made such a charge). Yet he went to Native American leader Dennis Banks, and tried to blackmail him into turning against Jim Jones, or be sent back to his death in a South Dakota prison! So the cover story about caring about minorities was definitely false! Moreover, Conn had bragged to Banks about his ties to the US Treasury Department, which works closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and two other sources confirmed Conn as a Treasury Department agent.
Joseph Mazor, who was discovered to be a member of Interpol, housed adjacent to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, was an admitted felon, who was mysteriously granted a State investigator’s license fresh out of prison for passing bogus checks – just in time to investigate Peoples Temple! He admitted orchestrating the smear campaign against the church, stating that his employers were outsiders, never members of the church, and he refused to reveal their identities or the source of his funding. Mazor was later to “claim credit for” the mercenary attack against Jonestown, and travelled there to announce that the original plan of the attack had beenmass extermination. A community which was already isolated and defenceless now feared the worst – and just weeks before the Congressman arrived!
Influential & Powerful Voice for the Oppressed
What were the motives behind the smears in the press? Peoples Temple Christian Church performed all the work of the church, caring for the poor, the needy, and the disadvantaged. But we were also interracial. We were socialist. Our leader had a powerful, influential voice. Although we had become a political forum for every left-wing leader, advocate, or cause of the day, we were gaining ground in the mainstream. We were even planning to re-relocate to the then-Soviet Union during the Cold War. We “had to be stopped.”
Following the tragedy, Joseph Mazor who, like the others, had never revealed any political motivation for opposing the church, now stated flatly, “It was considered that Jim Jones would become a major political force in the Caribbean within five years.” It was patently clear that despite the church’s ongoing non-violence, they feared a new Castro in the Caribbean. An American Castro, with citizens free to enter and exit the States at will. Was it possible for the CIA to not be interested in such an international scenario?
And who else might the CIA have an interest in wanting to “stop”? The CIA’s main gadfly at that time was one Leo Ryan, the slain Congressman, who had passed the Hughes/Ryan Bill of 1974, requiring the CIA to report all covert operations to Congress. Indeed, both Jim Jones and Leo Ryan, both threats to the CIA, wound up dead? “Coincidence”?
In any case, we were indeed “stopped” from either any proliferation in the Caribbean, or a move to the then-Soviet Union, in the most tragic manner possible. Yet all the public was ever told was that Peoples Temple was a bizarre violent cult with an insane leader. “Bizarre murder/suicide ritual” was the mantra of the day. Politics was never mentioned.
But it was more. If the story had been exactly as told, it could be left alone. But it never was. Cover-ups and disinformation were, of necessity, rampant. This is, indeed, what has most complicated the present-day task of telling what really happened at Jonestown. The rumour mill has been so widespread, one has to contend with not just facts, but an ingrained belief system, that has all the earmarks of itself being a “cult.” People who want to believe that “Jim Jones was CIA,” or “Jonestown was a secret CIA mind control experiment,” or “Jonestown was MK Ultra,” have been more daunting to contend with than people who have simply been uninformed.
No one has ever considered that the disinformation pervading the aftermath of the Jonestown tragedy was perpetuated because Leo Ryan was so known to his aides to be anti-CIA, that to ward off a direct investigation of the CIA for assassinating Ryan, they have to concoct Jim Jones must have been CIA! If even madness has method, here is the simple key to the false and unverified barrage of accusations about Jonestown being a secret CIA mind control experiment and the like. Just blame Jim Jones and call it CIA. If the CIA really did it, no one given that absolutely false clue could ever trace it to the source. It was deliberately designed by dead-end specialists to lead nowhere.
This is what has led to the current approach of dismantling the disinformation. It has not been possible to speak the truth without first dismantling the fabric of lies spread to date, and clarifying whythose lies have been spread: their origin, their rationale, their intended purpose. One must first strip awaydisinformation before having any capacity to see.
Jonestown NOT a CIA Experiment
I want to dismantle the most rampant disinformation first: the absolute lie that “Jim Jones was CIA.” Jim Jones would have rather had his eyes gouged out. It was both the measure of, and admittedly, the danger of his character, that rather than do that, he would die. He was the most mission-driven individual I have ever met in my entire life.
Jonestown was NOT a mind control experiment in the mould of “MK Ultra.” I personally do not doubt that the CIA might have been glad to use Jonestown as such had they the chance. I am not attempting, understand, to exonerate the CIA! Indeed, I see their footprints all over this disaster. But the mind control experiment story is disinformation 100%.
Jonestown was a beautiful, productive, thriving interracial community, acclaimed as a “paradise,” which was the happiest and most fulfilling life that most of its largely-inner city residents had ever known. It was a shining model of how inner city dwellers can thrive and excel on a worldwide stage. It was described by visitors as “a paradise,” “a superior society,” “like coming to another planet,” and ” a credit to humanity.”
The media who were so eager to smear Jonestown had not even visited! When Congressman Ryan finally did visit, his commentary to the assemblage was that “I hear many of you saying that this is the best thing that has ever happened to you. What is being done here is of great significance, even on a worldwide basis.” Obviously, their was no motive for Jonestown residents to assassinate someone who intended to bring back a good report.
Events Leading Up to the Tragedy
I want to approach the catastrophe in two stages: first the assassination at the Port Kaituma airstrip, then the deaths at Jonestown.
First, the reader must realise that this matter was never brought to a court of law. Members of the Jonestown community were convicted of the assassination in the press, naming Jim Jones as the mastermind who “ordered” the assassination. This was accomplished not only with no incriminating evidence, but with considerable exculpatory evidence that was never considered. These were the many factors:
There were no forensics done on the Congressman; no match-up of bullets against guns. Indeed, the assassination was reportedly done with dum-dum bullets, which explode upon impact, rendering them untraceable, and which were beyond the technical capabilities of anyone at Jonestown to manufacture.
The so-called “eyewitness identifications” were bogus – made by (according to the Congressional investigators) Jim Cobb, a man who was not only suing us for millions of dollars at the time, but who did not even know many of the alleged attackers (they had joined the church after he left), admitted being “on the other side of the plane when the shooting started,” and then fled for his own life in the other direction! He never even had the shooters in his line of vision!
There were virtually no autopsies done – all of seven, and of even those, the bodies were embalmed before being shipped back to the medical team in the United States! An American doctor lamented that they had not even verified poisoning in a single case! That it would have been very simple – just a little blood or urine, but that with all the hundreds of bodies, it was not done on a single one. Shipments of the dead were nearly not accepted because there had been no death certificates prepared. No one even went to collect the bodies until they had been laying out three days in the tropical sun.
A key piece of evidence did emerge unexpectedly: an on-site film of the assassination had been taken by Bob Brown, an NBC photojournalist who was then himself shot. I first saw this film at the first anniversary of the tragedy in 1979. I was alarmed to see a sophisticated military formation, identified for me as “a squad diamond”, not at all within the capability of Peoples Temple. The killings looked very professional, and indeed, Bob Flick, a reporter on site, described the killings as “calm, silent, brutal, methodical” and that the attack had been “carefully planned and mercilessly executed.”
At the time, I went to the Congressional investigating committee to demand they blow up the film to confirm that it was not anyone from Jonestown who killed the Congressman. They refused, deliberately botched my transcript, and when I tried to mail the information to the 34 Congressmen on the committee in Washington, only two of my return mailing receipts came back stamped!
I had neither the clout nor the connections to obtain the film at the time, but now at the twentieth anniversary, it has resurfaced, as have other pieces of evidence perhaps considered less dangerous by this late date. I currently have a source in possession of the film, and confirming military opinion that this was a “diamond formation,” and a thoroughly professional “hit.”
Yet the bias in the United States press continues to the degree that snippets of that film have been played on several television stations, and no one even commented that the shooters were all dressed alike – in Army uniforms!Perhaps the truth, flagrant as it is, may yet surface through the simple channels of common sense.
Next is that the assassins did not arrive on the Temple truck. They barrelled on in a second vehicle, as all eyewitnesses confirmed. They were somehow able to rapidly and skilfully disarm the Guyanese police on site before opening fire on the Congressman and his party.
What of the charge that “Jim Jones ordered the assassination”? What was released publicly of “the final tape” made at Jonestown, however severely spliced and abbreviated it was, is unequivocal on that point again and again. Indeed, the identity of the killers was completely unknown to Jim Jones:
1) “I didn’t order the shooting”;
2) “I don’t know who shot the Congressman.”;
3) “I can’t control these people [who did].”;
4) “I waited against all evidence… I tried to prevent all this from happening.”;
5) “I wish I could call it back.”;
6) “I never wanted to kill anybody.”;
7) “How many are dead?… Oh, God Almighty, God help them…”
A letter written to Congress and the President months earlier, had predicted exactly what would happen:
“All that has been done is to get people to believe in society… Our people had been so alienated. All that they can see in this is a set-up, a classic scenario: first muddy our name… whip up attacks in the press, and then: by the time you reach the classic ending, the frame-ups, the ‘kill,’ no one even cares. …And they think that the press has already done its job with slander and smears, and so no-one will care about the frame-ups…”
Yet when the moment of truth was upon the people of Jonestown, the chaos and confusion was so thick, that panic about an invading force had taken over. Tragically, contingencies had been discussed long since, following the mercenary attack in September, 1977. This was a community that was geographically trapped, militarily defenceless, and so remote and isolated, it did not even have a phone to alert the world or call in help. The great majority of residents had vowed to never be forced back to the inner cities of the United States. The previous military attack had happened in broad daylight, when they were peaceably going about their daily business. Now it was the wake of the assassination of a Congressman, heading towards the middle of the night. How much greater the peril! Thus, when Jim Jones told his assembled community that forces would be closing in for a slaughter, it seemed all too real.
Moreover, Port Kaituma, the location of the airstrip assassination, was seven miles from Jonestown, so no one reported the men in Army uniforms had assassinated the Congressman! But even had they known, that would have heightened the danger, not diminished it.
In my book, Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown, I lay out all the possible post-assassination scenarios whose perpetrators must at all cost cover up. Although I was horrified at the suicides, I am still haunted to this day, what might have happened had they simply waited out the night. Life is precious, and any life that could have been saved would be precious, whatever the overall carnage. But carnage there would have been. There would have to have been carnage to cover their tracks and eliminate anyone with an alibi, differing version, or questions about a frame.
As for the people of Jonestown, they would have been thrilled to survive and live on. They took their own lives not because they were drugged or brainwashed or robots. They genuinely and legitimately feared a slaughter from outside forces.
I know what happened will be controversial forever; and I wept, especially over the loss of children, more times over more years than I can easily admit. But I loved these people, and what has bruised my heart along with the deaths, is the injustice of what happened, that the truth was never told, and that no one has ever spoken on their behalf. They were a role model for how inner city dwellers could thrive and excel on a worldwide stage. They were brave, wonderful pioneers, who deserve far better than to be labelled as “brainwashed,” “robots,” or even “psychopaths.”
Moreover, who will ever dare another Jonestown? Who will break away in self-empowerment and overcome the many social problems which beset minorities in the United States? More than those people were killed. They killed off a hope.
Many people do not care that a thousand people, largely minority and poor, died in some remote jungle. Yet in pressing this matter in the States, I have to assume that people care that the assassination of a United States Congressman was a frame-up, blamed on the wrong people, done to provoke mass death, and that there are many ways this can be proven. We do have an unfortunate record in tracking down the truth about assassinations. Witness John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Bobby Kennedy, and others. But life has put me here, and I take it as a commitment, even an honour, that I can speak for my fallen friends. I have never doubted that it is the right thing to do.
These were people who lived with good cause. From radiant health to beautiful cottages, to a wonderful community school, burgeoning medical facilities, fabulous home-grown food, creative, fulfilling employment, self-empowerment, freedom from all the scourges of poverty, drugs and crime…. and most especially, to harmony between the races, ages, genders, economic classes, the people of Jonestown had an incredible life, a “future life” they treasured. Next to you or me, most of us, and certainly society as a whole, they lived with good, even valiant cause. That is much of why they were put in that position – “that position” being their backs up against the wall! Whether the world will ever comprehend how they met their deaths, it is time to honour the example and sacrifice of their lives.
As for me, I vowed not to live my life as a victim over this, and I am not. I do not live in shame. And in my heart, if not in the eyes of the world all these years, my friends who died at Jonestown do not live on in shame either. Jim Jones? I knew him when he was strong and vibrant, before the deteriorations of illness. He was the most passionate, committed champion for racial and economic equality that I have ever seen or known. He was by nature a pacifist, and only slowly, through extreme trials, did his mettle snap. Was he unbalanced? Of course! How do you live under such threats, and the descent of such a doom (not to mention terminal illness!), without extreme reactions? I am brutally honest in my book about organisational problems, my own conflicts, and Jim Jones’ overbearing, sometimes ruthless personality. But I know he loved those people, and that his very heart would burst rather than wilfully inflict that kind of pain.
The final words on “the final tape” were perhaps as redeeming for a community that was unfailingly peace-loving, as they were tragic:
“They are not taking our lives. We are not taking their lives. We are laying down our lives in protest against conditions of an inhumane world. We are a thousand people who don’t like the way the world is.”
I don’t much like the way the world is either, though perhaps not in quite the same way, and certainly not with the same remedy. It does not make me want to die. It makes me want to live. To create a future where such travesties as what was done to Jonestown never again happen. Where it is not only accepted, but nurtured and encouraged, for people to live together in peace – all races, all religions, all ages, all backgrounds, in harmony and acceptance of one another. Let us do it, and not have to face a slaughter for the trying. I don’t want to see any more “Jonestowns of death.” But I would be thrilled to see more communities in this, our troubled world, with that calibre of life. Let us, Humanity, learn from experience. Finally. Please.
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Snake Dance: Unravelling the Mysteries of Jonestown
By Laurie Efrein Kahalas (410 pages; perfect bound)
SNAKE DANCE is at a 180-degree tilt from the official view. Although devastated by a “suicide option” for a community with children, the author courageously reveals the whole, startling truths, so as to prevent future catastrophes. Laurie Kahalas relates to all aspects with searing honesty: traumas, conflicts, cult, philosophical perspective, historical context, the transformative powers of life and death. Written as an autobiography, this book is gripping, compelling, moving, touching, and heart-wrenchingly real.
The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 53 (March-April 1999).
© New Dawn Magazine and the respective author.
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