The images coming from Jonestown in 1978 were ghastly. Bloating in the sweltering heat of the South American sun lay the bodies of hundreds of people, the result of an apparent mass suicide. Some of the bodies had their arms linked around friends, as if they had gone to face the afterlife together. All were members of a religious cult called “The People’s Temple”. Allegedly, they had been convinced to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid by their charismatic leader, an American religious leader and sometime-faith-healer called Jim Jones. His body was also found among the dead, but Jones had opted out of taking cyanide like his followers, dying instead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The events leading up to this massive loss of life (later estimated at over 900 fatalities) were equally strange. Jones, the son of a member of the racially intolerant Ku Klux Klan, surprisingly preached a doctrine that called for a better world where there was harmony between the races. He dreamt of building a version of Utopia. Considering himself the reincarnation of not only Jesus Christ but also Vladimir Lenin, Jones founded his People’s Temple in Ukiah, California. His followers, who were mostly black, were kept in line by Jones’ own security force, who relieved the cult members of all the money they had, which generally arrived in the form of government assistance cheques. Reports that followers who tried to leave his Temple were abused and sometimes died, prompted Jones to move to the more anonymous San Francisco, where he was able to expand his Temple. As the media continued to hound him, in 1977, Jones decided on a spot deep in the jungles of South America as the location for his “Utopia”.
Without question, his followers moved with him, and he was able set up the infamous “Jonestown”, a community in which he was the only law. But still the reports of abuse continued. By 1978, the furore was so loud that it prompted US Congressman Leo Ryan to fly down to Guyana to look into the problem for himself. On 18 November, 1978, Ryan entered Jonestown, along with a few curious reporters and the deputy chief of the US mission to Guyana, Richard Dwyer.
As they were preparing to return to the US from a nearby airfield, the entire investigative party, with the mysterious exception of Dwyer, was shot dead. Shortly after the killings took place on the airfield – or perhaps as he gave the order that lead to the deaths of the investigators – Jones issued his suicide order. Within hours, the People’s Temple turned into a charnel house. Jonestown, as an example of the lethal power of religious cult leaders, was disturbing enough. But as time passed, it became clear that there was more to Jonestown than simple religious mania. Soon, the high est levels of the US Government were implicated, adding a new dimension of horror to an already sickening tragedy.
A Stray Gun
Even though Jones’ body was found in Jonestown, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the apparent suicide weapon was found 200 feet from the body. This would indicate that either Jones was murdered himself, or it wasn’t Jones at all. Close examination of the corpse revealed that it lacked Jones’ tattoos . . .
When coroner C Leslie Mootoo suggested that the Jonestown deaths were murder, not suicide, therefore warranting investigation, the US Army disagreed. The bodies were left to rot in the sun.
Given that Jones chose to pick most of his followers from the ranks of the poor and minority groups, it is no surprise that so little fuss was kicked up. The mass suicide of a cult is tragic, but hardly unexpected. It happened before Jonestown, it has happened plenty of times since and it will continue to happen while figures such as Jones only come to the attention of authorities when it is far too late to save anyone.
The main suspects
Jones’ history reveals he was more than a simple faith healer. He was a fund raiser for politicians, including the impeached President Richard Nixon. While he professed grandiose ideals of Utopia, he was a strong supporter of the Republican Party. In 1961, he worked for a year in Brazil, rumoured to be doing work for the CIA. It was this work, or rather the $10,000 he earned from it, that allowed him to set up his fi rst Temple in Ukiah. While in Jonestown, his followers were numbed with drugs, fed next to nothing, worked as slave labour and were forced to run through practice “suicide drills”. Jones may have been running a massive mind-control experiment in Jonestown, with the help of the CIA. When it became apparent that the news would be released after Ryan’s visit. Jones simply erased the evidence.
There are several links with the CIA and Jones. Aside from his work in Brazil, Jones’ associates included a member of UNITA, the CIA-sponsored Angolan army, and Dan Mitrione, who worked for another CIA-bankrolled outfit, the International Police Academy. Jones’ mind-control experiments in Guyana could easily have been an extension of the CIA’s MK-Ultra work, undertaken in a location far from the prying media. In fact, drugs used in Mk-Ultra were also found in Jonestown. It’s also interesting to note that Dwyer, the sole survivor of Ryan’s party, was listed in the book Who’s Who In The CIA .
The US Government
The US Embassy helped Jones move his temple into Guyana, and when it was reported that cult members had been shot, not poisoned, it was discovered that a group of American Green Berets had been in the area. Green Berets are valued for their skill in covert killing, and were a favourite tool of the military in Vietnam. A cover up was suspected,especially with the US government’s reluctance to return bodies of the dead to their families. Many bodies were “accidentally” cremated.
A world-wide evangelical order, Worldvision has been long suspected of working with the CIA. After the Jonestown deaths, Worldvision repopulated the village with ex-CIA Laotian mercenaries. Ex-Worldvision employees include John Hinckley Jr (would-be assassin of Reagan) and Mark David Chapman (assassin of John Lennon).
New evidence has emerged linking Jones’ early time in California with members of the English religious group known as The Process Church – a cult that emerged from Scientology, mixing “brain-cleansing” techniques with Gnostic beliefs. Although Process had melted away from the scene by the time of Jonestown, its infl uence on Jones may not have been entirely positive, just as its involvement with Charles Manson may not have been entirely beneficial to Sharon Tate.