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STORIES THAT SHAPED THE CENTURY

Jonestown's Horror Fades but Mystery Remains

STORIES THAT SHAPED THE CENTURY / From the Pages of the Los Angeles Times

December 16, 1999|JEFF BRAZIL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The accounts from the jungles of Guyana were anguishing.

Rep. Leo Ryan had become the first and only congressman ever assassinated in the line of duty. He, his aides, some journalists and a few defectors from cult leader Jim Jones' Peoples Temple had been ambushed by gunmen on an airstrip near Jonestown, the primitive enclave where Jones had brought hundreds of his followers.

Ryan and his group had gone to the Jonestown compound in Guyana to explore allegations that Jones was keeping followers there against their wishes. They had met with Jones and his disciples that day and were preparing to fly home when they were attacked. Besides Ryan, three journalists and one defector were killed, and several others in Ryan's party were wounded.

But that was only the beginning.

Before it was over, more than 900 people at the Jonestown site had perished in a ritual of murder and mass suicide with a cyanide-laced fruit punch. Later, it would be revealed that the children were given the poison first--it was sprayed into the mouths of infants with hypodermic needles--then the adults. A Temple leader in a Guyanese city was found with her three children, their throats slit. Jones was found shot in the head at Jonestown.

In haunting admonitions, Jones had assured his followers that by killing themselves, they would be remembered as committing an act of "revolutionary suicide," a defiant statement against the racist cruelty of an ill society.

There had been signs for some time that something was deeply amiss within the ranks of the Peoples Temple. In 1977, Jones and his San Francisco-based church began to attract the attention of the government after reports in the media quoted defectors as saying he had been guilty of physical and sexual abuse. The increased attention led Jones to relocate his church to a patch of wilderness in the Guyana jungle.

But the pressure continued. A group of people who had relatives in the Peoples Temple joined together to raise awareness of the abuses they felt were occurring.

Prompted in part by the pleas of that group, called Concerned Relatives, Ryan agreed to travel to Jonestown in November 1978 to see for himself. More than a dozen of Jones' followers said they wanted to return to the United States with Ryan that day. But hundreds of others remained.

How so many well-meaning, idealistic people remained under Jones' spell to the day of their deaths has been the subject of numerous academic studies. But the truth will probably never be completely known.

More than 400 of the Jonestown victims, many of them children, lie in a mass grave at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland. A number of Bay Area communities had refused to accept the remains for fear of being associated with the worst cult massacre in modern memory.

Near the grave stands a small granite grave marker that says simply, "In memory of the victims of the Jonestown tragedy."

*

A number of those linked to Jonestown have managed to recover and carry on. Jackie Speier, then an aide to Ryan who accompanied him on his flight to Jonestown and was badly wounded, ran for office herself. She served first as a county supervisor and then moved on to the state Assembly. She has earned a reputation as an activist, compassionate lawmaker, acutely aware of the fragility of life. She suffered multiple gunshot wounds that day and survived by pretending she was dead. Today, she is a state senator.

Larry Layton, the only one of the gunmen prosecuted in the shooting of Ryan and his party, is now 53 and serving time in the federal prison in Lompoc.

The Rev. Jynona Norwood of Inglewood and her uncle, Fred Lewis of San Francisco, who lost 27 relatives at Jonestown, have talked through the years about wanting to build a memorial wall at the Evergreen Cemetery--a proposal that has met with mixed emotions on the part of many involved.

Jim Jones Jr., son of the cult leader, attended the ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the tragedy at the Evergreen Cemetery.

He told reporters that he had been haunted for two decades by what happened and believed the enmity people felt for his father was justified. Being at the anniversary ceremony afforded him a measure of peace that had eluded him for most of his life, he said.

Today, 21 years later, at least a portion of the Jonestown story has not yet been told. Despite repeated requests by religious scholars under the federal Freedom of Information Act, the government has declined to release all of its investigative files on Jonestown, saying some of the information could jeopardize national security. The curious have been left to wonder what that means.

When the anniversary of the mass deaths passed this Nov. 18, it went largely unmarked by the Bay Area media.

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