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Jonestown massacre + 20: Questions linger

dead bodies
Jonestown mass murder-suicide scene in 1978  
November 18, 1998
Web posted at: 12:56 p.m. EST (1756 GMT)

In this story:

SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- Twenty years after the world was shocked by the mass murder-suicide in the supposedly utopian community known as Jonestown, the questions linger: How and why did 913 people die? Some believe answers may lie in more than 5,000 pages of information the U.S. government has kept secret.

"Twenty years later, it would be nice to know what went down," said J. Gordon Melton, founder and director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion.

Time to declassify?

Over the years, there have been rumors of CIA involvement. Some people believe CIA agents were posing as members of the Peoples Temple cult to gather information; others suggest the agency was conducting a mind-control experiment.

In 1980, the House Select Committee on Intelligence determined that the CIA had no advance knowledge of the mass murder-suicide. The year before, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had concluded that cult leader Jim Jones "suffered extreme paranoia."

The committee -- now known as international relations -- released a 782-page report, but kept more than 5,000 other pages secret.

Without those documents, it's hard to confirm or refute the speculations that have sprung up around Jonestown, said Melton, who planned to be in Washington Wednesday to ask for the documents' release.

George Berdes, chief consultant to the committee at the time of the investigation, told the San Francisco Chronicle the papers were classified to assure sources' confidentiality, but he thinks it is time to declassify them.

Paradise becomes a prison

What is known about the end of Jonestown is that on November 18, 1978, Jones ordered more than 900 of his followers to drink cyanide-poisoned punch. He told guards to shoot anyone who refused or tried to escape. Among the dead: more than 270 children.

Only two years before, Jones -- the charismatic leader of the Peoples Temple, an interracial organization that helped the desperate -- was the toast of San Francisco's political circles.

But after an August 1977 magazine article detailed ex-members' stories of beatings and forced donations, Jones abruptly moved his flock to Jonestown, a settlement in the jungle of Guyana, an Idaho-sized country on South America's northern coast.

The plan was to create an egalitarian agricultural community. But Peoples Temple members who worked the fields and subsisted mostly on rice soon learned it was more like a prison, recalls Jonestown defector Deborah Layton.

Dissent was unthinkable, she says. Offenders sweltered in "The Box," a 6-by-4-foot (1.8-by-1.2-meter) underground enclosure. Misbehaving children were dangled head-first into the well late at night. Loudspeakers broadcast Jones' voice at all hours.

'Time for us to meet in another place'

Layton
Layton: "It was like walking into a leper colony"
(Audio 179 K/15 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)
 

In May 1978, Layton, a trusted financial lieutenant for Jones, slipped out of Guyana. She went to the U.S. consulate and later to newspapers with a warning: Jones was conducting drills for a mass murder-suicide.

But there was little official government action until November 1978, when U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, who had been contacted by a number of people worried about their relatives in the Peoples Temple, decided to lead a delegation of reporters and relatives to Jonestown.

Ryan's group arrived on November 17. Their visit began happily enough, but the mood soured after some Jonestown residents indicated they wanted to defect. The group was ambushed the next day as they tried to leave at a nearby airstrip. Ryan and four others were killed.

Later that night, Jones told his followers "the time has come for us to meet in another place," as the mass suicide began. He was found shot through the head.

'Jim had deep hatred in his heart'

Jynona Norwood, who lost 27 relatives in Jonestown, questions whether Jones was ever motivated by benevolence.

"Everybody wants to paint these pretty stories about how it started off OK. I personally believe that Jim had deep hatred in his heart from Day One."

Californian Fred Lewis lost his wife and seven children at Jonestown.

"I blame myself. I blame my wife," he told CNN. He also blames Jim Jones. "He was a con artist all the way."

But don't blame the victims, said one speaker at a memorial service held Tuesday at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco.

"Remember the people of Jonestown, not for their horrible deaths, but for who they were -- people in search of a better world."

Correspondent Don Knapp and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 
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