Jonestown Massacre takes the lives of hundreds in a mass suicide-murder on November 18, 1978
(Originally published by the Daily News on Nov. 20, 1978.)
GEORGETOWN GUYANA — Troops searching a jungle religious commune near Port Kaituma for suspects and survivors of the ambush slayings of United States Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.) and four other Americans found between 300 and 400 bodies — apparent suicides — at the commune early today, Guyana officials said.
Information minister Shirley Field Ridley said no one was alive at the headquarters of the People’s Temple in Jonestown in northwestern Guyana. She said there were no marks of violence on the bodies and nothing to indicate the deaths were not suicides by poison. There had been reports of mass suicides among cult members.
About 1,100 persons, all of them Americans, had been reported living in the camp. Ryan had led a group of Americans to investigate conditions there. He and four other Americans were killed at the Port Kaituma airport when members of the sect opened fire, Guyanese officials said.
The troops and police were airlifted into Port Kaituma, and spread out into the jungle, searching for survivors of the airport attack and the killers of the five Americans. They reported early today that they had made no contact with killers.
As the troops approached the commune, the State Department in Washington said it had a report that 200 people already had taken their lives at Jonestown. Stephen Katzaris, a Potter Valley, Calif., psychologist who accompanied Ryan, said the inmates of the camp had had mass suicide rehearsal and had signed undated suicide notes before they left California for Guyana.
The State Department also reported that the Guyanese police had told them: “A woman who ran the People’s Temple office in Georgetown has killed three children and taken her own life.”
Ryan, who had led an 18-member mission to investigate the cult, had been attacked by a knife wielding man at the sect’s headquarters. He escaped, only to be wounded by pistol fire and then killed by shotgun blasts at Port Kaituma airport while leading his delegation and unhappy American cultists toward airplanes.
Killed with Ryan were NBC television reporter Don Harris, 42; NBC cameraman Robert Brown, 36, both of Los Angeles; San Francisco Examiner photographer Gregory Robinson, 27, and Patricia Park, 18, an American member of the temple.
Wounded and missing
Teen Americans, including the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Guyana, Richard Dwyer, were wounded and 10 persons were missing.
The Guyanese troops were searching the jungle for the killers and the missing, including terrified defectors from the cult who survived the airport massacre.
Two lawyers who accompanied Ryan’s party as attorneys for the sect’s founder, Jim Jones, 48 — Mark Lane and Charles Garry — were first reported safe in Jonestown, the State Department said. Their whereabouts today was not known. Lane has been attorney for James Earl Ray, the killer of Martin Luther King, and for Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife. Oswald assassinated President Kennedy.
Government sources identified the suspect in the killings as Larry Jon Leyton, but did not give his age or hometown. The Guyanese government issued a statement saying that the killers and the victims were all Americans.
The 130 soldiers and 40 policemen airlifted from Georgetown to the dirt airstrip 125 miles to the north were reported advancing slowly in the jungles around the Temple in Jonestown, about 8 miles from Port Kaituma.
Guyanan authorities said members of the People’s Temple sect, enraged by Ryan’s interference, staged the attack. Ryan, 53, arrived in Guyana last Tuesday to investigate reports that the People’s Temple was holding some followers in jail at Jonestown.
Ron Javers, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who was wounded in the shoulder, said in a copyright story: “Leo Ryan was on his back in a blue cord suit, lying in the mud of the right wheel of the aircraft. His face had been shot off.”
He said the attackers had casually walked up to the wounded and shot them in the head.
Javers, who spent the night in hiding awaiting rescue with 12 sect members who sought to escape the village, said: “They told us how Jim Jones had led the entire colony into making a maniacal suicide pact with him.”
Tom Fernandez, 34, a Guyanese pilot who escaped the killers by flying out in one of two light planes in Ryan’s party — the other craft was crippled by gunfire — said that at the airstrip before the attack:
“The congressman came up to me and said someone had tried to kill him with a knife… He wanted me to search the people going on my plane. I didn’t know what was going on and I said, ‘I’m not going to search anybody.’”
Loads the plane
Fernandez said that 30 to 40 people were standing around the airstrip. He loaded five passengers into his Cessna and started that taxi.
“I saw the tractor trailer (carrying armed cultists) as it passed me, then I heard, ‘Pow! Pow! Pow! The black woman next to me said; ‘There’s shooting.’
“Then there were three shots inside my plane. Then the guy behind me had a pistol and he shot the black woman. She fell over me. I opened the door. There was a desperate struggle to try to take the gun away from the gunman. It had jammed after two or three shots.
“I saw three guys fighting over the gun. The (wounded) woman beside me ran into the bushes. This guy with the gun ran after her. I saw him chase her and heard the shot. I nearly vomited. I saw the men… standing over people with high-powered guns and shooting. I just didn’t know what was going on.”
Join the attack
The gunfire in the plane apparently was a signal for the gunmen on the ground to join the attack, the witnesses said.
Javers said: “I was waiting between Bob Brown and Don Harris, the two NBC men who were killed.
“The firing erupted from guns close by. I was hit first. I was knocked to the ground by a slug in the left shoulder,” I crawled behind the right wheel of the plane.
“Bob Brown stayed on his feet and kept filming what was happening, even as the attackers advanced on him with their guns. He was incredibly tenacious. I saw Brown go down. Then I saw one of the attackers stick a shot right into Brown’s face, inches away, if that.”
Javers said: “I ran and then I dived head-first into the bush.” After the attackers left, Javers returned and found the bodies of Ryan and the other victims. “Pattie Parker, one of the people who had asked us to help her escape from Jonestown, was lying at the foot of the plane’s stairs.”
He said that a tropical storm had struck soon after he went back into the woods. He said he and some other survivors found sanctuary at a small cafe near the air strip. “The local Guyanese knew they were risking their own safety by letting us stay, but they were extremely kind to us,” he said.
Ryan’s party had arrived at Jonestown Friday night and got a “lively and cordial welcome,” Javers said.
‘We were told how happy everyone was,” said Javers. “Then a young man slipped Harris a message written on a child’s slate, saying, ‘Please help me get out of Jonestown.’ It had four signatures.’ The list grew to about 12, then 20 persons who wanted to leave.
However toward the end of the visit, Ryan apparently angered sect members and was attacked by a man with a knife and cut superficially. Witnesses said the cultist was stabbed by an unidentified person.
Javers said: “Ryan ran to the truck and we lumbered off through the mud to the airstrip.”
The first government rescue troops arrived at the airstrip at 8:30 a.m. yesterday.
Later, a C-141 Medivac plane flew in from the United States and brought out the wounded.