Victims of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978.
Today is the 37th anniversary of the mass murders and suicides of 918 people at Jonestown and at a nearby airport in Guyana. Most were followers of People's Temple founder Jim Jones, or their children — many from the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas — tricked into drinking poison or convinced by Jones' lieutenants to take their own dose. The dead included Rep. Leo Ryan of Northern California, shot to death at the airport while leaving Jonestown, the only U.S. congressman assassinated in the line of duty. Also killed were former KNBC 4 reporter-anchor Don Harris, then a correspondent for NBC News; NBC cameraman Bob Brown; and San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson. Tim Reiterman, a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and later for the LA Times, and NBC audio technician Steve Sung were wounded. Current Bay Area congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Ryan advisor at the time, was also wounded.
James Richardson, a former Sacramento Bee political writer and UCLA Daily Bruin reporter, is now an Episcopal priest in Charlottesville, Virginia. He argues in a piece for the Washington Post that everyone should immediately stop saying "drank the Kool-Aid." And not just because the tainted drink may actually have been grape Flavor Aid.
Some of us knew the victims. I grew up with one of them, Maria Katsaris.
The first news reports made it sound like those who died in Jonestown did so by mass suicide, drinking cyanide-laced drinks (hence the offensive expression). It’s not true. The first murdered at Jonestown were senior citizens, children and babies; the poison was squirted into their mouths. Others thought they were participating in a drill.
Jonestown was the demented brainchild of huckster Jim Jones, a self-appointed charismatic pastor who founded the Peoples Temple in San Francisco. The Peoples Temple attracted poor city-dwellers (particularly African Americans), and young white kids from the suburbs, like my childhood friend Maria.
By the 1960s, the Temple had become a political force in San Francisco, turning out busloads of volunteers to walk precincts for favored politicians. Jones was so powerful that Vice President Walter Mondale and first lady Roslyn Carter met with him. Gov. Jerry Brown and Willie Brown, who would become the Assembly Speaker and a mayor of San Francisco, appeared at an honorary dinner.
But Jones’s world was about to crash. Reporters began investigating the Peoples Temple over allegations of abuse and intimidation. Increasingly paranoid, Jones fled with hundreds of his followers to Guyana.
Relatives of those at Jonestown contacted U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) with reports that their loved ones were being held against their will. Ryan went to Guyana, taking with him a small party of aides and journalists...That fact-finding mission quickly turned catastrophic.