SAN FRANCISCO WEEKLY / CALDENDAR MAGAZINE / DECEMBER 1-15, 1988 The Unanswered Questions o
SAN FRANCISCO WEEKLY / CALDENDAR MAGAZINE / DECEMBER 1-15, 1988
The Unanswered Questions of Jonestown, by Art Silverman
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Outside of the war it was the greatest mass murder in American history.
Nine hundred bodies lay rotting in the Guyanese jungle, most of them black.
Many of them came from right here in the Bay Area. Nearly three hundred
All of the dead, along with three journalists and the first United States
Congressman ever assassinated in the line of duty.
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I purposely say mass murder and not suicide, for perhaps the greatest lie
about Jonestown is that 913 people killed themselves on November 18, 1978
at the urging of Jim Jones. This despite the testimony of Dr. Leslie Mootoo,
a forensic pathologist and the chief medical examiner of Guyana, who was the
first doctor to arrive at the scene and conducted 70 autopsies. Dr. Mootoo
clearly stated that at least 700 of the victims were murdered and not
Many dozens and perhaps hundreds were forcibly injected with poison by
hypodermic. Hundreds more were forced to drink the cyanide punch at gunpoint.
The infants and small children -- first to be killed, as a means of breaking
their parents' will to live -- surely cannot be considered suicides. And yet
suicide is the single lasting image of Jonestown in the public consciousness.
It's a funny thing. The Gallup Poll reports that 25 years after the murder
of John Kennedy, fully 80 percent of the American public believes his
assassination was the result of a conspiracy. Oswald himself was perhaps a
conspirator or maybe just a patsy. But we don't buy the theory of Lee Harvey
Oswald as lone madman. So why have we swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, the
mythology that the greatest mass murder in American history was the work of
a single madman?
Ten years after Jonestown, the truth of November 1978 in Guyana is still
as much a mystery as Dallas in November 1963. And implicates, perhaps, the
very same elements within our own government.
* * *
Incredibly, there has never been a full and open investigation of the Ryan
assassination or the Peoples Temple massacre. There were special Congressional
hearings held in the aftermath, but these were so flawed as to be farcical.
Subpoena power was not invoked to compel testimony. Staff of the US Embassy
in Guyana, including several suspected CIA agents who played a central role
in the affair, weren't even called in.
Only a watered-down public report was issued, with 5,000 pages classified
and withheld from release. The House Intelligence Committee, which conducted
its own closed hearings on the role of US intelligence agencies at Jonestown,
cited national security considerations and refused to issue any report at all.
The only trial to result from Jonestown was criminal prosecution of temple
functionary Larry Layton, who was tried once in Guyana and twice in the United
States. The Guyanese acquited him of murder charges on the grounds that he had
been brainwashed. The second trial -- here in San Francisco, on charges of
conspiring to kill Congressman Ryan -- ended in a hung jury. But the third
time was a charm: Layton, a bit player whom all agree had nothing to do with
Ryan's murder, was nonetheless convicted on conspiracy charges and sent to
prison as Jonestown's official scapegoat. End of case. End of all public
The judge in Layton's case, incidentally, summarily denied defense motions
to obtain documents and testimony regarding State Department or CIA involvement
with the Peoples Temple. A group of Jonestown survivors and relatives also
filed a $50 million civil action against the Federal government alleging such
involvement, but their case was thrown out almost immediately on procedural
grounds and all subsequent appeals were turned down.
There were also at least a dozen investigations of Jim Jones underway by
various law enforcement agencies _before_ the events of November 1978 --
including his alleged involvement in drug smuggling, gun running in the
Caribbean, kidnapping, arson, money laundering, customs violations, welfare
fraud, illegal broadcast of coded messages, abuse of tax-exempt status,
forging trust deeds and even murder.
But Jim Jones apparently led a charmed life and somehow each of these
inquiries was abandoned, stalled, botched, or compromised until it was too
late. In several of these cases, classified investigative leads and
informants were divulged to Jones himself. Numerous investigative files
were actually found in Jones' cabin in Guyana; according to eyewitness
accounts, quantities of other documents were burned by Jones just prior
to the holocaust.
Finally, there have been more than a dozen books written about the Peoples
Temple, from quickie paperbacks, to the official Congressional report, to
accounts by former temple members, family members and journalists. There
were even Jonestown volumes published in Brazil and the Soviet Union. [The
most highly recommended of the Jonestown books for the interested reader
are Tim Reiterman's _Raven_ and John Peer Nugent's _White Night_.]
Some of these books have asked the very questions that were suppressed
or ignored in every official investigation. But books cannot provide answers.
Only a fullblown legal inquiry, with the power to compel testimony under
penalty of perjury, could hope to get to the bottom of these murky waters.
And every avenue to that kind of investigation has been thwarted.
* * *
After ten years, in other words, Jonestown is still an unsolved riddle.
What remains is a long list of unanswered questions:
-> Why wasn't Leo Ryan warned by the State Department about the
dangers that were well known and documented? How did they
"lose" 900 documents alleging extreme danger at Jonestown
before Ryan's pre-trip briefing? Did intelligence agencies
intervene with the State Department to limit inquiries and
discussions on Jones? Why was the first sworn statement
describing the insanity of Jonestown locked in a safe at
the US Embassy in Guyana, and its author warned to keep quiet?
-> What was the relationship between Jones and the CIA contingent
in Guyana? Was that "friendly" country the primary staging
area for CIA Caribbean operations? Was the then US Ambassador
to Guyana, John Burke, a CIA official? (He was later appointed
to a top CIA post in Washington by President Reagan). Is it
plausible that he and his colleagues really knew nothing of
what was going on in the Jones encampment?
-> Was Richard Dwyer, then Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy,
a career CIA officer since 1959 as has been published? It was
Dwyer whom Jones refers to on the famous "death tape" as being
on the scene at the mass killings, a charge he has denied.
What about Consular Officer Richard McCoy, who locked away the
first sworn statement about violence and suicide drills in his
office safe, and allegedly warned its author not to talk.
-> Were several other consular officers CIA agents? What about the
pilots who flew in and out of Jonestown, or one of Jones' chief
aides who survived the carnage and hasn't been seen since?
-> What was the relationship between Jones, the CIA, and the
corrupt Guyanese dictator, Forbes Burnham, who was installed
in power in 1964 with CIA assistance? Is it true that Jones'
security teams worked as heavies against Burnham's domestic
opponents? Was Jonestown, with its two oceangoing ships and
immunity from Guyanese customs, being used to smuggle drugs
and weapons with Burnham's complicity, a la Noriega?
-> Who is Philip Blakey, the Englishman who wrote the check for
the original $600,000 down payment on the Jonestown lease to
the Burnham government (and was later reported in Angola
recruiting mercenaries for the CIA-backed UNITA rebels)?
-> How did Peoples Temple amass more than $15 million, most of
it in foreign banks? Why was $2 million transferred out of
the Temple's main Swiss account just before the massacre?
Where did it go?
-> Who shot Jim Jones, the only victim of gunfire at Jonestown?
Is it true that he expected to live, and that one of the
Temple's boats was en route to pick him up but never arrived?
-> Why did the body count suddenly double after five days? How
did five hundred bodies lay hidden under four hundred all
that time, when the top layer had been turned over and tagged
the first day? Why was the press kept out for nearly a week,
except for one brief and carefully staged visit?
-> Is it true that no medical records were found at Jonestown,
despite a sophisticated clinic and laboratory? That there was
video recording equipment but no videotapes? How did Jones
acquire 11,000 doses of thorazine, a dangerous and tightly
controlled drug used to control mental patients? What other
drugs were in the Jonestown pharmacopoeia?
* * *
We may never know the answers to these questions. But there are clues to
be found and they point in a frightening and familiar direction.
At least, it seems clear that elements of our own government, particularly
the CIA, knew a great deal about Jim Jones and his heinous activities, but
did nothing to either thwart him or to warn Congressman Ryan of the dangers
he was walking into by personally travelling to Jonestown on a factfinding
The notion that the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies could
have been ignorant about Jones -- as they officially professed and were
officially believed -- is incredible on its face.
At its peak, the Peoples Temple was arguable the largest, richest, and
most tightly organized group of self-proclaimed "revolutionaries" in the
entire country. Jones' operation was in effect a large militant left-wing
multinational conglomerate headquartered in San Francisco. He had more
than $12 million in cash accounts in the US, Canada, England, Switzerland,
Panama, Venezuela and Jamaica, with couriers shuttling suitcases of cash
back and forth.
The original Peoples Temple church in Ukiah had become a paramilitary
camp, complete with guard tower and armed sentries. The "parishioners"
inside were being instructed in Marxism, military tactics and survival
skills. The temples in San Francisco and Los Angeles boasted a combined
membership of several thousand mostly black members, with a mostly white
leadership cadre. At church services one was likely to find Angela Davis,
or Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement, or visiting delegations
from Cuba or China.
Pastor Jones, in front of a choir singing revolutionary hymns, stood
behind dark glasses, often stoned out of his mind on amphetamines and
other drugs. He would preach for hours on the evils of capitalism,
solidarity with the people of Vietnam, support for liberation struggles
in the Third World, and rail against racism in the United States.
He also spread his messages through the Temple's own radio programs
and their printing plant, which published the _Peoples Forum_, one of
the largest circulation newspapers in the entire Bay Area.
* * *
And last but not least there was Jonestown -- Jim Jones' crowning
glory -- an actual communist society being built in South America, with
construction labor provided by inner city American blacks, some of them
ex-cons on parole to the reverend.
In short, Jim Jones in the early 1970s was a self-proclaimed Marxist
fanatic, a white revolutionary who commanded a huge black following,
the head of an illegal multimillion dollar empire, who was building a
network of connections with legitimate politicians while at the same
time caching weapons, experimenting with brainwashing techniques, and
building an international presence in alliance with Forbes Burnham,
an important CIA asset in South America.
Could he have been a figure of anything less than intense interest
to the FBI, the CIA and the National Security Agency, all of whom were
then engaged in massive infiltration and spying on everyone from the
YMCA, to Mothers for Peace, to the tiniest socialist club on any
The answer is obvious. Despite all denials, there can be no doubt
that the Peoples Temple had been targeted, investigated, and thoroughly
infiltrated by informants from US intelligence agencies at least since
the late 1960s. Every detail had to be known: the criminal activities,
the brainwashing, Jones' escalating madness, the armed guards, the
weekly suicide drills, all of it.
* * *
So why wasn't anything done to stop Jones? And why wasn't Leo Ryan
warned to stay away? There are several possible scenarios.
First, it must be remembered that Congressman Ryan was no friend of
the CIA. He was, along with his colleagues Harold Hughes and Senator
Frank Church, among the most passionate foes of renegade CIA activity:
the plots to murder foreign leaders; the secret experiments in sensory
deprivation, gang warfare and sexual pathology; the covert testing of
mind-altering drugs on prisoners and college students; the plots to
install and topple foreign governments; and all the other abuses that
came out in a torrent of criticism against the intelligence agencies
in the mid 1970s.
Ryan actually wrote the law -- the Hughes-Ryan Act, bitterly opposed
by the CIA -- that now (at least in theory) requires them to report all
covert activities to Congressional oversight committees.
That, indeed, may have been part of the problem. The FBI and CIA were
caught in a bureaucratic Catch 22. On the one hand they had an obligation
to brief a member of Congress who was about to travel into a potentially
dangerous foreign situation. But, for instance, for the FBI to disclose
detailed knowledge of Jones and the Peoples Temple would be admitting to
a hostile liberal Congressman that they were still conducting illegal
surveillance of American citizens, and a "church" to boot.
For the CIA it was even worse. The covert relationship with Forbes
Burnham had never been reported to Ryan's subcommittee as required by his
own law. And if Jones was being used by the agency in some way there
would have been hell to pay! Jimmy Carter was President and Stansfield
Turner, his CIA chief, was already after the dirty tricks boys in the
agency. Careers would have ended. There might even have been prosecutions.
How much easier it would have seemed to say nothing, to misplace a few
documents, to avoid telling what you couldn't legally know. Why suggest
that Ryan would need a military escort to get in and out of Jonestown
safely? Maybe things would turn out fine anyway.
Or maybe it was time to pull the plug on something that was getting out
of hand down there. And if Leo Ryan had to be sacrificed, well, to some
of these people that would be considered a worthy goal in itself.
* * *
But pull the plug on what? The ultimate unanswered question of Jonestown
is whether Jones himself, knowingly or unwittingly, was one of the 1500
illegal experimental projects conducted or contracted out by the CIA as
part of their infamous MK-ULTRA program.
We simply do not know. We may never know. But it surely isn't out of the
We do know that criminal elements within the CIA have always been obsessed
with the most esoteric applications of behavior control, brainwashing
techniques, torture, biological warfare and mass manipulation through media
or psychoactive drugs. It is well documented that they poured tens of
millions of dollars into experiments and research projects in the US and
all over the world -- from 1953 at least until they were caught in 1974 --
sometimes even without the knowledge of the beneficiaries. Only a few
dozen of these projects were disclosed in the Congressional hearings on
Is it such a stretch of the imagination that these people would take
under their wing a Jim Jones? Here was a man who was taking black people
to an armed camp in the jungle, giving them drugs, depriving them of sleep
and food, blaring messages of doom over loudspeakers 24 hours a day, and
trying to talk them into "revolutionary suicide."
Jim Jones was exactly their kind of guy. Why stop him, when you might
learn valuable information? With all the heat on in Washington, it was no
longer possible to experiment on prisoners or mental patients. What could
be better than a jungle camp in the middle of nowhere, with a captive
audience of social undesirables, a madman messiah, and modern, well-equipped
There are even vague threads suggesting the possibility that Jones could
have been taken under someone's wing even before his move to California,
let alone Guyana.
Jim Jones opened his first Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in the late
fifties. He left for nearly a year in 1961-62 and lived in prosperous
and somewhat mysterious circumstances in Belo Horizonte, a small city on
the Brazilian coast. [A reporter from the San Jose _Mercury News_, who
travelled to Belo Horizonte after the Jonestown killings, reported that
several of Jones' neighbors from 1961 said a staff car from the US
Embassy visited him there weekly.]
On his return to Indiana, Jones announced the Temple's move to Northern
California. It may very well be just a coincidence, but another man made
the same pilgrimage from Indianapolis to South America at about the same
time. He was Dan Mitrione, the Indianapolis police chief at the time of
Jones' first Peoples Temple. Mitrione later became infamous as the US
torture instructor -- working for the CIA under the cover of the Agency
for International Development -- who was kidnapped, interrogated and
finally murdered by the Tumpamaro guerrillas in Uruguay. Mitrione's story
was told in Costa-Gavras' film _State of Siege_.
Did Jones and Mitrione know each other? Here we move into the twilight
zone of conspiracy theories and speculations. A number of years ago I
called Mitrione's son Dan Jr., himself an FBI agent, and asked that very
No, he said quite emphatically.
And that was the end of it until March 1985, when Dan Mitrione Jr. was
in the papers himself. He had just pleaded guilty to federal charges of
possessing 90 pounds of cocaine and was about to be sentenced to prison.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank