Jonestown expert Laura Woollett has spoken to several survivors over the years and has done extensive research into Jones, including his prescription drug addiction and manic tendencies, the group’s segregation and the events that led to the deaths of almost a thousand innocent people.
“When you look at the church and the values, it represented really good things,” Woollett tells WHO. “It was all about racial equality and they cared about the environment and helping people who couldn’t get housing and healthcare, so there were plenty of reasons to join.”
Jones had started preaching in Indiana in the 1950s, when racial tension was high, with a vision of creating a utopian settlement that was built on social equality. “But Jones was a manipulator,” Woollett says. “He would be on the PA system [at Jonestown] and would say that the KKK now controls everything and people are controlling the US borders, and enhancing the fact that America wasn’t a great place to live.”
Eventually, details came to light about what life was really like inside the secluded jungle commune after relatives became concerned about family members who had joined the group. “There was a young woman called Debbie Blakey who defected [from the camp] and ended up going to the US government and telling her story to the press,” Woollett says. “She was talking about the ‘white nights’, which were suicide drills, and how people were eating basically [only] a bowl of rice every day.”
On Nov. 17, 1978, US congressman Leo Ryan travelled to Guyana with several government officials and nine reporters to investigate the claims. When reporters questioned members to see if they really wanted to be at the settlement, Jones and his followers interpreted it as an “attack.” Ryan and the reporters were asked to leave, and 16 Jonestown members decided to go with them. “The geographical isolation meant leaving was extremely difficult,” Woollett says. “They also handed their passports over once they got into Jonestown.
As Congressman Ryan and his delegation boarded the plane back to Washington with the defectors, a group of Peoples Temple members opened fire under the direction of Jones, killing Ryan and four others. “Jones had this dark mindset by the end and wanted to maintain total control,” Woollett explains. “As soon as Ryan entered the Temple, in Jones’ mind, it was over.”
Later that day at Jonestown, a gathering was held regarding the planned mass suicide the following day. “Jones would say, ‘The world isn’t ready for us, they’re not ready for socialism so it’s better to die as a group and show that we’re united even if we can’t live in this world,’ ” Woollett says.
“He definitely had charisma and the gift of the gab, and people really fell for that.”
On Nov. 18, 1978, the people of Jonestown took part in the biggest mass murder-suicide in modern history. In audio recordings of the massacre, as people cried, Jones can be heard preaching, “Die with a degree of dignity. Don’t lay
down with tears and agony! It’s nothing to death, it’s just stepping over into another plane.” In regards to leaving behind their unfinished utopia, Jones taught his followers to believe in reincarnation – despite having declared himself an atheist. “He said, ‘The world isn’t ready for us now but maybe in a couple of decades it will be and we can come back,’ ” Woollett reveals.
That day, the people of Jonestown gathered to drink the toxic cocktail that had been laced with cyanide. “There had been times previously where Jones had said, ‘Things are going bad and people are going to come in and steal our children, [so] drink this’ and it turned out not to be poison – he was just testing them,” Woollett explains. “But once people started to die, they knew this time was real. He called the mothers with children and small babies up first, so the children were dying first and once the adults saw this, it gave them less of a reason to live.”
A total of 907 people died that day after drinking the poison, as well as Jones and one other, who died of a gunshot wound to the head.
However, there were some followers who managed to escape, including Leslie Wagner-Wilson, who ran into the jungle with her 3-year-old son, Jakari, and Tim Carter, who lost his wife, Gloria, and son, Malcolm.
“His wife and child died and he had to see that,” Woollett reveals. “He got called by Jim Jones to do a job for him which was transporting a suitcase full of money out of Jonestown to Russia, which allowed him to survive.”
In an episode of Seven Network’s Sunday Night called Return to Jonestown, Wagner- Wilson, along with fellow survivor Thom Bogue, took a trip back to the place their lives changed forever, revealing chilling truths. “There were injection marks in [people’s] shoulder blades, and it was like 900 people,”Wagner-Wilson says, “So, no, it wasn’t all suicide.” Carter agrees: “What happened in Jonestown was not a mass suicide, it was mass murder.”
Only a teenager when her family joined Jonestown, Wagner-Wilson says, “Jones was very charismatic and I grew to love him – then he would get us to pretend to drink poison and pretend it was a ‘revolutionary suicide’. ”
The mum left behind her husband, Joe – one of Jones’ security guards – fearing that she would be killed. But 40 years later, the health care worker and mother of three adult children says she has found comfort in her own faith. “I have found a higher power.”