For Those Who Were There, Jonestown's A Part Of Each Day

IN THE '70s, Jim Jones moved his Peoples Temple from San Francisco to Guyana to escape what he saw as persecution. In the U.S., the temple had run a free clinic and a drug-rehab program, but reports from Guyana began detailing brutality. Tim Reiterman was there when 913 people died in what we now call "Jonestown."

OAKLAND, Calif. - For 20 years now, they have come to a grassy hillside overlooking San Francisco Bay to share tears, hugs and their private pain - and to remember the unfathomable events of another Nov. 18.

They gather around a small stone monument in Evergreen Cemetery, link hands and pray. Later, in small clutches, they reminisce and trade news about their lives after that day in Jonestown.

These people and others are living strands of the Peoples Temple saga - and their stories may hold meaning for the millions who cannot comprehend the horrifying murders and suicides orchestrated by the Rev. Jim Jones.

The survivors and relatives are reminders of the decency of most of those who died in Guyana, the magnitude of the loss.

Somehow they have the strength to stand here at the unmarked graves of 409 children and others whose bodies were unidentified or unclaimed. Most years I have stood beside them to pay respect to Jonestown's 913 victims - and to mourn Rep. Leo Ryan and my own comrades gunned down at Port Kaituma.

For those of us who were there, the cataclysm does not seem such a distant memory. It remains a part of each day. Those who assemble at this graveside - and many who cannot bear to do so - share that bond.

The mother of two teens

Late in 1977, Beverly Oliver and her husband, Howard, were two of the determined parents who journeyed to Guyana to try to see their children.

She was a former Temple member, and he owned a watch-repair shop. Their sons, Bruce, 19, and Billy, 17, had gone to Jonestown for what was supposed to be a brief vacation but did not return.

For eight days, the Olivers received little help from the Guyanese government or U.S. Embassy, and the temple refused to let them see their sons.

The Olivers left for home but did not quit. Howard helped lead a San Francisco protest by 50 "Concerned Relatives" who alleged the temple was keeping them from loved ones and making veiled threats of mass suicide.

The Olivers borrowed money for their final trip to Guyana in 1978. Hopes were high this time, because there were other relatives, a congressman and several reporters, including me. Ryan had embarked on the fact-finding mission after reading one of my stories and meeting constituents with children in Jonestown.

After days of delaying tactics by the temple, Beverly was one of the relatives selected to accompany us by small plane and truck to the 3,850-acre agricultural mission.

For me, this was an opportunity to find out about a place described by some as a socialist utopia and a refuge from racism, by others as a hellish work camp ruled by a pistol-toting tyrant who sexually and physically abused his followers. Going there, it seemed, was the only way to tell if the settlers were free to leave.

Even after writing about Jones for 18 months for the San Francisco Examiner, it was shocking to see his glazed eyes and festering paranoia face to face, to realize that nearly a thousand lives, ours included, were in his hands. He said he felt like a dying man and ranted about government conspiracies and martyrdom as he decried attacks by the press and his enemies.

Beverly and her sons reclined on a bench together, talking. They had tried to protect her, warning her not to say anything negative, and they made it clear they loved her. She radiated a confident smile; they were still her boys, not Jones'.

But they stayed behind when their mother and the rest of us in the congressman's party climbed onto a truck to leave with about a dozen defectors.

As a storm lashed us, Jones' final words to me had been ominous: "I feel sorry that we are being destroyed from within. . . ." He knew the defectors would expose the awful truth: that hundreds of well-meaning people were held captive by his paranoia and cruelty and the surrounding jungle.

Jones soon unleashed forces that would leave Beverly Oliver wounded and her sons dead. After the word of trouble reached Howard Oliver, he suffered a stroke. He would blame his wife for the loss of their sons, and they would separate. He died eight years ago.

"I have not been to a memorial service in 17 years," Beverly said recently. "I got to where I could not handle it. I had a nervous breakdown. . . . I lost all I had, which is my boys."

The congressman's aide

Tragedy has bracketed the life of Jackie Speier, the longtime state assemblywoman who recently won a state Senate seat. In 1994, her husband was killed in a car accident, leaving her pregnant and with a 5-year-old son. But before that there was Jonestown.

Not long out of law school, she accompanied Ryan as his legal aide on a trip she considered so dangerous that, before embarking, she made out a will.

When defectors stepped forward, she taped their statements. Then she protected them from harassment while they retrieved belongings.

As a temple truck slogged out through six miles of mud and ruts to Port Kaituma, we were on high alert. A temple member had thrust a knife to the congressman's throat before being subdued. One of our temple escorts had been spotted with a gun. Defectors had whispered that one among them, Larry Layton, was an imposter on a mission for Jones.

At the airstrip, Ryan began frisking defectors who were filing into a small Cessna - but Layton managed to secret a handgun that he later would use to wound two defectors.

Meanwhile, as a farm tractor and trailer of temple members rolled toward us, Speier hurried people to a larger, 20-seat plane.

Gunshots pierced the damp air. I scrambled under the plane and dived as bullets kicked up dirt and tore into people around me. Red exploded from my left forearm, and a second round punched my wrist.

I sprinted away and flung myself into tall grass lining the airstrip. When the shots tapered off, I came back to a terrible sight: the stilled bodies of the congressman; Don Harris and Bob Brown of NBC; defector Patricia Parks; and photographer Greg Robinson, my partner from the Examiner. Some had been finished off with shots to the head.

Jackie, one of several with massive wounds, lay a few feet away from NBC sound man Steve Sung. "Hang on, Steve," she would call. "Hang on, Jackie baby," he would call back.

Local people brought water and rum for them.

That night, most of us hid in a tiny rum shop, waiting for rescuers or for the killers to come back.

Defectors named those who shot us. My heart froze as one added: "You're gonna see the worst carnage of your life at Jonestown. It's called revolutionary suicide."

A couple who lost daughters

Some years ago the Rev. John Moore and his wife, Barbara, arrived at graveside with one of their daughters. Jones took the other two daughters - Carolyn and Annie - as his intimates and never gave them back.

The third, Rebecca, now is a historian teaching at the University of North Dakota. She has written books about the tragedy and set up a Web site for essays reflecting on the 20th anniversary.

No one reared children who were better candidates for the social activism of Peoples Temple than the Moores did. The girls grew up with Christian good works, the civil-rights movement and anti-war protests.

A short time after Carolyn and her husband, Larry Layton, joined the temple, the couple separated. Jim Jones had taken a liking to the petite French teacher.

When Carolyn gave birth to a child called Jim Jon or Kimo, everyone knew Jones was the father. Her parents refrained from public criticism, fearing communication would be cut off.

Annie, who was nine years younger than Carolyn, resented the temple. But when she visited, she was moved by the interracial congregation and impressed by temple care homes. She too fell under the sway of Jim Jones.

After the exodus to Jonestown, Carolyn and Annie were among the trusted cadre living in Jones' bungalow. Annie was his nurse; Carolyn helped control him when he went on chemical-tinged binges of madness.

They were there when Jones marched his people toward a long-rehearsed death rite.

First he told them he loved them. Then he announced that someone was going to shoot the pilot and bring down the congressman's plane - and that they needed to commit suicide to save the children from their enemies. Later, when the gunmen returned from the airstrip, he cried, "The congressman has been murdered! . . . It's all over."

Out came the purple cyanide potion - and Jones was on his way to what was more mass murder than suicide. He had told temple members that CIA-directed Guyanese soldiers were advancing on Jonestown to torture, murder and castrate them. He had ordered that the children should die first, so the parents would have no hope. He had the pavilion surrounded by armed guards, so there would be no escape.

Soon poison was squirted down the throats of little ones. Dozens of the adults were forcibly injected.

Thirteen people died in Jones' house, including Carolyn and their son. Annie, 24, was found shot in the head, a .357-caliber Magnum by her body along with her parting message:

"It seems that some people - and perhaps the majority of people - would like to destroy the best thing that ever happened to the one thousand two hundred or so of us who have followed Jim. . . . We died because you would not let us live."

A man whose family left

In San Francisco, it seemed almost everyone knew someone touched by the tragedy - and many people knew Fred Lewis. The tall, garrulous man worked for years behind the popular meat counter where my family shopped.

When his wife and children spent more and more time at the Peoples Temple on Geary Boulevard, Fred became alarmed. He felt them slipping into the grasp of a false prophet who stomped on the Bible and faked healings.

Then one day he returned home to find the house empty. His family had fled to what Jones called the Promised Land. Twenty-seven members of Fred's family died.

Now retired, he never misses the anniversary services. Sometimes he says a few words and thanks people for coming, for remembering his loved ones and for not forgetting all the pain caused by Jones. The words come from deep within his chest, never easily.

His niece, evangelist Jynona Norwood of Inglewood, does the preaching. She plans the program and pulls it off, year after year, bringing local Christian congregations.

When Fred and Jynona heard that I went back to Guyana for the 10th anniversary, they wanted to know what had happened to a place they despised to their very souls.

When our plane circled overhead in 1988, Jonestown stood out as a light green scar on the dark jungle. Landing at Port Kaituma was rougher, because the airstrip had been closed for safety reasons and grass had grown waist-high.

The last three miles to Jonestown were little more than a footpath traversed by jaguars.

Looting, lightning fires and the jungle had erased Jonestown. But here and there we found artifacts - a painted truck tire from the children's playground, a broken file cabinet from Jones' house.

In the past decade, little has changed. A foreign lumber company was awarded a government lease to log in the area, and a road was built making Jonestown more accessible. Our charter pilot, Jerry Gouveia, who helped evacuate Port Kaituma shooting victims in 1978, is urging the government to fence Jonestown as a memorial and a study area for academics.

This year, news crews began flying back, sometimes bringing former temple members along.

One was Debbie Layton, whose brother Larry is serving a life sentence for conspiracy in the Ryan murder. She wants presidential clemency for him before their 84-year-old father passes away, and she recently wrote a book about her years in the temple.

Ryan's daughter, Jones' son

The daughter of Leo Ryan came to services several years ago, and so did the son of the man who had him killed.

When Stephan Jones arrived, he positioned himself toward the rear of the lawn like an uninvited guest.

His attendance was a breakthrough - symbolizing unification of relatives, defectors and survivors, some who live with old antagonisms. But it was the most natural thing in the world: Stephan had spent most of his life in the temple and loved the people buried here.

On the last days in 1978, he was in Georgetown playing a game for the temple basketball team. Some believe that if he had been in Jonestown, maybe, just maybe, he and his young allies - and his mother, Marceline - could have stopped the madness. He also might have died trying.

Now, he is living in Marin County and working for a Bay Area office-furniture business. He has a daughter who is 5 years old.

"People say there is no way I would follow that guy," he said recently. "Part of Jim Jones . . . was passionate, committed. . . . Some of what he did was gutsy, breaking away and integrating his church. . . . He was good and bad, and as time went on, the bad grew and the good diminished."

Stephan always has seemed most concerned that the people be remembered as basically good and caring. And he voiced devotion to his mother. In the late '70s, she was particularly proud of the nursery where 33 babies were born, and that 300 children lived in Jonestown.

"Mom was terrified about what might come of your visit," Stephan said. "She knew defections and bad press might send Dad over the edge. . . . She was trying to get you out of there with smiles on your faces, so we could manage a bad situation. It may have been delusional. . . . "

Patricia Ryan is now a vice president of the California Health Care Association. Her family had faced stinging irony on top of tragedy: Her sister Shannon had joined the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh sect in Oregon before it collapsed. Patricia became a leader in the Cult Awareness Network.

On the 10th anniversary of Jonestown, she asked me to speak to a network gathering in Portland. Those days, the Church of Scientology was protesting against the anti-cult group. Now the network has been bankrupted by lawsuits, and a Scientologist has purchased the name of the church's old nemesis.

Patricia does not think the lessons of Jonestown have sunk in, not even after Waco and Heaven's Gate. "I don't think politicians are any more aware now (of cults) or care to do anything because it's not an easy or expedient issue," she said. "I don't think young people even know what Jonestown was."