World News

The bloody trail behind Jonestown

William Lowther December 25 1978
World News

The bloody trail behind Jonestown

William Lowther December 25 1978

The bloody trail behind Jonestown

Guyana

It is more than four weeks since the horrors of Jonestown burst upon a shocked world. In that time, intensive investigations on three continents have begun to sort out fact from fiction and to piece together an increasingly accurate picture of the horrific ending of the Peoples Temple cult. Amidst the confusion that followed the carnage, many mistakes were made by the local authorities, much evidence was stolen by looters—and consequently many key and sinister riddles may never be solved. But, as last week ended, European police were investigating the cult’s holdings and bank deposits, while the FBI had set up a special squad to deal with the case.

In Guyana a coroner’s jury was still conducting a formal inquiry into the events of Nov. 18, when Congressman Leo Ryan, together with three American newsmen and one cult defector, were gunned down; 911 members of the cult also died on that day. Last week they heard the first official evidence that murder had been committed during the mass death ceremony. Dr. Leslie Mootoo, the chief forensic pathologist in Guyana, told the jury that Anne Moore, the 28-year-old mistress of cult leader Rev. Jim Jones, was found shot to death a few feet from an open safe in Jones’s house. Moore may have been one of the last to die, for she helped administer the cyanide and soft-drink mixture to hundreds of cult members. Who shot her, and why, are still mysteries. Murder is also suspected in the deaths of the 70-odd people who were poisoned by injection—Mootoo and police believe they were slain after they had refused to commit suicide

Jones himself was the only other shooting victim—killed by a “near discharge” in the head—but it is still not known whether he was murdered. That particular mystery has kept alive speculation that Jones, his mistress and a small group of others may have planned to escape with a fortune hoarded by the religious group over a number of years.

Investigators are satisfied that on the night of the mass suicide, cult members were initially tricked into thinking that their drinks were merely a harmless potion of soft drink and the tranquillizer Valium. Several small bottles have been found labelled “liquid Valium,” but actually containing cyanide. Some people doubtless were fooled by the incorrect

labels when the poison was poured into the communal vat, thinking it was just another of Jones’s “mass suicide” drills.

A tape recording of the event, found among the bodies, shows that it was only after the first victims had begun to fall down, writhing in agony and dying, that the others realized what was happening. At that point the hideous recording tells that mothers began screaming to save their children while, in the background, the amplified voice of Jones exhorted his followers to squirt the poison into the back of the infants’

throats so they could not spit it out.

A strange new twist in Jones’s designs was described to a California grand jury late last week. Timothy Stoen, a lawyer who once acted as cult treasurer, revealed that Jones had set up foreign bank accounts in Panama, Switzerland and other countries totaling about $8 million. He had collected the money from Peoples Temple members over the past 15 years. Further, the FBI said that the current treasurer, Terri Buford, travelled to Washington, D.C., just three weeks before the tragedy, probably in order to review the

cult’s property assets and to bank more cash.

Buford’s travels have sparked a theory in the minds of the special FBI investigating squad. Jones may have intended to have Congressman Ryan murdered even before he arrived for the probe that triggered the deaths. Jones and his mistress may have planned to flee the commune after everyone else was dead, join Buford in Washington and vanish with a king’s ransom. That plot may have failed when, at the last minute, some followers refused to commit suicide and rebelled by killing Jones and his mistress.

At least two other initial questions have been answered. Police first thought that some cult members might have escaped on the Peoples Temple’s missing seagoing boat Marceline, named after Jones’s wife. Later it was found taking on food supplies in Barbados, where the crew knew nothing about the tragedy in Guyana.

The small number of elderly people found among the dead led to suspicions that they had been murdered over the last year, so that their monthly welfare and pension cheques could swell the commune’s coffers. Although all of the bodies had still not been identified at week’s end it was revealed that, among the 578 for whom death certificates were issued, 136 were over 60 years old. The elder members had simply been overlooked in the first shock of discovery.

Not so easily solved is the riddle of three survivors being held in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown. Police there think their tale of having escaped death by chance may not be the whole story. Two brothers, Timothy and Michael Carter, and friend Michael Prokes say that during the suicide they were

called to Jones’s house by Maria Katsaris, another of the leader’s mistresses. They were told to take a suitcase load of money and jewelry to the Soviet embassy in Georgetown (for weeks Jones had been talking of a move to the U.S.S.R. and had met with embassy officials). When police arrested the trio on the outskirts of Georgetown, two of them were carrying revolvers that had been recently fired and were missing six bullets between them. Their 1 suitcase—which they had buried—con& tained about $500,000 and some jewelry. § Another $2 million has since been found § at the Peoples Temple.

Were the three part of a Jones getaway plan? Did he actually intend to move the cult to the U.S.S.R.? Those and other key plans and motives behind Jonestown—why people joined, why they followed — may now be lost for good with the 911.

William Lowther