Cult of Death: The Jonestown Nightmare

A religious colony in Guyana turns into a cult of death

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The Victims
Odell Rhodes, a Temple member who survived by hiding underneath a building, said that among the very first to line up for the poison were several mothers and their babies. He said that there was no panic or emotional outburst; that people looked as if they were "in a trance."

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The first violence occurred as Ryan conferred with Jones about taking those who wished to leave with him. Lane and Jones' longtime attorney, Charles Garry, sat in on the negotiations in a room inside the pavilion. Suddenly a cultist later identified as Don Sly ran up to Ryan from behind, grabbed him around his throat with one arm and brandished a knife with the other. "I'm going to kill you!" Sly shouted. Lane and Garry wrestled the knife away from Sly, accidentally cutting the assailant. The blood spattered Ryan's clothes. Jones watched impassively. He made no move to interfere.

Outwardly, Ryan appeared calm and seemed to shrug off the attack. The visiting newsmen and relatives were alarmed. The colonists who wanted to flee were frightened. But the plans for departure proceeded. The party again headed down the rutty road to Port Kaituma, where the two aircraft awaited them.

Lane and Garry stayed behind at Jonestown, knowing that the aircraft would be overcrowded. They expected to be picked up the next day.

At the crude landing strip, the party split up as its leaders tried to decide how to get everyone in the Otter and a smaller five-passenger Cessna brought in to help take the defectors out. A slim youth boarded the Cessna. "Watch him," one of the defectors warned Ryan. The Congressman, the newsmen and most of the fleeing cultists prepared to get into the larger craft. Then a tractor pulling a long trailer approached the field. The three men standing in the trailer did not appear to be armed, but the departing cultists were terrified.

The tractor crossed the airstrip. The men in it suddenly picked up guns and began firing at the people near the Otter. Before he could seek cover, Ron Javers of the San Francisco Chronicle was hit in the left shoulder. He crawled behind a plane wheel. NBC Cameraman Bob Brown stayed on his feet, filming the approaching riflemen. "He was incredibly tenacious," Javers reported. "Then I saw him go down. And I saw one of the attackers stick a shotgun right into his face—inches away, if that. Bob's brain was blown out of his head. It splattered on the NBC minicam. I'll never forget that sight as long as I live. I ran, and then I dived head first into the bush and scrambled as far into the swamp as I could."

Inside the Cessna, the young man, later identified as Larry Layton, 32, proved that he should have been watched. He opened fire with a pistol, wounding a woman, Vernie Gosney, who was seated beside the pilot. Layton ran from the plane. After the assailants withdrew, the Otter was found to be too damaged to fly. Its crew rushed over to the Cessna and managed to take off for Georgetown with five survivors.

When the shooting was over, Ryan, Harris and Brown lay dead on the runway. Killed, too, were Greg Robinson, 27, a photographer for the Examiner, and Patricia Park, one of the cultists who had hoped to find freedom in the U.S. At least ten others were wounded.

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