Questions of Blame Linger 34 Years After Jonestown

Good Morning America

From the age of 13, Leslie Wagner Wilson had been indoctrinated in the California-based Peoples Temple, led by the charismatic Jim Jones, whose mission was to foster racial harmony and help the poor.

But on Nov. 18, 1978, she and a handful of church members fought their way through thick jungle in the South American country of Guyana, escaping a utopian society gone wrong where followers were starved, beaten and held prisoner in the Jonestown compound.

She walked 30 miles to safety with her 3-year-old son, Jakari, strapped to her back and a smaller group of defectors. But just hours later, the mother, sister and brother and husband she left behind were dead.

"I was so scared," said Wagner, now 55. "We exchanged phone numbers in case we died. I was prepared to die. I never thought I would see my 21st birthday."

Today, on the 34th anniversary, Wilson said it's important to remember the California-based Peoples Temple Jonestown massacre, especially the survivors who have wrestled with their consciences for decades.

PHOTOS: Jonestown Massacre Anniversary

Nine members of her family were among the 918 Americans who died that day, 909 of them ordered by Jones to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the largest ritual suicide in history.

Her husband, Joe Wilson, was one of Jones' top lieutenants who helped assassinate congressman Leo Ryan and his press crew when they tried to free church members who were being held against their will.

After arriving back in the United States, Wilson said she "went through hell" -- three failed marriages, drug use and suicidal thoughts she describes in her 2009 book, "Slavery of Faith."

"I was like Humpty Dumpty, but you couldn't put me back together again," she said.

Survivors, many of them African-American like Wilson, say they felt guilt and shame and faced the most agonizing question surrounding the nation's single largest loss of life until 9/11: Was it suicide or murder?

Full Coverage: Jonestown Massacre

In the now-famous "death tape," supporters clapped and babies cried as Jones instructed families to kill the elderly first, then the youngest in protest against capitalism and racism. Mothers poisoned 246 children before taking their own lives.

"We really can't understand the Peoples Temple without looking at the historical time period when it arose," said Rebecca Moore, a professor of religious studies at San Diego State University.

"With the liberation movements of the '60s and '70s, the collapse of the black-power movement, the Peoples Temple was the main institution in the San Francisco Bay area that promoted a message of integration and racial equality."

Moore lost her two sisters and her nephew, the son of Jim Jones. "They were hardcore believers," she said of her siblings.

Jim Jones, who was white, came from a "wrong side of the tracks," poor background in Indiana where in the 1950s he became known as a charismatic preacher with an affinity for African-Americans.

"A number of survivors, including those who defected, believe to this day he had paranormal abilities," said Moore, who met him years later. "He could heal them and read their minds."

In the 1960s, Jones moved to San Francisco, where at the height of the Peoples Temple there were about 5,000 members.

WATCH: A Look Back at Jonestown Massacre

"They wanted my parents to join," she said. "Like most outsiders, we didn't have any idea what was happening outside closed doors."

Jones ingratiated himself with celebrities and politicians, mobilizing voters to help elect Mayor George Moscone in 1975 and becoming chairman of the city's housing authority.

Jim Jones Exerted 'Total Mind Control'

View photo

Jonestown survivor Leslie Wagner Wilson, now 55.

The church did many good deeds, but followers were never allowed to criticize Jones or talk to others outside the group. They signed contracts vowing their allegiance.

"It was a cult, total mind control," said Wilson, who, as a teen, traveled the country recruiting members. "The church would humiliate you and take away any ego you had. Everything centered on the cause."

In 1974, Jones leased 3,800 acres of isolated jungle from the government in Guyana, concluding that the mostly English-speaking country would be a safe haven for his growing commune.

Professor Moore's parents visited Jonestown in 1978 and "things seemed fine on the surface." But conditions deteriorated with shortages of food and supplies.

At 21, Mike Touchette was one of the first six to go to Jonestown when it was only "raw jungle." It made sense to the young Touchette to join in the movement his grandparents and parents introduced him to when he was only 10 years old in Indiana.

"I did things I never imagined I would do," he said. I cleared trees, I made the roads that make up Jonestown, I helped build housing."

But conditions were rough and not for everyone.

"We had no electricity, no running water, and no heat. We would collect rain water to drink and bath in. We were given an allowance to buy the essentials -- only what we needed."

During the day, Touchette, along with the 200 Guyanese workers Jones employed, would work on creating the community of Jonestown. At night, the multiracial group would play cards, dominoes and spend hours reading.

WATCH: Sons of Sniper, Jonestown Leader Reflect

"I loved Jonestown. I miss it," said Touchette, now 60 and a manager of a hydraulic company. "Other than the birth of my children and grandchildren, Jonestown was the greatest time in my life."

That time also led to tragedy. His mother, brother, sister, uncle and grandfather died in the mass suicide. He has gone back twice to the haunting site.

"When I found out what happened, it was tragic to lose close family like that. But when I when I learned that Jonestown would never be what it was to me -- that was hard."

After Laura Kohl graduated from college in Connecticut, she moved west to be closer to her sister, who lived in San Francisco and first told her about the Peoples Temple.

Her hard work and enthusiasm for the movement eventually caught the eye of Jones, who asked her to follow him to Guyana. Her role: to ship supplies including hundreds of thousands of pounds of bread, cheese and rice from Georgetown, its capital, to Jonestown, an hour away.

For the next 10 months, Kohl called Jonestown a "thriving, bustling community."

She was on the agricultural crew growing various crops and managing the produce. She also taught Spanish and typed in the law office at night.

"Once I saw Guyana, I fell in love with the potential of what Jonestown could be," she said. "It was just one big family."

But life in Jonestown was not what it seemed. Workers noticed Jones was becoming more ill and taking drugs.

"There was no forum for us to do any kind of questioning on decisions Jim made," said Kohl. "He was in charge. It was either Jim or his mistresses or secretaries who made decisions."

Now 65 and a teacher, Kohl has regrets after knowing of Jones' condition before and during Jonestown.

"I regret not stopping it, not stepping forward, not understanding what was going on with Jim," she said.

Kohl says following the massacre she was a "complete basketcase."

Her experience in the Peoples Temple and Jonestown has given her an outlet to write a book, publish 30 articles, and speak at several universities and colleges.

"People found it really easy to write off that everybody went to Guyana like sheep led to slaughter," said Kohl. "I try to put faces on the body bag. Nothing like Jonestown have ever happened before. There was nobody like Jim Jones."

Wilson said she was "one foot in and one foot out" of the Peoples Temple in 1977 when Jones and her husband kidnapped her son, Jakari, and took the baby to Guyana.

"My husband had moved up the ranks, and I had decided I didn't want to do this anymore," she said. "They used that tactic to get me there."

There was a voice inside of her that said, "You will never see your child again."

Given a bus ticket to Miami and a one-way flight to South America, she arrived to find "an environment of fear."

"We did not do very well as socialists," she said. "Once we got there, all we did was work the land. There were no jobs outside. We were stuck with no way to get out. It was an armed camp."

Wilson saw beatings of adults and children. "They would pair someone weaker with someone stronger and actually have boxing matches drawing blood," she said.

She said there was a "green monster" that would administer electrical shocks to dissenters. "You would hear the screaming," she said.

In 1998, Moore started a website on the 20th anniversary, to "humanize" those who died. Today it is a repository of primary source documents, remembrances and biographies of the dead.

In survivor essays, some argue victims unwillingly went to their deaths and were murdered at Jonestown.

Others say Jones' followers were, in part, culpable in the mass suicide because they didn't do more to resist.

Moore admits that Jonestown residents were exhausted from sleep deprivation and hard labor, but they were not coerced into action.

Although members believed they were operating for "the greater good," Moore said she sees Jonestown was a failure of moral conscience.

"I don't subscribe to the idea of brainwashing or mind control," she said. "People say everything was the fault of Jim Jones. But I don't subscribe to that. People cooperated and collaborated in the oppression, and victims were also the perpetrators."

Rather than being brainwashed, people were exhausted and with not enough "alone time to think about what they were doing."

And when Nov. 18 arrived, members had few alternatives, having given up their middle-class lives and left all behind.

"They had a choice between being seen as traitors and surviving or drinking the Kool-Aid and being loyal to the cause," she said.

Up until that fateful day, Jones had staged multiple rehearsals for mass suicide, what he called the "revolutionary act," where followers lined up and practiced drinking poison.

Things began to unravel when Rep. Ryan and an investigative committee visited Jonestown in November 1978, after some church members had asked for help getting out.

Ryan toured the compound, then returned with a handful of defectors to the Port Kaituma airstrip, where he and four others were ambushed by Jones' guards.

Back at the compound, Jones convinced followers that Ryan's death was imminent and the church would "fall into the hands of the enemy."

The FBI transcript of the death tape shows that one woman, Christine Miller, argued with Jones, but others shouted her down. Babies cried in the background, as a Jones supporter said: "Calm the children ... something to give them a little rest, a little rest. Calm the children."

Jones tried to quiet the crowd: "So my opinion is that we be kind to children and be kind to seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly because we are not committing suicide. It's a revolutionary act. We can't go back. They won't leave us alone."

In the end, 909 were either injected with or drank potassium cyanide mixed into a vat of punch and tranquilizers. Babies had poison squirted in their mouths with syringes.

Bodies were found strewn in an orderly fashion around the compound. Many had injection marks in the face and forehead.

Others were shot by security guards. Jones had a bullet to the head, but no one knows whether it was suicide or murder.

Wilson's husband was found on a bed face-up back at the compound. "We don't know what killed him," she said.

Wilson and others attend annual memorial services at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, where 407 Jonestown victims, mostly children, are buried in a mass grave.

The bodies were so badly decomposed when they arrived at Dover Air Force base in 1978 that they could not be identified. It was the only cemetery to accept the unidentified remains of Jonestown victims.

"People were afraid of contagions from the decomposing bodies and the impurity of the cult, believing they died a shameful death," Moore said.

But on May 29, 2011, an estimated 150 survivors and relatives dedicated a monument to those who died. An interfaith group erected four granite plaques with the names of all 918 who died. Though controversial, the names of both Jones and Ryan appear on the list.

The Jonestown memorial is at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, Calif.

The day was cathartic, a "turning point" for survivors and families of those who died, according to Moore.

"The names of the people who died in the Twin Towers were read immediately, but it took 33 years for the Peoples Temple to get this public memorial," she said.

Wilson, now working in health care and the mother of three adult children, said she hopes each anniversary is a reminder to those who are too young to remember Jonestown to take heed.

"We don't want to see it repeated," she said.

But she understands the emotional draw of a Jonestown: "People want be loved," she said. "And taken care of."

Now wary of organized religion, she finds solace in her faith: "I have found a higher power."

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