'How Did This Happen, and How Did I Not See It Coming?'

Over 900 members of Jim Jones's Peoples Temple died on November 18, 1978. Here, in their own words, are some of the people who made it out alive.

December 10, 2014

Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Vice, Slate, Quartz, The Telegraph, and NK News. He...

“For god sakes let's get on with it. We've lived, we've lived as no other people have lived and loved, we've had as much of this world as you're going to get. Let's just be done with it.”

Convinced that the agricultural commune he’d established in a remote plot of Guyanese jungle was under attack, the Reverend Jim Jones decided on November 18, 1978, that it was time for everyone to die.

Encouraged to commit “revolutionary suicide,” the residents of what had become known as Jonestown lined up to drink from a large metal vat filled with grape Flavor-Aid that Jones and his disciples had spiked with poison. The first to drink the lethal tonic were Ruletta Paul and her one-year-old son, Robert. According to a coroner’s statement, Paul squirted a few drops of Flavor-Aid into Robert’s mouth with a syringe before taking some herself. Jones was found on the ground, killed by a gunshot wound to the head. Whether it was suicide or murder remains a mystery.

Jones founded the Peoples Temple in 1955, in Indianapolis, expounding a gospel that fused the exuberant intensity of evangelical Christianity with messages promoting racial integration and social equality. He designed it to be as much a movement as a church, with himself the charismatic figure at its head. Invoking the spectre of an imminent nuclear war, in 1965 Jones relocated operations to Ukiah, California, chosen for its proximity to the town of Eureka, which Esquire magazine had identified as one of the nine safest places in the world to be in the event of a radiological attack. About a hundred of Jones’s followers went with him.

In the early 1970s, Jones opened a new headquarters for the temple in San Francisco. There, the church continued to gain members, especially among refugees of the counterculture and black Americans. (Jones and his wife adopted six mixed-race kids, and had one biological son of their own.) Jones soon expanded south to Los Angeles, and began mounting nationwide tours under the banner of “Healing Services,” wherein participants were reputedly “cured” of their ailments. Though reports of faked healings and coercive behaviour within the temple were bringing it under increasing scrutiny, several prominent politicians publicly lent it their support, including San Francisco mayor George Moscone, assemblyman Harvey Milk, and California governor Jerry Brown. At the peak of the Temple’s popularity, it had as many as 7,500 members, according to sociologist John R. Hall’s 1987 book, Gone From the Promised Land.

Further media investigations yielded more stories of abuse and financial chicanery. When New West magazine published an exposé in August 1977, Jones packed up and left for Guyana, where construction of the “Peoples Temple Agricultural Project,” later renamed Jonestown, was already underway.

In all, 918 people died “at Jonestown.” Of them, 909 died on the actual compound, some forced to drink the cyanide concoction even after they had refused. Five more people were shot by Temple security at a nearby airstrip trying to flee, and a mother killed herself and her three children at the Temple’s house in the capital of Georgetown. Though the Jonestown massacre marked the largest single-day loss of American civilians until the attacks on 9/11, it has over the years primarily been a subject of either sensational or arcane interest. The story is distant to most by now, having ended on that terrible day, 36 years ago. But sometimes there are echoes, such as earlier this year, when the unclaimed remains of nine Jonestown victims turned up in a shuttered Delaware funeral home.

State officials, the story said, had enlisted the help of Jonestown survivors in identifying them and tracking down relatives. In reading it, I became curious about the 35 people who managed to escape from Jonestown that day, and so I located a few of them throughthe Jonestown Institute at San Diego State University and got in touch, not knowing what to expect. I discovered that, like the nine people whose ashes sat forgotten in an abandoned building for more than three decades, many Jonestown survivors were also lost upon returning home.


Vernon Gosney (handout)Laura Johnston Kohl

As terrified and broken as he was, escaping Jonestown of his own volition gave Vernon Gosney an important advantage.

“If you choose to leave, at least you feel like you have some control over your life, that you are mastering the situation,” says Marc Galanter, a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and author of the book Cults: Faith, Healing and Coercion. “If you are forced to leave and you are still a devotee, it’s like everybody in your entire family has just died. On top of everything else, you’re made to feel like a malfeasant, if not a criminal. The finger is pointed at you, that you are in some way responsible for something terrible.”

Laura Johnston Kohl never wanted to leave.

“I fell in love with the Peoples Temple from the minute I walked in in 1970,” Kohl tells me. “Jim had contact with Angela Davis, and all these people who were my heroes and heroines. I thought we could become voices for the voiceless. I completely bought his message, to the point that I would see things that I knew were wrong, but I’d say, ‘Yeah, but that’s just a little part of something bigger that’s really great.’ l sold out the inner voice of mine.”

Kohl was long committed to social justice issues before hooking up with the Peoples Temple. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she had worked with the Black Panthers and been tear-gassed in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration before graduating from college. By 1977, Kohl says she couldn’t turn away from the rampant inequality she saw all around her and moved to Jonestown, where she was in charge of an agriculture crew by day, taught Spanish by night, and helped out in the legal office into the early hours of the morning.

“I loved it there, it was my home,” Kohl says, now 67 years old. “If people asked, I never had any disparaging remarks about Jim. And he knew that if he gave the instruction that everybody commit suicide, I would do it without question.”

“When I found Jim Jones, I thought he was going to be my protector. But I didn’t spend enough time watching him carefully enough. So, I had to figure out what the fuck happened on my watch. How did this happen, and how did I not even see it coming?”

When Jones did give the instruction, Kohl happened to be at the Temple’s office in Georgetown, 240 kilometres away. (A trusted member of the temple’s Planning Commission, Kohl spent periods working in the city as a “procurer,” soliciting donations door-to-door and buying supplies.) With her was Jones’s 19-year-old son, Stephan, in the city for a basketball tournament. When Stephan was informed of his father’s plan, he refused to go along with it, and managed to convince those at the office to follow him—except for Sharon Amos, who sequestered herself in a bathroom and slit her three children’s throats before ending her own life.

Recalls Kohl: “A bunch of us in the house went out to a political rally, and when we came back, the police were there, taking out Sharon and her kids in body bags.”

It took a few weeks for authorities to arrange transportation home for the survivors, who were scheduled to be interrogated by the FBI when they got back to the United States. Kohl was escorted to New York City by air marshals, her plane greeted by reporters and angry family members of Jonestown victims. One woman who lost her son at Jonestown began screaming at Kohl when she entered the terminal, asking why Kohl had survived and her son hadn’t.

“Now that I’m a mother, I can understand that,” Kohl tells me. “The thing that followed all of us survivors is that Jim died. I think that people want to have a person or an image right in front of them that they can blame. I think that we have all stood in that place and been blamed.”

Kohl eventually moved to San Francisco, where she lived with other Jonestown exes at the Temple’s headquarters until it was seized by the government. Kohl, unable to face the stigma and shame associated with Jonestown, “kind of ran for the closet and hid away.”

She couldn’t go far. The U.S. government had slapped a $500 lien against her passport for repatriation expenses. Broke, directionless, and angry, Kohl registered with a temp agency and found secretarial work, saving money to get her passport back. Frequently, she found herself at loose ends.

“I would sit at my typewriter and cry all day,” she says. “Then I’d go home, and I’d be in tears all night. I was just barely making it—things weren’t working for me.”

Desperate for communal life again, Kohl, who was not a drug user, checked into Synanon, a Santa Monica-based rehab centre that later, somewhat controversially, became the Church of Synanon.

The decision to join another communal group that had all the appearances of a cult was unpopular with Kohl’s friends and family. No matter, said Kohl—it was something she simply had to do.

“When I told people that I was going to move into another community they screamed at me, ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it!’” she says. “But they didn’t understand—I just knew I wasn’t going to make it the way I was going.”

Kohl describes Synanon, with which she stayed for 10 years, as a transformative experience. Though she spent much of her first three years there in tears, she says its confrontational, arguably abusive therapeutic process allowed her to “exorcise [her] thinking process and evolve in my perspective of what happened.”

In 1990, the IRS shut down Synanon for tax evasion. By then, Kohl had married and adopted a son, gone back to college, become a Quaker, and begun teaching in the San Diego public school system. She started writing and speaking publicly about her time at Jonestown, and in 2010, published a book, Jonestown Survivor: An Insider’s Look. She coordinates a yearly Peoples Temple reunion, and helps other survivors compile oral histories of their experiences.

“When I found Jim Jones, I thought he was going to be my protector,” Kohl says. “But I didn’t spend enough time watching him carefully enough. So, I had to figure out what the fuck happened on my watch. How did this happen, and how did I not even see it coming?”


Tim Carter

Tim Carter was one of the few eyewitnesses to survive the day of the massacre at the Jonestown settlement.

“The Peoples Temple represented the very best and the very worst of humanity at the same time,” Carter tells me from his home in Boise, Oregon, where he has lived and worked as a travel agent for more than 30 years. Though it called itself a church, Carter saw the temple as a kind of political movement. “Was it cultish? Absolutely. Could I make a case that it wasn’t a cult? Absolutely.”

“It wasn’t suicide, it was murder. There was no choice that day. People say, ‘Why didn’t anyone try to get away?’ ... If you had asked people, ‘Do you want to die right now for Jim Jones?’ I guaran-fuckin-tee you wouldn’t have had 918 dead.”Prior to joining the Peoples Temple, Carter spent three years with the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam. He got out in 1968, three days before the Tet Offensive. Following gurus was rather stylish at the time, and so after Carter finished reading Autobiography of a Yogi, he went looking for one. “[I] did a lot of kicking around, focusing on the gurus who were big back then, looking for a teacher or a master,” he says, though they all left him “cold.” When he encountered Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, he felt something different. There was an immediate camaraderie with the other members, and a shared sense of purpose in helping fulfill Jones’s dream. And Jonestown was a place where Carter, the Temple’s public relations head, could raise his son far from what he considered an oppressive and racist U.S. system.

Carter’s wife, sister, brother-in-law, niece, nephew, and 15-month-old son, Malcolm, didn’t get out of Jonestown alive. After watching his sister and son in front of him, Carter “made the choice to live,” and fled to safety by running into the surrounding jungle.

“It wasn’t suicide, it was murder,” says Carter. “There was no choice that day. People say, ‘Why didn’t anyone try to get away?’ Well, I had to go and identify bodies two days later, and I know that people tried to get away. The first body I saw, the guy had been injected in the temple. There was a huge abscess. I saw abscesses on necks, arms, thighs. So many that I didn’t bother to count. If you had asked people, ‘Do you want to die right now for Jim Jones?’ I guaran-fuckin-tee you wouldn’t have had 918 dead.” (The 918 number Carter refers to is the total who died on November 18, 1978—909 in Jonestown proper, Leo Ryan and four others at the airstrip, and Sharon Amos and her three kids at the Temple’s Georgetown house.)

After the massacre, authorities sent Carter to a hotel in Georgetown where he and 46 others waited to be escorted home. Carter and his brother Michael, also a Temple member, called their father—the only family they had left. Once the logistics were worked out, they travelled back to the United States as Laura Johnston Kohl and the others did—that is, on a commercial flight, under armed guard.

When the plane landed at JFK, the brothers were ordered to stay seated until all the regular passengers had disembarked, after which federal agents escorted them into the old Pan Am terminal. The walkways were lined with people banging on the glass, screaming at Carter and his brother. He remembers the scene as “very ugly, and kind of terrifying. They wanted to kick the shit out of us.”

The government of Guyana forbade the burying of Jonestown’s dead in the country, and Carter recalls how cemetery after cemetery in the U.S. also refused them. The corpses sat at a military base in Dover, Delaware, for five months, before Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, thanks to mounting political pressure from a group of pastors in the Bay Area, finally agreed to accept them.

Carter would experience similar difficulty finding acceptance. To many in Burlingame, the town in northern California where he had lived prior to Jonestown, he was the reason their own kids had joined the Temple. Carter claims that theSan Francisco Chronicle once called him the Temple’s “chief enforcer for the Bay Area,” a description he disputes. “I never even worked Temple security.” Nonetheless, he knew his return would be unwelcome.

He decided to head to Boise; he’d grown up there, and his father was willing to take him in. On arriving, Carter gathered all the local newspapers he could, and realized he had been on the front page 29 out of the past 30 days. His name, he says, “had been trashed.” He claims he was under intense surveillance—his phone line tapped, Secret Service paying the occasional house call, his neighbours vigilantly suspicious.

“I had been back for a couple of days, and I just had to get out of the house,” says Carter. “So I went to a local restaurant-bar to play some pool. The looks on people’s faces there—it was either hatred or loathing or fear. I mean, I was hated. At the same time, if all I knew about the story was only what I had read in the papers, I’m sure I would be feeling the same way.”

Like Gosney, Carter says he lived in fear of Jim Jones’s supposed hit squads. Yet Carter’s attorneys forbade him from seeing a counsellor with whom he might discuss anything Jonestown-related, fearing authorities could subpoena those he spoke with force them to reveal what he’d said.

Hoping to go back to work, Carter registered with a temp agency. He was 30 years old, and aside from his stint in the military, his only work experience was with the Temple, which he duly included on his résumé. After a couple weeks, a local travel agency hired him to handle accounts receivable on the night shift.

“My first day, the head of the department turned her desk around to face the wall because she was sure the ‘cultists’ were going to come in and slaughter everybody,” Carter says. “She quit the next day. Somebody actually quit their job because I was working there.”

Carter says the FBI called his boss once a week to check up on him, believing he might be part of a Temple hit squad waiting to be activated. Nevertheless, Carter made a good enough impression on the agency’s owner, who decided to hire him on full-time. Carter made a nice career for himself, but never achieved the same sort of success in his personal life. He has twice attempted suicide and says old friends—even decades later—have refused any contact. His best friend from childhood won’t talk to him. Despite attempts to rekindle their relationship, the answer is always the same: “Don’t call us anymore.”

“They have no idea who I am as a person, but they think they know who the fuck I am based on articles they’ve read,” Carter says. “I mean, in the last two weeks, I’ve gotten four requests for interviews—one of them, from the History Channel, will be all about cults. Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, Charles Manson. You’re lumping me in with Charles Manson? Uh, I don’t think so.”

Recently, Carter’s son recently became a father, and Carter is noticeably emotional when he tells me his grandson’s name: Malcolm. It seems especially poignant to Carter—an earnest homage to anything Jonestown-related, he says, is a rarity for him.

“I’ll be watching Law & Order: SVU or SportsCenter or something,” he says, “and all of a sudden there’s some mocking reference to ‘Drinking the Kool-Aid.’ Well, my son, my sister, and four other members of my family were all murdered, in my opinion, and now I’ve got to hear people talking about it like it ain’t shit?”


Sadie and Pearl Willis

Some only narrowly survived Jonestown, while others got out well before the shit really hit the fan. But even though Sadie Willis didn’t die in Jonestown, the psychological damage inflicted upon her during the year she spent in the Peoples Temple ensured she never had much of a life again.

Growing up in Louisiana, the heart of the Bible belt, church was a way of life for the young Sadie. It was the same when she later moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, and a cousin introduced her to the Peoples Temple. According to her niece, Lela Howard, the Temple’s cult-like aspects were not yet apparent to Sadie; she embraced it with the same fervour as she did the church of her youth. And like any devout worshipper, Sadie believed wholeheartedly in her pastor, Jim Jones.

“Jonestown made me realize that the people up there in the pulpit are just human beings, and we should not have so much adoration for them, and worship and follow pastors. They’re not god, they’re just people.”

It wasn’t long before that faith was tested. What was once an extremely significant aspect of Sadie’s life soon became an oppressive and menacing presence. When she Temple officials were tailing her around town, Sadie decided she had had enough. And so, about a year after joining the Peoples Temple, she cut ties.

The hounding continued. Temple officials threatened to take away Sadie’s children unless she returned to the fold, Howard says. They harassed her by phone, and when she stopped taking their calls, they showed up at her L.A. home. Feeling harassed and more than a little intimidated, Sadie left Southern California altogether and resettled in Oakland. When enforcers from the Temple began contacting Sadie’s relatives in an effort to track her down, she disappeared, forced underground.

Sadie stayed anywhere she could, as long as she could do so anonymously; Howard later discovered that this usually meant homeless shelters, but her precise location was always a secret. In the meantime, Sadie’s kids lived with other family members around the Bay Area. For Howard, this remains the most obvious sign that Sadie genuinely feared for her safety.

“To separate herself from her kids, she had to have been so afraid in order to do that,” says Howard. “Because if you knew her, you knew her kids were her everything.”

But as Sadie was running as far away from Jim Jones as she could, her sister Pearl was falling hard for his equality gospel. She was blind to Jones’s abuse, and the threats that Sadie faced.

“No one had never heard a non-minority talking about the troubles of being black in America before,” Howard explains. “This was really something new. They heard about the miracles Jim Jones supposedly performed, which everyone knows now was just a trick. But they still had that awe.”

There was something else Pearl hoped to get from her membership in the Peoples Temple aside from spiritual fulfillment: she wanted a baby. Howard says Pearl was promised she’d be able to adopt one if she moved to Jonestown. To Howard, it was a given that Aunt Pearl would eventually come back to the U.S. with her new child—it was simply a matter of when. Pearl left for Jonestown in August 1978.

Three months later, she was dead.

“My aunt was listed as #71-E on the body bag,” Howard says. “But I knew her as Mary Pearl Willis, who made the best strawberry shortcake, who gave the best hugs, who had the most buttery-soft voice that would just wrap you up in it. She loved so hard, she’s so much more deserving than 71-E. There’s a person behind that number.”

Sadie reconnected with her family on the morning of November 19, 1978, the day after her sister—and Jones and hundreds of others—had died. The way Howard thinks of it now, however, a part of Sadie never made it back from those early days and her time on the run.

“Her mind was gone,” Howard says. “It was described to me as a nervous breakdown.”

Sadie was put on medication to manage her symptoms, but soon stopped taking it. Once carefree and affectionate, Howard says, she now seemed constantly on the verge of tears.

“Everyone was pointing fingers after Aunt Pearl died—they just couldn’t believe this had happened. I remember my mom saying that even though Aunt Sadie knew what went on in the Peoples Temple, it wasn’t Aunt Sadie’s fault that Pearl was gone. It was no one’s fault, no one could have told Aunt Pearl anything—she truly wanted that child.”

Pearl was buried in an unmarked grave in her hometown of Monroe, Louisiana. No one knew quite where Pearl was laid to rest until Howard, after a long search, finally tracked her down and placed a headstone on the grave in 2007. Sadie went to visit once, but couldn’t bring herself to get out of the car. It was an agonizing end to 30 years of internal torment, during which Sadie, terrified of contact with anyone connected with the Peoples Temple, lived on the margins of society, unemployed and relying on public assistance to survive.

Sadie died in 2013. Howard’s mother, the last of the three sisters, died this September. When I last spoke to Howard, she was in the midst of making the funeral arrangements and seemed particularly introspective. In the end, she says, she has undergone her own religious awakening of sorts, no longer needing a spiritual go-between in her religious life.

“It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me since Aunt Pearl died,” Howard says. “Jonestown made me realize that the people up there in the pulpit are just human beings, and we should not have so much adoration for them, and worship and follow pastors. They’re not god, they’re just people.”


Among the survivors of the Peoples Temple, who even after the massacre feared hit squads might come after them, rumours long circulated that Jim Jones had actually lived and escaped, possibly to the Soviet Union or North Korea.

“The myth was that Jim Jones had taken a trunk of money and was hiding somewhere in Russia,” says Howard. “People really believed that.”

Though many conspiracy theories have floated around the Jonestown massacre over the years, including one implicating the CIA, the idea that Jones might be in the USSR, had he survived, wasn’t implausible to ex-members. According to audio recordings and documents compiled by Fielding McGehee III of the Jonestown Institute, Jones had developed a relationship with the Soviets, and even considered moving his group behind the Iron Curtain. Evidence also exists that Jones was in regular contact with representatives of the North Korean government.

“It seemed to be a very similar setup to Jonestown,” says Vernon Gosney, recalling a North Korean book he discovered while laid up in the Jonestown infirmary. “They called their leader ‘father,’ guilt was used to make people subservient. I could see the parallels.”

The Jonestown experience still strikes Laura Kohl as somewhat surreal, as she describes a group of “very bright, well-intentioned people who all got pulled into this labyrinth of insanity.”

“I began to see Larry as someone who was more like me, [rather] than someone who shot me. I just wanted to be free, and that was my way of doing it.”

“It showed me that you can be really, really smart, really, really dedicated, have [the] best motives in world, but it doesn’t really matter. If you let down your guard for one second, and stop being a critical thinker, you can be sucked into any horrific thing. Most of us could have done any of the jobs, including pulling out the vat of poison.”

Even today, ex-members continue to face suspicion, Fielding McGehee, who himself lost several relatives at Jonestown, tells me.

“Just a week or so ago, a friend in New Jersey found an apartment on Craigslist,” McGehee says. “She met with the people put down a deposit, and in talking, said she’d be coming out to California for a gathering. So, they asked who it was, and she said it was a reunion of Peoples Temple members. The next day, her deposit was returned. The day after that, she saw the apartment back on Craigslist.”

“They were all just sort of grouped together as these ‘crazy Jonestown people,’ but these were people,” says Lela Howard. “Some people were shot, some were injected. They found two needle marks on Aunt Pearl’s arm—not everyone drank. But even if they did, they were still human beings.”

Tim Carter can relate, telling me he’s heard a variation of the same thing after almost every interview he’s done about Jonestown over the past three decades.

“I always ask, ‘What’s the thing that stuck out to you the most about us?’” he says. “There hasn’t been a single time that someone didn’t say, ‘I’m surprised at how intelligent everybody was.’ What would make you think we were stupid in the first place? Because of the way the story has been portrayed, we will always be ‘them,’ never ‘us.’”

“There was a dream, which turned into a nightmare due to Jim Jones and his mental illness-slash-drug addiction-slash-whatever,” Gosney says. “It’s been a long, long journey, and I had to go so deep within myself to heal. I’m sure I’m a deeper person, a more compassionate person, than I would’ve been otherwise.”

Whether it’s compassion or something else entirely, Gosney’s capacity to forgive is astonishing. Larry Layton, the man who nearly killed him at the airstrip back in 1978, received a 20-year prison sentence for his crimes. He was released after 18, thanks largely to an appeal Gosney made on his behalf.

“We were both deceived by Jim Jones,” Gosney says, “and I began to see Larry as someone who was more like me, [rather] than someone who shot me. I just wanted to be free, and that was my way of doing it.”

Justin Rohrlich is an Emmy Award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, Vice, Slate, Quartz, The Telegraph, and NK News. He lives in New York City.