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The 33 survivors of horrendous suicide cult Jonestown Massacre

Jonestown Massacre: Inside the cult which left over 900 dead

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Home to some 118,000 people, Georgetown is like many cities across Guyana. Often referred to by its nickname, the Garden City of the Caribbean, the capital city accounts for a huge portion of Guyana’s wealth. But during one winter, it became home to one of the most atrocious acts in history.

On November 18, 1978, 909 people, including more than 300 children, died at the notorious Jonestown settlement, as well as at a nearby airstrip in the city’s Port Kaituma and at a Temple-run building, all under the control of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project leader Jim Jones.

All the killings, apart from two, came as a result of cyanide poisoning. A considerable number of those who died were reportedly injected against their will in an event coined as “revolutionary suicide” by Jones, and some of the People Temple members that aided him.

The horror killings took place throughout the Temple’s spaces, and came just days after five people, including Congressman Leo Ryan, visited the settlement and were murdered in an act ordered by Jones.

Jones guided the group, also known as the Peoples Temple, from 1955, and was responsible for forcing his movement’s members into drinking a poison-laced cocktail of Flavor Aid, which was laced with cyanide.

Here, unearths the names of those who managed to get away from the Jonestown Massacre, and what came of their lives in the aftermath of the suicide cult.

The Survivors

Of the near 1,000 members in the group, just 33 actually survived the killings. Reports show Jones had ordered the killings after growing fearful of being held in contempt, and even set up a false sniper attack on himself to convince his followers that they were being hunted.

This began the so-called Six Day Siege, which saw Jones, who referred to himself as God, speak to his Temple members about attacks from outsiders, and he soon had them protect Jonestown’s perimetre with guns and machetes.

Jones told his followers that after the death of Congressman Ryan, the US armed forces would attack the compound. The only way out, he said, was for them all to take their own lives. 

According to a 2008 CNN report, 11 people managed to escape through nearby jungle terrain. They were: Richard Clark, 42, Julius Evans, 30, Sandra Evans, 30, Sonya Evans, 11, Sharla Evans, seven, Shirelle Evans, 5, Johnny Franklin, 33, Diane Louie, 26, Robert Paul, 33, Leslie Wilson, 21 and 3-year-old Jakari Wilson.

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Some 14 others managed to live after they made it through an airport ambush. They were: Monica Bagby, 18, Jim Bogue, 36, Edith Bogue, 39, Teena Bogue, 22, Juanita Bogue, 21, Tommy Bogue, 17, Harold Cordell, 42, Vernon Gosney, 25, Chris O’Neal, 20, Edith Parks, 64, Gerald Parks, 45, Dale Parks, 27, Brenda Parks, 18, Tracy Parks, 12.

The report noted that four of the followers, Mike Carter, 20, Tim Carter, 30, Larry Layton, 32, Mike Prokes, 31, were sent away by Jones or his mistress, and that a further four, Stanley Clayton, 25, Grover Davis, 79, Odell Rhodes, 36, Hyacinth Thrash, 76, astonishingly lived through the mass suicides.

Jones’ suicide order quickly resulted in widespread opposition among his followrs, with many breaking down. When the preacher saw any emotion, however, he reportedly told them: “Stop these hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die. No way for us to die. We must die with some dignity.”

In disturbing recordings, known as the Death Tape, made by Jones, he was heard telling his congregation “not [to] be afraid to die,” noting how death was “just stepping over into another place”. He even told some that death is “a friend”.

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At the end of the tape, Jones concluded: “We didn’t commit suicide; we committed an act of revolutionary suicide protesting the conditions of an inhumane world.”

The ravages of the Jonestown Massacre remained the greatest loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act until the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, which saw 2,996 lives claimed after the Twin Towers were targeted by terrorists.

In the decades since, some of the survivors have spoken out about their recollections of Jones and the Temple, including Jordan Vilchez. According to 2018 Canoe report, Vilchez’s parents were invited to the Temple, and that it “became my family”.

She noted that by the time she was 16 discussion within her age group had turned to a mixture of chatter about the church, sex and adulation for Jones. “What we were calling the cause really was Jim,” she said.

On the day of the mass suicide, Vilchez was sent to Georgetown in order to raise money, and while she was at a temple associated with Jones, she heard a radio message from the preacher himself. The message then explained the group with Vilchez had been “given an order that we were supposed to kill ourselves”.

Another to experience the trauma of Jonestown was Stephan Gandhi Jones, the biological son of Jim and his mistress Marceline. He said: “So much was attractive and unique that we turned a blind eye on what was wrong.”

Speaking decades after his experience, Stephan said his daughters had picked up on the venom he felt for his father, but also that they saw a respect he had for him too. He added: “People ask, ’How can you ever be proud of your father?’ I just have to love him and forgive him.”

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