‘Jonestown’ 40 Years Later: Was Peoples Temple an Intel Op Gone Bad?
With the 40th anniversary of “The Jonestown Massacre” approaching, on November 18th, AFP offers a three-part series on the Rev. Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and the massacre/mass suicide that took over 900 lives in the jungles of Guyana.
By S.T. Patrick
I: Jim Jones, the CIA & the FBI
Researcher Jim Hougan says the origins of famed cult leader Jim Jones are shrouded in intelligence activities. This is part one of three, originally published in American Free Press Issue 15 & 16, April 9 & 16, 2018.
Tragedy is often complex. In the mainstream media’s haste to explain the Nov. 18, 1978 massacre at Jonestown, Guyana, a quick resolution emerged. It was the oft-repeated, cautionary tale of a madman pushed beyond the brink of sanity. Moreover, it was a theme popularized in the “decade of decadence,” the 1970s.
Communal living had reached a peak of countercultural dissatisfaction, so much so that the media had turned its raging eye on these communities, which it now disparagingly called “cults.” Jonestown was portrayed as the failure of this anti-establishment movement. Its climax took the lives of over 900 men, women, and children, and was furthermore a glaring example of the imminent debacle incurred when following a fanatic “off the grid.”
Independent researchers and authors have disagreed with the mainstream mass media and have done so since the massacre occurred. What if Jonestown was not simply the inevitable result of a sociological experiment? What if anti-establishment movements are not doomed to fail on their own? And what if the rise of the Rev. Jim Jones was much more complicated than we had been told by Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor, and Frank Reynolds in 1978?
Jim Hougan’s breakthrough as an author and researcher came with his alternative take on Richard Nixon’s downfall, Secret Agenda: Watergate, Deep Throat, and the CIA. He established himself as an authority on the 1970s with Decadence: Radical Nostalgia, Narcissism, and Decline in the Seventies, and examined the sordid relationship between the CIA and private industry in Spooks: The Private Use of Secret Agents.
His multi-part article “Jim Jones, Dan Mitrione, and the Peoples Temple”—available at “JimHougan.com”—is the culmination of decades of Jonestown research. Hougan combines Jones’s biography, FBI and CIA infiltration, and governmental shenanigans to uncover what really occurred in northwest Guyana, and how the parishioners of the Peoples Temple found themselves over 5,000 miles from the Bay Area of California.
James Warren Jones was born in Depression-era Indiana. A friend of his mother took Jones to church, where he found his religious zeal. He was soon taken under the wing of a female evangelist who led faith-healing revivals at the Gospel Tabernacle Church, a Pentecostal offshoot of the Holy Rollers. While no hard evidence of an inappropriate sexual relationship exists, Hougan reports that the beginning of Jones’s reptilian nightmares coincided with his association with the woman. His later tendency to sexually humiliate those who had angered him was lamented by those who remained loyal and may also have been a sign of sexual abuse experienced as a youth.
As a 15-year-old giving sidewalk sermons in economically depressed Richmond, Indiana, Jones met Dan Mitrione, the anti-communist police chief, whose path would repeatedly and not-so-coincidentally mimic that of Jones.
Hougan infers that Mitrione may have recruited Jones as an informant within the black community. The Peoples Temple would include a predominantly black congregation, and Jones’s influence in the community was rising. Starting in 1956, the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) had observed, infiltrated, discredited, and disrupted subversive political and racial groups throughout the country. Mitrione’s ties to the FBI, the CIA, and Jones would continue throughout the remainder of his life. It was at this time that family members also report Jones engaging in private meetings with men they believed were government agents.
Indiana was quite a surprising hotbed of intelligence activity. The CIA’s Richard Helms and William Harvey were born in Indianapolis, and the University of Indiana, which Jones attended, was also the alma mater of the Symbionese Liberation Army’s Angela Atwood, William Harris, and Emily Harris. Hougan also ties the ownership of the Indianapolis-based Saturday Evening Post to CIA activity.
Jones purchased a former synagogue from Rabbi Maurice Davis in 1956. From the church’s history, Jones created the Peoples Temple name. Researchers are unsure how Jones may have raised the $50,000 used for the purchase, and Davis’s intentions in giving Jones a “little or no money down” deal are unknown. What is known is that Rabbi Davis was an anti-cult activist and “deprogrammer” associated with Dr. Hordat Sukhdeo, whom the State Department would later pay to travel to Guyana and bury Jones publicly as a cult leader.
Father Divine was the well-known “black messiah” of Philadelphia. His tens of thousands of Peace Mission followers earned him a seven-figure income, monitoring by the FBI, and Jones’s admiration. Jones visited Divine often and once, after Divine’s death, claimed he was the white reincarnation of Divine. Hougan speculates that Jones’s ultimate goal could have been integrating Divine’s followers into the Peoples Temple, but he also suggests that Jones could have been gathering “racial intelligence” under Mitrione’s guidance.
A biography of Divine was found in Jones’s effects in the aftermath of Jonestown. Within the biography, author Sara Harris alluded to mass suicide.
“If Father Divine were to die,” Harris wrote, “mass suicides among Negroes in his movement
could certainly result.”
This would not be the final time that the subject of mass suicide would interest Jones.
As the Peoples Temple continued to expand to over 2,000 parishioners, the reverend would make a curious decision to travel to Cuba and South America. He would not be alone. His experiences, his contacts, and his research would change the direction of the Peoples Temple and would lead them first to California and then to Guyana, where their end would be near.
II: Was Jim Jones an American Spy?
Biographers say the cult leader’s travels to Cuba and Brazil in the 1960s weren’t evangelism at all. They were actually intelligence missions. This is part two of three, originally published in American Free Press Issue 19 & 20, May 7 & 14, 2018.
By the end of the 1950s, the Reverend Jim Jones had grown his Peoples Temple to over 2,000 members. Considering this was the Cold War-era Midwest in a period long before the rise of mega-churches, Jones’s openly socialistic congregation was a surprising yet phenomenal success.
Jones was riding a meteoric rise as a pastor. Therefore, his actions in February 1960 become all the more curious and suspicious.
Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, and their 26th of July Movement had overthrown the CIA-Mafia puppet Fulgencio Batista in Cuba. In their first year, they were already countering incursions and bombings from U.S.-supported exiles working out of Miami. Vice President Richard Nixon was lobbying for and overseeing the formulation of a plan that would end with the Kennedy-era Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. From 1959-1963, Cuba was arguably the hottest epicenter of the Cold War.
In the midst of this political whirlwind, Jones inexplicably decided to travel to Havana. According to witness Carlos Foster, who met with Jones in Cuba, Jones was attempting to locate families willing to relocate to Indianapolis as part of a Peoples Temple recruitment project. Foster also claims Jones was scouting Latin American locations for potential extension centers.
Jones biographers, such as Tim Reiterman, disagree that the main purpose of the Cuban excursion was evangelism.
Reiterman reported that Jones later showed off photos from his Cuban trip. One such picture
featured a mangled pilot lying lifeless in the wreckage of a plane crash. Jones had also
claimed that he had met some Cuban leaders, and he showed a picture of himself with a fatigue-clad man that looked similar to Fidel Castro.
Jim Hougan, the author of the three-part “Jim Jones, Dan Mitrione, and the Peoples Temple,” which can be read on “JimHougan.com,” was more pointed when assessing Jones’s photographic travelogue.
“Pictures of that sort could only have been of interest to Castro’s enemies and the CIA,” Hougan wrote.
Under the guise of scouting safe places in case of a nuclear apocalypse, Jones then traveled to Brazil in 1962. En route, Jones stopped in Guyana, which was still a British colony. Jones learned of another mass suicide story that had long been a part of Guyanese history.
While in Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro, Jones socialized with American expatriates and Brazilians who were rabid anti-communists. Hougan compares Jones’s time in Brazil to Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in New Orleans in 1963.
Jones was not alone in Brazil. Dan Mitrione was serving at a post within the U.S. consulate. Many, including Hougan, believe Mitrione was an intelligence handler for Jones dating back to their time in Richmond, Ind.
According to Jones, the emotional effects of the John F. Kennedy assassination led him back to Indiana in late 1963. What he returned to was a congregation whose attendance had dissipated to less than a hundred parishioners. Mainstream chroniclers of Jonestown have posited that Jones was sightseeing and gallivanting through Latin America, taking in the culture as an uber-tourist. Meanwhile, the church he had worked so hard to build—and the church so tied to what he professed as his true ideology—was all but dismantling without him. This has led revisionists to further contend that there was some covert mission that guided the travels of both Jones and Mitrione.
Again using nuclear war as a reason for mobility, Jones returned to Indiana briefly, only to move the Peoples Temple to northern California, outside of Ukiah. Unlike the anti-communism he had professed in Brazil, he again turned to “apostolic socialism” in his sermons. Jones’s dogma becomes quite confusing at this point, as he begins publicly preaching against Christianity, the King James Version of the Bible, and God.
Within five years, Jones’s popularity had grown, and he had opened Peoples Temple branches in the center of the FBI’s COINTELPRO heartland—San Francisco, San Fernando, and Los Angeles. Templars also became more active in California politics. Their support was vital to San Francisco Mayor George Moscone’s win in 1975. In turn, Moscone appointed Jones as the head of San Francisco’s Housing Authority Commission.
The Peoples Temple had found a large following in the Golden State. They had also found allies in assemblyman Willie Brown, Gov. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, Harvey Milk, Walter Mondale, and Rosalynn Carter.
While California brought Jones and the Peoples Temple more notoriety, it also attracted more scrutiny. When an exposé in New West magazine criticized Jones and the Temple, the reverend could see that his house of cards was about to crumble. Journalist Marshall Kilduff would allege physical, emotional, and sexual abuse inside the Peoples Temple. It was time to flee California and the United States, altogether.
In the summer of 1977, Jones and his most influential members decided the time had come for what would be a final pilgrimage to the place where they believed they would be most free—Guyana.
III: No Mass Suicide at Jonestown?
Very few of the official “Kool-Aid” theories have proven to be conclusive, and research indicates that most Peoples Temple followers tragically died by injection—not ingestion. This is the conclusion of our three-part series, originally published in American Free Press Issue 23 & 24, June 4 & 11, 2018.
Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.) had just been elected to a fourth term when he traveled to the Jonestown settlement of Rev. Jim Jones in northwest Guyana. Acting on the pleas of family members whose loved ones had joined the Peoples Temple, Ryan was investigating the charge that his constituents were being held in the South American country against their will.
Ryan was a crusading congressman. As an assemblyman, he had taken a substitute teacher position in south central Los Angeles so that he could document the conditions after the Watts riots of 1965. He later used a pseudonym to enter Folsom Prison as an inmate, just to investigate firsthand the conditions behind the bars of California prisons. Whether societal or penal, Ryan was a keen observer of what it was to be or feel trapped. On Nov. 1, 1978, he announced that he was going to Jonestown. In what would later prove an interesting turn of history, he asked friend and fellow congressman Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) to travel to Guyana with him. Quayle declined.
While at Jonestown, Ryan’s entourage was privately approached by a handful of members who desired to leave Guyana. He was nearly stabbed in one domestic dispute. On Nov. 18, 1978, Ryan, his aides, a team of journalists, and the defectors were scheduled to return to America from the Port Kaituma airstrip. An ambush by Jones loyalists prevented their return. Ryan, a defecting Peoples Temple member, and three journalists were killed. Nine others were injured, including aide Jackie Speier, now a Democratic congresswoman from California.
As tragic as the scene at the airstrip was, no one could have imagined what was happening simultaneously at Jonestown. News reports leaked quickly. Something had gone drastically wrong at Jonestown and had resulted in over 200 deaths. In succeeding days, the number of reported deaths increased until it finally rested at over 900. The news media reported it as a mass suicide, but questions persisted regarding how massive the numbers of suicides actually were.
It was said that one-by-one, the Templars came forward to drink the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid (it was actually Flavor Aid) concocted for such a moment. The cause was the effective brainwashing of a religious fanatic.
Very few of the official theories proved to be conclusive, however.
Only seven autopsies were performed, and all seven were conducted after the bodies had been embalmed. “Probable cyanide poisoning” was listed as the cause of death in five of the seven bodies, yet only one showed any traces of cyanide. No cyanide could be detected in the Flavor Aid vat upon examination.
The body of Jones was one of the autopsied corpses. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head. Temple member Ann Moore had two causes of death, though it is unclear which occurred first. The autopsy listed a gunshot wound to her head, along with a massive amount of cyanide in her body tissues.
Guyanese physician Dr. Leslie Mootoo conducted cursory examinations of 100 bodies. Mootoo found that 83 of the 100 bodies had needle puncture wounds on the backs of their shoulders, suggesting that a majority of the victims were held down and injected against their will. Because they could not have legally chosen to die, all 260 children were considered murdered. In all, Mootoo estimated that over 700 of the bodies were victims of murder.
The idea of Jonestown as a “mass suicide” was perpetuated by Dr. Hardat Sukhdeo, a psychiatrist who was summoned to Guyana at the expense of the U.S. State Department. Sukhdeo was also an anti-cult deprogrammer. Dr. Stephen P. Hersh, then assistant director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), disagreed with Sukhdeo’s findings.
“The charges of brainwashing are clearly exaggerated,” Hersh told the Associated Press in 1978. “The concept of ‘thought control’ by cult leaders is elusive, difficult to define and even more difficult to prove. Because cult converts adopt beliefs that seem bizarre to their families and friends, it does not follow that their choices are being dictated by cult leaders.”
When Jones’s CIA case officer Dan Mitrione was murdered in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1970, the military personnel, or 201, file on Jones was purged, thus erasing any pre-1970 information the CIA may have gathered on Jones.
Author Jim Hougan of “JimHougan.com” offered his assessment of the fear that Ryan’s investigation struck in the establishment.
“Specifically, Jones was afraid that Ryan and the press would uncover evidence that the leftist founder of the Peoples Temple was for many years an asset of the FBI and the CIA,” Hougan wrote. “This fear was, I believe, mirrored in various precincts of the U.S. intelligence community, which worried that Ryan’s investigation would embarrass the CIA by linking Jones to some of the agency’s most volatile programs—including ‘mind-control’ studies and operations such as MK-ULTRA.”
Just as the horrific Charles Manson case figuratively ended the free-spirited 1960s, Jonestown ended the 1970s ideal that communal living was the backbone of a utopian existence. It also ended the rise of the super-preacher whose goal was the creation of an isolated group of parishioners. The 1980s ushered in a media that would chase evangelical superstars for their sexual and financial misdeeds, but even the televangelists’ most loyal followers would not have given their lives at the behest of their leader. The most devout Christians reflexively feared “another Jonestown.”
There is a mainstream version of the Jonestown story that is easy to understand. Its mythology reviles new religions and turns Jones’s church members into weak-minded devotees. To believe that Jonestown is understood only within these confining terms is a mistake.
There was a reason the edicts of Jones of Indiana were appealing. Jones’s own spook-filled, covert story is integral to Jonestown’s real history. To understand those complexities within the era in which they occurred is to understand the story in full. Jonestown, like the Patty Hearst kidnapping, is the effect of a COINTELPRO operation gone awry much more than it is a religious abyss.
S.T. Patrick holds degrees in both journalism and social studies education. He spent 10 years as an educator and now hosts the “Midnight Writer News Show.” His email is STPatrickAFP@gmail.com.