‘I believe they were murders’: survivors of Jonestown revisit the site 40 years after the tragedy

It’s taken a lot of courage for Leslie Wagner-Wilson to return to the place of her greatest nightmare. But 40 years after surviving the horror of Jonestown, she’s finally ready to face what happened in this South American jungle.

They set out to build a paradise on earth, but it ended with one of the greatest crimes of modern time.

It was a tragedy of epic proportion. More than 900 dead. It was called a mass suicide – but those who lived through the horror are finally ready to reveal an even darker truth.

“Jonestown was going to be a utopia,” Leslie tells Sunday Night’s Melissa Doyle. “People that wanted to go, they could go, they could live, they could work, and it was going to be a beautiful thing. We were all going to live together in one community.”

The dream began with an ambitious young preacher in the U.S. state of Indiana and his church called The Peoples Temple. At a time of racial tension in the U.S. the Reverend Jim Jones championed equality.

Leslie was a teenager when her family joined the church. “Jim Jones was very charismatic. And I grew to love him,” she reveals. “I was in awe of him and was in awe of the power he had at that time.”

Thom Bogue’s family was also captivated by Jones’ charisma.

“He wasn’t there just to preach a story, he was there to fight for you too and take on your battles,” Thom recalls. “I would say a lot of women in the church found him very attractive and powerful. So those were two very appealing things he had for them.”

At the heart of the Peoples Temple was Jim Jones’ own family – his wife, Marceline, and nine children, including their adopted African American son, Jim Jones Jr.

“[They] brought me out of an orphanage, [the] first negro adopted in the state of Indiana,” Jim Jones Jr says. ‘[They] gave me great education, built self-esteem, so, yeah, I love him. I also hate him.”

By the mid 1970s, the Peoples Temple was growing in popularity and Jones launched a bold plan to build a settlement for his followers far from prying eyes – in the remote jungle of Guyana.

Leslie came to Jonestown in early 1978, full of hope. Her husband and three-year-old son Jakari had arrived earlier to help establish the jungle outpost.

But soon enough, dissent begins to emerge. In the United States, the Peoples Temple is being investigated as a dangerous cult. Fearing arrest, Jim Jones flees America in 1978 to live full time at Jonestown.

“You’re no longer working 8 hours a day,” Thom remembers. “12 hours isn’t uncommon, and then going to a meeting that evening that would go many hours into the night, and you have to get back up at 6 o’clock in the morning and start it all over again.”

“Jim began to get more paranoid and the camp became more paranoid, and so it was living on the edge,” says Leslie. “You couldn’t trust anybody because every time there was something small, someone would go tell Jim.”

By now the utopian dream is slipping away, and Jim Jones is preparing his followers for the ultimate expression of their devotion – a mass suicide. He holds a series of dress rehearsals called White Nights.

Thom decides to make a break for it with his friend Brian. They were captured and brought back to face the full fury of Jones and his vengeful devotees. They yell, “You’re vile, you’re evil, you’re insidious, you’re low!” Even Thom’s own mother screams, “Neither one of you deserve any pity. I want to use the cutlass. I’ll cut both of your heads off.”

By now, many of the cult members have become so blinded by their faith in Jones, they’ve turned on their families back in the United States.

Jones is using amphetamines to stay awake, and he’s ranting over the loudspeaker at all hours. “I’ve got a hell of a lot of weapons to fight! I’ve got my claws. I’ve got cutlasses. I’ve got guns. I’ve got dynamite. I’ve got a hell of a lot to fight.”

In November 1978, Californian Congressman Leo Ryan flies down to take a closer look. He has a TV crew with him.

At first, Jones and his cult members pretend everything is normal. But all is not as it seems. Someone slips a note to the news crew, asking for help to escape. They confront Jones.

With tension rising, Leslie, her three-year-old son, Jakari, and a small group of other residents secretly escape into the jungle. Leslie is terrified her husband Joe, who is a temple security guard, will find her.

“If Joe had have found me, I would anticipate a bullet,” Leslie reveals. “I believe that my husband would kill me, and he’d take Jakari back.”

Back in the pavilion, more people are telling the Congressman’s staff they want to leave. In the confusion, someone lunges at Congressman Ryan. Fearing for their lives, the congressman’s team and about thirty others decide to leave, including Thom.

Thom makes it on the first plane with more than a dozen others. The congressman and the TV crew decide to wait on the tarmac for the next plane. A tractor pulling a trailer load of gunmen arrives, and they open fire. The cameraman is still filming as he’s shot.

“I just see commotion out the window,” Thom remembers. “Most of us are on the plane, some of us aren’t, and they start shooting at everybody. The lady sitting in front of me, they shot her in the back of the head. Her brains fell at my feet.”

Congressman Ryan and several others are killed.

“After a few minutes we lower the door back down, we go back outside and somebody screams, ‘They’re coming back! They’re coming back!’ So me, my sister, and three others, we run out into the jungle as fast as we could.”

As Thom and four others hide out in the jungle, a few kilometres away Leslie and her group are also struggling through the dense rainforest.

“Everybody was exhausted and scared because we thought at any moment at any moment we would be killed,” Leslie recalls. “That was the reality of that. That was the reality, but we were willing to die at least trying… at least trying.”

Back at the settlement, Jones learns of the slaughter on the airstrip – and turns it into a celebration. “It’s all over. The congressman has been murdered. What a legacy!”

Jones finally gives the order to begin what he planned all along: revolutionary suicide.

Jones gathers his 900 followers together. “Let’s not fall in the hands of the enemy. Hurry, my children. Hurry!” he tells them.

The time has come to make the ultimate sacrifice. A deadly cocktail of grape-flavoured cordial, laced with cyanide, is mixed up in giant vats.

One by one, more than three hundred children are given the poison. Mothers hold their infants on their laps syringing the poisonous liquid into their little mouths. They can be heard crying on recordings.

With still hundreds of adults alive, the vats of poison are brought out. Some willingly, some forced by armed guard, drink the poison laced liquid. The world called it Kool-Aid, but it’s in fact a cheaper knock off called Flavour-Aid, mixed with cyanide.

Over the next few hours, six hundred adults are poisoned.

Leslie’s husband Joe, mother, sister, brother, 3-year-old niece and 18-month-old nephew are among the dead.

“I believe they were murders,” Leslie tells Melissa Doyle. “There were injection marks in the shoulder blades, and it was 900 people, so no, it wasn’t all suicide, I have never believed that. I know that there were reports that my sister fought, and that would be my sister, and she is one of hundreds I’m sure that fought.”

Meanwhile in Georgetown, some of Jones’ followers – including his son Jim Jr –  are playing in a basketball tournament. They get orders over a two-way radio to take their own lives.

Jim Jones Jr never thought it would happen. “Even when my father told me on the radio that they were going to do that, I argued with him saying that there has to be another way. I think the phrase he used was, ‘We are going to visit Mr Fraser,’ and that was a code for revolutionary suicide.”

But Jim Jones Jnr defies his father, and urges others to do the same.

Leslie and her son Jakari survive too – because they also defy Jones – escaping the madness by fleeing into the jungle.

Thom Bogue, his sister and three teenagers also find refuge in the jungle. They’re exhausted and delirious as they finally reach a river.

Thom recalls how he was saved. “Luckily one of the people who were coming up in a canoe was one of the very same people who taught me almost everything I know about the jungle, and he’s yelling my name, and so I turn to my sister and I said, ‘We can come out.’”

But the feeling of relief is short-lived, as they learn 918 people are dead.

Jim Jones doesn’t drink the cyanide-laced poison. He dies from a gunshot wound to the head. It’s unclear whether he shot himself.

Leslie lost most of her family in the godforsaken forest of Jonestown. Revisiting the location 40 years after the horrendous events, she’s now finally able to lay to rest the ghosts of the past.

“Almost 40 years, I feel this lightness on me, I felt the spirits,” she says. “I felt like, ‘Okay, I can let you go now. I love you, I will always love you, but I can release you now.’”


Reporter: Melissa Doyle

Producers: Michael O’Donnell