November 19, 1998, Salt Lake Tribune - Gannett News Service, 20 Years Later, Indianians Remember Jonestown; Hometown neighbors recall Jim Jones as dynamic, but..., by Rachel Sheeley,
RICHMOND, Ind. -- As word of the Jonestown massacre spread 20 years ago Wednesday and television showed the hundreds of bodies lying in the Guyana sun, this eastern Indiana town earned an infamous title: home to the Rev. Jim Jones.
Under Jones' leadership, 913 people died at the Peoples Temple church compound on Nov. 18, 1978.
Some died willingly at Jones' urging, drinking a cyanide-laced powdered drink. Others were intimidated or shot.
The death ritual was magnified by the shooting deaths of Rep. Leo Ryan of California and four people traveling with him. Temple loyalists ambushed them as they boarded their planes near Jonestown that same day. Ryan had visited the Jonestown settlement to investigate reports that some members were being kept there against their will.
"It was a tragic human story," said Ashton Veramallay, professor of economics at Indiana University East and a Guyana native. "The intent was good -- to transform the forest lands into agricultural pursuits, and it was paying off. Then things went haywire. Ironically, now Jonestown is a ghost town. Because of the incident, it is haunted -- the forest there is taking it over."
For some here, it is unsettling that the orchestrator of history's largest cult death came from the Richmond area, graduated from Richmond High and founded his integrated Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in the mid-1950s. Jones moved it to California in 1965, then set up the Guyana compound in 1974.
Some believe he became disillusioned as he saw Christian concepts and racial integration, in particular, succumb to racism.
But one who knew him, the Rev. Dixie Miller of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) here, said, "I don't think there is an explanation for what he did. It's one of those things that got out of control within himself. He lost the ability to discern between Jim Jones the human and God's will, and that line that differentiates became very narrow."
In the process, the Peoples Temple moved from church to cult. People gave their money to Jones, split up their families or beat their children at his command, entered extramarital relationships and finally killed themselves for him.
He had a need to lead, recalled those who knew him as a child. "He loved to be in the center, loved to be top dog," said Virgil Estep, 66, of nearby Lynn, Ind., a friend of Jones' when they were in their early teens.
Estep and others remember a complex young man: neat, good student, not an athlete. Religious at an early age. Dynamic, quick-tempered, even a bit cruel.
"I snuck out to his barn one day, and he was preaching by himself out there," Estep recalled. "Something went against him, and you never heard such a line of cuss words. Then he was just fine. It all happened that quick."
Nellie Mitchell, 91, of Lynn, remembered Jones as an "ornery" boy. "He was just a cruel fella," she said. "My husband told me he used to kill birds and have funerals for them. I think he used to have funerals for all the animals he killed."
In the end, Jones convinced his followers that death need not be feared. The goal was to die for what they believed.
"We hope that the world will someday realize the ideals of brotherhood, justice and equality that Jim Jones has lived and died for," said a note left by one follower. "We have all chosen to die for this cause."
In the weeks leading up to the massacre, Jones' wife, Marceline, had signaled her fears, talking about her husband's poor physical condition and her own need to leave Jonestown.
Three of their sons were on the Jonestown basketball team. When they traveled to Georgetown University, Marceline persuaded them to stay there, escaping the tragedy. And she got her parents out on Nov. 15.
But the Jones' children, Agnes and Lew Eric, died at Jonestown.