Four Years After Surviving Jonestown's Hell, Tim Reiterman Tries to Explain How It Happened

updated 11/22/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/22/1982 01:00AM

Tim Reiterman hid in the jungle of Guyana, his left arm ripped by bullets and bandaged with his leather belt. "The fear was raw," he recalls. "I felt the reality of death—unmistakable, irreversible, senseless." Reiterman's friend and colleague at the San Francisco Examiner, photographer Greg Robinson, lay dead beneath a crippled plane 40 yards away, shot down by a Peoples Temple death squad. Four others had been killed, including Rep. Leo Ryan, who had been on a fact-finding trip to Jonestown, the Temple's South American sanctuary. He was investigating reports of beatings and virtual imprisonment there, reports written by Reiterman.

At the same time, about six miles away in Jonestown, the encampment's mad messiah, the Rev. Jim Jones, was leading 912 of his followers to a communion of poisoned Grape Flavor Aid.

All night Reiterman and other ambush survivors guarded the four in Ryan's party who were seriously hurt, shooing flies off their fresh wounds. Then dawn came, bringing help with it, and Reiterman took out one of Robinson's cameras. With his good arm, he shot a picture of the plane and its murdered passengers. "The outside world," he said, "had to see what had happened."

That was four years ago this Nov. 18. "When everybody saw the pictures of the bodies in Guyana, they thought they knew the story of Jim Jones and Jonestown," Reiterman, 35, says today. "They didn't. I didn't know it then."

Reiterman had spent 18 months investigating Jones and the Peoples Temple before the holocaust. Since then he and fellow Examiner reporter John Jacobs have conducted 800 interviews and studied thousands of documents to try to comprehend "the incredibly raveled personality of Jim Jones."

In their epic biography of Jones, Raven (Dutton, $17.95), Reiterman and Jacobs argue that he was not, as many believed, "a good man gone bad": He was mentally disturbed from the start. They found threads of evil even in Jones' childhood in Lynn, Ind. He was sadistic. Teenaged Jim three times shot at one of the few friends he had; the adult Jim sexually abused his parishioners, male and female, and in Jonestown, he suppressed malcontents by drugging them. Yet he was eloquent. By age 16, he was preaching on street corners. With his wizardry at words he mesmerized his flock and impressed the powerful, even former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. But he was sacrilegious; at Jonestown, he ordered crates of Gideon Bibles to be used as toilet paper. He was a con man and a liar; he fostered paranoia by telling his followers of imaginary death threats against him; he staged fake faith healings, pulling chicken entrails from an invalid's body and calling it cancer. But with the evil, it seemed, was good; he fought for minorities and the poor. Jones thought he was God. But, as the massacre proved, he was a devil.

What about those who followed him? "It is so easy to dismiss these people as the great unwashed," says co-author Jacobs, who spent 10 weeks in Guyana after the tragedy. "But it just isn't true. These people were not crazy. They were essentially good people who joined the Temple with the best of intentions...people like you and me."

Reiterman first heard of Jones and his Temple in 1976, while at the Associated Press in San Francisco. Sammy Houston, an AP photographer, confided in Tim about the mysterious death of his son, a Temple member. He showed Tim a letter telling of, among other things, disciplinary beatings.

In 1977, after Reiterman moved to the Examiner, he began investigating the Temple. He met defectors who gave him "a real taste for the positive side of the church, the brotherhood." They also gave him a picture of a cruel, promiscuous, manipulative Jones. Most frightening, they recounted a 1975 loyalty test in which Jones tricked some of his members into drinking wine that he said was poisoned. It was the first of many "white nights," rehearsals for the real thing. "One woman said to me, 'There are people inside the church who would kill for Jim Jones,' " Reiterman recalls. "At the time, I honestly didn't believe it."

In November 1977 Reiterman wrote Sammy Houston's story. He doggedly pursued the Temple, writing about its new Guyanese commune, where Jones later "put people through suicide rehearsals every two or three weeks.... I don't think anyone outside Jonestown could comprehend his madness then." Rep. Leo Ryan, an old friend of Houston's, read Reiterman's first report and heard more horror stories from the frightened families of Temple members. So Ryan decided to go to Jonestown to see for himself. Reiterman invited himself along and, on Nov. 13, 1978, the Congressman's party of journalists and family members left San Francisco.

Reiterman was apprehensive, but he recalls shaking hands with Robinson on their way to Jonestown. "We were as happy as hell," he says. He was impressed with Jonestown but not with Jones. "He seemed to have to steady himself against the table. He came across as very paranoid," Tim recalls. "I felt sorry for him."

Ryan's mission was to give Temple members an escape, if they wanted it. Jones said no one would want to leave. But a day later more than a dozen defected. They were boarding planes for home when the shooting began.

"People were diving and tumbling all around me," Tim recalls. "It was a scramble of feet and bodies and gunfire." He saw a bullet explode in his left forearm and felt another hit his wrist. He ran for the bush. "I thought I might be the only person wounded," he says, "or the only person who survived."

The next day, after his rescue, Reiterman dictated his tale to the paper from his hospital bed near Washington, D.C. He soon returned to his native San Francisco to recuperate. But because of fears of a Temple squad of "avenging angels," Reiterman and his wife, Susan, were kept under police guard. They stayed in the home of his father, then an associate San Francisco schools superintendent. "We didn't know what to expect," Tim says. "The unthinkable had happened once before." But no active remnants of Peoples Temple remained.

Jonestown would not leave him. "I don't think a day passes that I don't think of it," he says. "It has become part of me. People ask, 'If you knew then what you know now about Jones' early life, about the decline of his personality, about the depravity and madness later, would you have gone to Jonestown? If you'd known your visit would trigger the deaths of 900 people, if you'd known Greg Robinson wouldn't come back, would you still have gone?' " Tim answers quietly: "Of course not. I would turn back the clock if I could."

He wrote the book to answer the question the world asked: Why? Ironically, it also serves a rule Jones had on a board in Jonestown. He died near that sign. It read: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

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