Jonestown (partially found NBC news footage; 1978)

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This article has been tagged as NSFL due to its disturbing subject matter.


Screenshot from NBC video of Jim Jones being interviewed by Don Harris.

Status: Partially Found

The Reverend Jim Jones (1931-1978) was an American cult leader/founder of the Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ, which is best remembered for the mass suicide/poisoning orchestrated by Jones at the Temple's communal compound in Guyana, on November 18th, 1978. Prior to this Jones was known for his advocacy for the Civil Rights Movement and his church's socialist leanings.[1]


Jones had originally established the Peoples Temple in his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana in 1954, combining Christian theology with more modern communist/socialist ideals. In line with this, the Temple was funded largely via the savings and social assistance payments of its members. In the 1960's he moved the group to more congenial soil in San Francisco, California, where they flourished thanks to Jones' efforts to cultivate local politicians and other powerful civic leaders. However, by the mid-1970s all Jones' connections could not hold off numerous investigations - not to mention media attention - for tax evasion and allegations of abuse from former Temple members.

In response the increasingly paranoid and isolated Jones began to lease land from the Guyanese government in 1974, encouraged by their willingness to take his money and ask no questions - especially about the shipments of guns and drugs the Temple would regularly receive. In a jungle clearing he set about building a utopian community grandly dubbed the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, informally nicknamed Jonestown. He and the most devoted of his several-thousand-strong congregation would officially move there in 1977. By mid-1978, Jonestown had an estimated population of more than 900 people.

Lead-up to tragedy

By November 1978, US Congressman Leo Ryan had received several requests from former Temple members in his district to investigate Jonestown, based on their concerns about conditions there spurred by relatives' letters home. As Jonestown's population were still technically American citizens, Ryan decided to personally lead a fact-finding mission into the Guyanese jungle along with his closest aides. National TV network NBC embedded reporters and a camera crew on the mission, exchanging evidence-gathering for a potential expose.

The group was greeted cordially enough on their arrival in the afternoon of November 17th, and everything initially seemed to be going well: a full tour of the compound, chats with apparently content and even cheerful inhabitants, winding up with a celebratory music concert held that evening at the settlement's main pavilion. As the day wore on, however, Ryan et al began to suspect something was seriously wrong with the increasingly awkward and rehearsed-sounding behavior of the residents. These suspicions were validated when several Peoples Temple members stepped forward and asked to leave, stating that they were being held against their will in "a communist prison camp."[2] Ryan willingly agreed to give them passage home, and to accept private written messages from others.

The next morning, the act initially continued; Jones not only sat for an amiable one-on-one interview with NBC's Don Harris but allowed the several defectors to leave without apparent issue. Actually, he was outraged at the 'betrayals' among his flock and, more ominously, becoming convinced that in combination with Ryan's investigation, they would mean not only the end of Jonestown but Jones himself. Driven by drug-addled paranoia, he ordered his loyal lieutenants into action. The Congressman's party had reached Port Kaituma airstrip and were just boarding their planes when Jones' men burst onto the scene and opened fire. Leo Ryan, three journalists - including Harris, cameraman Bob Brown and San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson - and defector Patty Perks were killed, besides nine others injured.

Back in Jonestown, the Reverend was already on the PA system warning his followers of their impending doom (albeit conveniently omitting that he was the cause) and commanding them to commit what he called "revolutionary suicide" as a statement to the world. This did not come as a great surprise to the Jonestown faithful, who had, it would emerge, been subject to their leader's grandiose rantings about their enemies closing in for some time.

Famously, the means of suicide was grape Flavor-Aid (popularly misremembered as Kool-Aid) prepared in large vats and spiked with potassium cyanide - a very sure but not at all pleasant way to die. Mothers poured the sweet concoction down their children's throats. It is unknown exactly how many adult members balked at martyrdom and had to be forcibly poisoned, but certainly, Jones and his loyalists were guilty of many such murders. In total, 918 men, women and children lost their lives at or in connection with Jonestown on November 18th, 1978, with only two known survivors found onsite. The tragedy was the largest loss of American civilian life in a deliberate act prior to the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks.[3]


In the aftermath, an audio tape purporting to capture Jonestown's final hours was claimed to have been found in the ruins by Guyanese authorities and was subsequently widely circulated. It was apparently made via Jones' private PA setup and consists largely of doomsday exhortations to his flock, interspersed with conversations with his lieutenants, all against a horrific backdrop of rising screams - both of the dying, and the living beginning to realize they were not facing the peaceful, noble death they had been promised. Despite some gaps and minor inconsistencies, this tape is in line with the few survivors' accounts of that day and is generally accepted as authentic.

Throughout Congressman Ryan's trip to Jonestown, NBC cameraman Bob Brown filmed the proceedings. It is known that Brown used an RCA TK-76 video camera connected to a Sony BVU-50 portable U-Matic video cassette recorder, operated by soundman Steven Sung. The portable version of the U-Matic format only allowed for up to 20 or 30 minutes of recording time per tape.

One hour of footage surfaced in 2014, showing scenes of Jonestown prior to the tragedy as well as others, not shot by Brown, of the Guyanese military's walk-through of the settlement afterwards. More footage is known to be in NBC's possession, including the few seconds of the shootings at Port Kaituma that Brown was able to capture before succumbing to his wounds, and the hour-long interview Harris conducted with Jones on the final day. NBC acknowledged within a few days of the massacre that it had thirteen hours of video from the entirety of the Ryan visit. How much footage in total was shot is unknown, and the whereabouts of all of it remains a mystery. Pat Lynch, a producer for NBC, has said that she personally reviewed three hours' worth of tape from November 18th alone.[4]


Fielding M. McGehee, research director at Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI for the NBC tapes that were turned over to them in the aftermath of the tragedy. However, his efforts only resulted in "no record" responses.[5] NBC has declined to reveal how much Jonestown footage it may still have in its possession, though snippets appear periodically on the internet. Footage from the Port Kaituma shooting was shown in the 1981 documentary The Killing of America, and it later resurfaced from an unknown source sometime circa 2013, taken at a low angle allegedly because it had been recorded after cameraman Bob Brown had been injured by a gunshot.[6] The recording itself is incredibly damaged and only lasts seven seconds, but shows one man firing a bolt-action rifle while several other gunmen jump off the back of a truck.


The currently available NBC archive footage of Jonestown.

Footage taken by Bob Brown (deceased) of the shooting at the Port Kaituma airstrip.