Saturday, November 15, 2008
Jonestown, Harvey Milk, and George Moscone
Few realize that the massacre at Jonestown is related to the assassinations of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and to the murders of others more obviously linked to the People's Temple cult.
In the following excerpt from The Copycat Effect, the ripples from this 30 year old tragedy are examined and these dots are connected.
One of the most discussed modern mass suicides occurred in the unique setting of Jonestown, Guyana.
Jonestown in the early 1970s was little more than a nine-hundred acre island cut out of the thick South American rainforest. It was there that the Reverend James Warren “Jim” Jones relocated his People's Temple from the San Francisco area. Allegations were first published in the Guyana Daily Mirror that Jonestown was a “concentration camp” in which Jones’s flock were given psychotropic drugs, sexually abused, sleep deprived, and forced to work 18 hour days. Former members told of drills, called “white nights,” in which middle-of-the-night sirens called members to a line up where they were told they were going to have to take a poison.
Jonestown residents became pre-conditioned into expecting a coming invasion of the camp by Russians, the CIA, or other imagined “enemies” by the delusional Jones. In the wake of these claims, the pressure mounted for San Francisco officials to look into the Jonestown “cult.”
On July 26, 1977, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone announced that he would not hold an investigation of Jones. In a letter to President Jimmy Carter, San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk defended Jones as a friend to minority communities. But soon, San Francisco family members asked their congressional representative to fly to Jonestown to look into the situation (and hopefully rescue their relatives). This finally occurred with a one-day delegation headed by Congressman Leo Ryan.
On November 18, 1978, supposedly frightened by the investigative visit of Ryan, cult leader Jim Jones ordered Larry Schact, a medical school graduate and designated camp doctor, to prepare a huge cyanide-laced vat of grape Flavor-aide.
At the Guyanese airstrip near Jonestown, Jones sent gunmen to ambush Ryan and about 30 newsmen, government aides, and relatives of People's Temple members before they could board their plane for a return to the United States. Ryan, three reporters, and a Jonestown defector were killed, and among the wounded were the area’s alleged CIA's Chief of Station Richard Dwyer, and Ryan aide, Jackie Speier. Later Jones, with armed guards at his side, had his followers drink the potion and kill themselves. Those that refused to take the poison were machine-gunned to death by guards who apparently escaped. Thus some of the Jonestown deaths were indeed murders.
By most counts, the death toll was 913. Initially, the general public could not believe that the news accounts were true, despite widespread press and broadcast attention bringing the details into American living rooms. Media reports about the People’s Temple suicides would drag on for years. (It was not until 1986 that one of Jim Jones's assistants, Larry Layton, the only person prosecuted for any of the events in and around Jonestown, was convicted for his involvement in the Jonestown incidents and Ryan’s death. Layton was released from custody in April 2002, on parole, after 18 years in prison. Many believed he was an innocent scapegoat.)
As often happens after well-publicized suicides and mass suicides, the copycat effect took the form of follow-up murders. This happened quickly and in spectacular fashion in San Francisco.
Nine days after the Jonestown events, on November 27, 1978, San Francisco Bay Area residents would learn of the assassinations of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk. Law enforcement officials repeated the local rumors that some Bay Area residents believed that Moscone and Milk were murdered by the hauntingly named "White Night" hit squads said to have been sent by the Peoples Temple to avenge Jim Jones. As San Francisco Chronicle reporter Richard Rapaport observed, “When authorities went through the personal effects left behind in San Francisco by Jones, they found a hit list with the names of erstwhile political friends and allies like George Moscone and Willie Brown.”
The Moscone-Milk murders were carried out by a recently resigned former supervisor, Dan White, and were not directly linked to Jim Jones. White had impulsively retired from his position one year after his election and a mere two days after the Jonestown event. A former Vietnam vet, former police officer, and former firefighter, White would often go into trances during supervisors’ meetings and then impulsively goose-step around the room. His past was filled with mystery, including an enigmatic “missing year” of 1972. White’s murderous instability appeared to have been set off by the Jonestown murder-suicides and their link to San Francisco. The Chronicle’s Rapaport noted in 2003: “Part of the connection between the events came through media coverage. Each day between Saturday, Nov. 18, and Monday, Nov. 27, new and terrible video, photos and revelations emanated from the jungle retreat where many former San Franciscans had chosen, been coerced or programmed to join the man they called ‘Father.’”
In 1979 Dan White was found guilty of “manslaughter by diminished capacity,” despite opening arguments by attorney Doug Schmidt that linked Jonestown to the assassinations. Many still believe that the reason White was not convicted of first degree murder was because of what most of the media reported as the “Twinkle defense” – a phrase coined by well-known satirist Paul Krassner - that junk food had made White do it. While it was in reality HoHos and Ding Dongs, White’s defense claimed that his love of junk food was the result of his depression, not the cause of it.
The night the verdict was handed down, on May 21, 1979, the streets around San Francisco, especially near City Hall, erupted in violent protests. They became known, ironically, as the “White Night Riots.” Dan White would only serve five of his seven-year sentence. He was paroled in January 1984, tried exile in Ireland, and then returned to San Francisco despite requests from Mayor Dianne Feinstein (who had succeeded Moscone) not to do so.
On the morning of October 21, 1985, Dan White attached a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his car, a yellow 1970 Buick Le Sabre, and died by suicide at his San Francisco home. Tom, his brother, discovered the body just before 2 p.m. White had died as an Irish ballad, “The Town I Loved So Well,” played from a cassette player inside the car as it filled with deadly carbon monoxide.
Milk’s less than a month old will requested that his body be cremated, and by his direction, the ashes were enshrined with a mixture of bubble bath (to denote his gay lifestyle) and Kool Aid (to signify the People’s Temple victims). On the 25th anniversary of the assassinations, Milk was remembered as the world’s first openly gay politician to hold office, the subject of the Oscar-winning film, The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, and the focus of operas, plays, and museum exhibits. An elementary school, a civic plaza, a restaurant, a gay cultural institute and a library in San Francisco bear his name, as does a one-of-a-kind high school in New York for gay students who were tormented in mainstream schools.
Milk and Moscone were not the only persons killed in the wake of the People’s Temple suicides and murder-suicides.
In 1980, news accounts told of an alleged People Temple “hit squad,” which were suspected of killing, on February 26, a family of three who had defected in 1975 and testified against the cult. Elmer Mertle (identified in early news accounts under the alias Al Mills), was found shot in the head, lying face down in his bedroom in the family's Berkeley home. The body of his 40-year-old wife Deanna Mertle (also known as Jeannie Mills, author of Six Years with God), also shot in the head with a small-caliber weapon, was discovered on her back in an adjacent bathroom. The couple's 15-year-old daughter, Daphene, was taken to Alta Bates Hospital with two gunshots in the head, and died there later. The Mertles were the founders of Concerned Relatives, and the principal organizers of Ryan's attempt to intervene in the Jonestown cult. Jones called them “white devils.”
Less than a month later, the ripples from the San Francisco murders reached civil rights worker Dennis Sweeney. On March 14, 1980, Sweeney shot seven bullets point-blank into his former friend, Congressman Allard K. Lowenstein, at Lowenstein’s New York City law offices. Activist Lowenstein had marched in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, campaigned for Robert F. Kennedy, authored the "Dump Johnson" movement, and ran the National Student Association, which was later revealed to be CIA-subsidized. After the shooting, Sweeney sat down, smoked a cigarette, seemed to be in a trance state, and calmly waited for the police to arrive.
During his trial, Sweeny testified that the CIA (with Lowenstein's help) had implanted a chip in his head 15 years earlier, and he could hear voices transmitted through his dental work. Sweeny blamed CIA “controllers” for his uncle's heart attack and the assassination of San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Sweeney was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and in 2000, was released from a mental hospital in upstate New York. (The media loved the Sweeney-Lowenstein story. Teresa Carpenter even won a Pultizer Prize for her Village Voice exclusive, quoting Sweeney saying that the shooting was a gay lovers’ quarrel. The only trouble was that Carpenter never interviewed Sweeney; she had made the whole thing up.)
Other deaths followed. Joe Mazor, the private detective hired by the Concerned Relatives to persuade people to leave Jonestown, was shot dead a few years after the Mertles/Mills deaths. Walter Rodney, an intellectual and renowned Caribbean scholar born and raised in Guyana, was assassinated there on December 13, 1980, via a bomb-implanted walkie-talkie. Paula Neustel Adams, Jim Jones's top liaison in the upper echelons of the Guyanese government, was murdered in suburban Bethesda, Maryland in October 1983. Her longtime companion, Laurence Mann, Guyana's ambassador to the United States from 1975-81, apparently killed her, their child and then himself, in a murder-suicide. Members of the Jonestown Institute and author Garrett Lambrev have written that many questions remain unanswered about the true extent of all the copycat suicides, murder-suicides, and murders that occurred since the Jonestown massacre.
The specter of Jonestown filled the newspapers for years and produced a made-for-television movie called Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones (1980), starring the then-new and unknown actor Powers Boothe in a highly acclaimed performance as Jones. The Jonestown event had other broad cultural outcomes besides creating a model for mass suicides. For example, despite the actual use of Flavor-aide, the media had quickly mislabeled what was used as “Kool Aid,” and worldwide sales of Kool Aid crashed. Another lasting linguistic legacy of the People’s Temple tragedy is the expression, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.” This has come to mean, “Don’t trust any group you find to be a little on the fanatical side.”
© Loren Coleman 2004 ~ from The Copycat Effect (NY: Simon and Schuster, 2004).
Labels: Anniversary, Assassinations, CIA, George Moscone, Harvey Milk, Jonestown, Mass Murders, Media, President Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale