Guyanese soldiers stood about conspicuously. Reporters occupied most of the tables. The survivors were confined to the third floor, sometimes two, three and four to a small, un-air-conditioned room. They were forced to leave their doors and windows open for the breeze, and they lay sweating under yellowing canopies of mosquito netting. When they couldn't stand the rooms anymore, they came down to the ballroom, where the reporters swarmed around them like hungry locusts on a single ear of corn.
One afternoon a steel-drum band called the Pegasus Sound Wave took the stage and played lilting versions of popular songs. The musicians wore red baseball caps and enjoyed their own music. They liked Christmas carols in particular, and smiled and laughed their way through "Jingle Bells" and "Jolly Old Saint Nick" several times, to the obvious delight of the local crowd.
Off to the side, over bottles of Banks beer, the survivors talked to reporters. You'd hear the most heart-wrenching, bloody awful details – "Part of her skull landed in my lap"; "... lost five children out there... "; "My child was dead, and my wife was dying" – over the din of laughter and applause and Christmas carols.
It began to rain, cooling the room. Rain hammered on the awning, then let up. The sun burst through, and its light glittered on the wet palms swaying in the trade winds.
The survivors, some of them children, stared at the reporters with vacant, ancient eyes. There were literally hundreds of journalists from at least five continents in Georgetown. It was madness. Virulent lunacy. And when you tried to assemble bits and pieces of the story, none of it fit together. There was no perspective, no center.
And so we assaulted the survivors in the Graham Greene room at the Park. There were three distinct groups. First came the voices of dissent: those who had gone with Congressman Ryan and survived the shoot-out at Port Kaituma. This group included the Bogue family, the Parks family and Harold Cordell. They hated Jones and Jonestown. The press counted them as the most reliable sources.
The second group consisted of those who had escaped the carnage at Jonestown. Odell Rhodes and Stanley Clayton made up half of the total number. Both were articulate, both had witnessed the final moments.
On Saturday, the third group – Tim Carter, 30, his younger brother, Mike, and Mike Prokes, 31 – came walking up the steps of the Park to the Graham Greene room. Both Tim Carter and Mike Prokes had held leadership positions in Jones' organization. They were accompanied by several Guyanese soldiers, and they looked terribly frightened.
They sat at one of the tables and the press pounced. Lights, cameras, microphones, tape recorders, half a dozen people shouting out questions. Tim Carter, in particular, fascinated me. It was his eyes. He looked like a beaten fighter in the fifteenth round, one who just caught a stiff right cross he never saw coming. Tim Carter was a beaten man, and his eyes had the watery, glazed and unfocused look of a boxer who can no longer defend himself and who is simply going to absorb punches until he falls.
"I heard a lot of screaming," Carter said, his voice breaking, "and I went up to the pavilion and the first thing I saw was that my wife and child were dead. I had a choice of staying there," he continued, close to tears, "and I left. And these people [referring to the dissenters who had lived through Port Kaituma] are saying we are after them and it is ridiculous."
We had heard a remarkably similar story from the dissenting survivors. Jim Jones had promised that anyone who left Jonestown would be tracked down and killed. And yet, leaders of the organization had left in the midst of the suicides. They had with them a suitcase containing $500,000 in American currency.
"The money was given to us by one of the secretaries," Prokes said. He identified Maria Katsaris, a top aide and mistress to Jones. "She said, 'Things are out of control. Take this.' We left. The money was in a suitcase."
Prokes and the Carters said they were running for their lives, and the suitcase was too heavy so they buried it. When they arrived at Port Kaituma, they told the police about the suitcase and took them to it.
"You saw your wife and child take poison?" someone asked Tim Carter. His eyes swam. "I didn't see them take poison. My baby was dead. My wife was dying. I'm trying to forget about it. Everything you thought you believed in, everything you were working for was a lie, it was, it was... a lie.
"All I can say is that it was a nightmare, a nightmare. [The Carters and Mike Prokes had gone back to help identify bodies.] It was the most grotesque thing I've ever seen. We were there two days later and I couldn't even recognize people I'd known for six years."
Prokes said, "We've all lost loved ones. We feel we've been more than cooperative. We would like to be alone for a while." They got up and sat by themselves at a far table. I saw one reporter label his tape punks.
The band was still playing Christmas carols. I bought a beer and watched the "punks" from across the room. They were constantly checking the position of the Guyanese soldiers, and, I imagined, looking for an escape route. They feared the dissenting survivors and felt they might be killed because of the nature of their escape and their leadership positions. They refused to go to their rooms on the third floor. Escape routes there were limited.
So the "punks" were forced to stay in the Graham Greene room. Despite their wishes, reporters would still try to sit with them. When this happened, it triggered another rush of cameras and microphones. "The circumstances were different," Tim Carter said for the fourth or fifth time. "We were asked to leave. We were given a suitcase and told to take it to the embassy. I heard crying and screaming. And I went up, like I said, and I saw my wife and son... please, I don't want to talk about it."
But they had little choice. As long as they stayed in the Greene room, one reporter, bolder than the rest, would approach them, and it would start all over again. I was reminded of the way a bitch weans her puppies. She may be sleeping when they waddle over and begin to suckle. Annoyed, she gets up and walks to the far side of the room. The puppies regard one another in dismay. Soon enough, one, bolder than the rest, waddles over to mother. The others, fearing that they won't get their fair share, make a mad comic dash.
And so it was with Prokes and the Carters. Through the carols and the rain and the moments of sunshine, we all stopped at their table to suckle more information. The letter to the embassy, for instance. The one in the suitcase with the money. It was addressed to the Soviet embassy. Mike Carter explained, "Jones told us the Soviet Union supported liberation movements."
The bits and pieces wouldn't fit. It was like trying to hold too many ball bearings in one hand. Every time you got something, everything else you had threatened to clatter to the floor and roll out of reach.
Odell Rhodes is a soft-spoken, articulate thirty-six-year-old, an eyewitness to the first twenty minutes of the massacre at Jonestown. The first time we met, he spotted a forty-ounce duty-free bottle of Jack Daniel's in my case. We drifted up to my room, where it was quieter.
We sipped the bourbon, strong and sweet and straight, out of Park Hotel water glasses. Odell had been a junkie for ten years. He'd been through two drug-treatment programs, and both times he had gone back to drugs and some sleazy hustle on the street. "They tell you an addict shoots junk because he likes it," Odell said. "I never liked it. I had to shoot it."
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