Editor’s note: This November is the 35th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre (Nov. 18), the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (Nov. 22) and the 35th anniversary of the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone (Nov. 27.) This is the first in a series of three columns exploring each, in order.
I first encountered the Jonestown massacre five years ago as a reporter for the Ukiah Daily Journal in Ukiah, Calif. It was the 30th anniversary of the Nov. 18, 1978 tragedy, which took the lives of more than 900 members of the People’s Temple in Guyana. I interviewed one of the only survivors of that tragedy, Tracy Diaz (née Parks.)
Diaz starred in the then-new CNN documentary “Escape From Jonestown,” in which she traveled back to the airstrip where she saw her mother, Patricia Parks, Rep. Leo Ryan, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson and NBC reporter Don Harris gunned down as they attempted to flee.
In the book he co-wrote with co-worker John Jacobs, “Raven: The Untold Story of The Rev. Jim Jones and His People,” Tracy was described in 1978 by Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman as “a pink-faced preteen blond bewildered by it all. ... [Her mother, Patricia] lay near the gangway now, on her back, her skull blown open, her face a death mask,” wrote Reiterman, who was also injured by gunfire that day. “Tracy had witnessed her sudden death.”
The abrupt exodus of the Parks family — which also included Tracy’s sister, Brenda; brother, Dale; grandmother, Edith; and father, Gerald — was particularly crushing for the Rev. Jim Jones, as they had followed him from their former base in Indianapolis to Ukiah, Calif., in 1966, and later to South America.
Back in Jonestown, Jones ordered his followers to prepare a vat of grape-flavored drink mixed with cyanide. Newborns and the elderly were poisoned first. “That’s sick to have to make people watch,” Diaz told me. “And he knew once he used that ploy that they’d do it next. He thought a lot of this crap out.”