November 13th, 2008
03:52 PM ET

What I’ve always remembered: the children were killed first

Program Note:
Thirty years ago, more than 900 died by murder and suicide. Only 33 survived. Soledad O'Brien reports on their untold stories.
CNN Presents: 'Escape from Jonestown' Tonight 9 p.m. ET


Tim Carter, a trusted aide to Rev. Jim Jones, watched his infant son die at Jonestown. THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES. VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED.
Tim Carter, a trusted aide to Rev. Jim Jones, watched his infant son die at Jonestown. THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS GRAPHIC IMAGES. VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED.

James Polk
CNN Senior Producer

Thirty years ago, I walked out on the doorstep to pick up the Sunday paper and learned NBC reporter Don Harris, a colleague and friend, had been shot to death on a Guyana air strip.

Like much of the rest of the world, that was the first I’d heard of Jonestown. As an NBC correspondent in those years, I flew to San Francisco to help dig into the background of the Peoples Temple. Soon I became aware it was the children who had been the first to die in Jonestown, and I profiled the unhappy past of one teenager who had been taken there as a welfare ward.

That’s what I’ve always remembered to this day: the children were killed first. To me, it is that unforgivable act which defines the tragedy that was Jonestown.

I’m now a senior documentary producer for CNN, and when I finished a two-hour project in April, “Eyewitness to Murder,” on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., my boss came up to me and said this will be the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown suicides.

Frankly, I did not want to do the story. It always has been a very ugly event in anybody’s history. PBS’ Stanley Nelson did a great documentary only a couple years ago, and there was no reason to try to repeat his fine work.

But I flew out to San Diego to meet with the two dedicated individuals who run The Jonestown Institute out of their own house as the repository of all the worthwhile research, maintained quite objectively.

I was aware there were survivors of the airport ambush and I thought CNN might be able to tell a different story – one of human survival in the most trying of circumstances - by focusing on those who did manage to live.

By then, I had done enough reading that I also knew of the group who walked away separately that morning. With the Jonestown Institute’s help, I began looking for Leslie Wilson, then 21, who had carried her 3-year-old son to safety in a sheet on her back.

It took another month to find Leslie, not in California where I had been looking, but rather, living in the same suburban Atlanta county as I do, only a few miles away. Her story is remarkable. What’s more, she and my wife have become quite good friends.

The Parks family was the first family to ask to leave Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan the day he was murdered on the nearby air strip, and the only church member killed there was Patricia Parks, the mother in the family. I wanted to reach out to them. I kept finding wrong addresses. Finally, the right one popped up for the 12-year-old daughter who was the youngest survivor of that ambush. I wrote her – I don’t like to make cold phone calls, they come as a surprise and there’s no way to make it a personal conversation – and so I send letters first to explain what we’re trying to do.

Tracy Parks phoned me the very next morning, and said she had been praying for someone to take her back to Guyana to say goodbye, after 30 years, to her mother.

CNN’s Soledad O’Brien stood with Tracy at the side of that air strip as she left flowers, a cross and candles as a memorial to the mother whose funeral she had been unable to attend.

The moving moment for me, however, was seeing a network anchor down on her knees in the dirt, digging with her hands, to help Tracy bury a small memorial stone on the site.

Those are the glimpses one rarely gets into the true humanity of the people in television who work to bring stories like these to the public at large, and I do hope this humanity and concern does come through in our documentary, “Escape from Jonestown.”

Filed under: Escape from Jonestown • James Polk
soundoff (46 Responses)
  1. Pat

    What hit me the hardest was the sound of the children crying as they suffered that horrific death. I had to turn the sound down on the TV to avoid hearing their screams.

    As I spent time with my sweet little grandsons today, I was struck by how innocent and happy they are, one bringing me his favorite book, the other showing me the drawing that he made of himself and Grandma. How could anyone murder a toddler or a kindergartener like them. I hope that there is a special place in Hell for Jim Jones and the others who participated in this unspeakable crime..

    November 14, 2008 at 6:47 pm |
  2. Melissa, Los Angeles

    I caught the last half of the documentary last night. It was interesting to hear some of the survivors state that they still believed in God but not organized religion and that attendance to a church is not necessary to have faith. One of the men was asked how it was possible to have faith and not go to church. Pretty sad to know there are people out there that need to literally be part of a herd. Hope this is a lesson to all about how evil religion can be.

    November 14, 2008 at 4:16 pm |
  3. Jackie in Dallas

    I was in my idealistic 20s when Jonestown happened. I can't think of another event that affected me more. JFK's death had hurt, as had KIng's and RFK's, but those were deaths caused by a single person I could charitably call misguided. The fact that parents gave their children the poison, then gave each other the poison (I believe some even toasted with the Kool-aid), shattered my naivete forever.

    Kudos to CNN for this report, and this reminder.

    November 14, 2008 at 3:42 pm |
  4. Rose from Calif

    I wonder why men always get off course when it come to Gods teaching? Is it power, money or greed that make these so-call, "Men of God" crazy or mad. The Bible suppost to be a, "How to live good book". I guess people who read the bible really don't know how to read the bible right or is it that they don't understand the bible. The meaning gets lost somewhere in between.

    November 14, 2008 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Stacy from NJ

    I grew up in the SF Bay Area and this story had a big effect on me. I met Jackie Spier a few times and she is a great lady. Thank you for your story on the survivors of this disaster. What a horrific event for them.

    November 14, 2008 at 1:25 pm |
  6. marie

    I remember when this happen. People around me was wondering why this happen and how could it have happen. This was like all the cults that is still out there.

    That prey on people who feel lost and they feel like they have no where else to turn to. His words was smooth and they believe everything he said until it was too late.

    If we all really think about, we know people who are like this but just have not carried it to point of Jim Jones. Unfortunately we will see more of this as time goes by. People are sad and unhappy and they are looking for someone to do the thinking for them and make the decisions that they feel they cannot longer make.

    It was heartbreaking when it happen-but I enjoyed the program. It was well put-but even today it still hurts. If people who watch the program did not feel anything-it means that we are still uncaring people and this will never end. It was sad that most of the people were black and that he actually target the blacks-but all cults is notlike that. Sadly his was-it make it seems that they did not have any hope for life and relied on Jim Jones as their helper to give them hope.

    We have to all teach our children and this generations to be very careful who they worship-in church, schools, neighborhood, friends and families. It is very easy to get sweep away in this. Thanks for the program and I hope a lot of people watched it that had forgotten about Jim Jones.

    November 14, 2008 at 11:24 am |
  7. Joanne, Syracuse, NY

    I have friends who have lost loved ones. Their fear is that their precious family member will be forgotten. It is important to remember Jonestown, CNN honors them by reminding us of this great loss. thank you.

    November 14, 2008 at 9:43 am |
  8. Dave

    CNN's coverage of Jonestown survivors is fantastic, and historic. I would love a story as probing and revealing as this to be done by them on the 1978 and 1985 confrontations with the MOVE organization in Philadelphia.

    Eleven African Americans were slaughtered.

    I believe the MOVE 9 are innocently sitting in Pennsylvania's prisons. But I would like to see what this brilliant news team comes up with. I also feel that CNN's fellow journalist Mumia Abu Jamal is on death row for his reporting on the MOVE 9's persecution.

    I do not think the entire police department or city government of Philadelphia was guilty but I feel some very bad apples set some horrible and deadly gears in motion.

    It would be bold and brave investigative reporting. And it could help free 8 innocent African Americans (from three decades in hell).

    CNN rOckZ!! Thanks Team for the consistently great work

    November 14, 2008 at 1:14 am |
  9. CaseyJ - Palm Springs, CA

    In San Francisco (and the bay area) fanatical groups weren't uncommon post Haight/Ashbury in the 70s. I had recently survived a brush with the Unification Church and maybe that's why my memory of the People's Temple, Jim Jones, and Jonestown seems chaotic. There was so much press on this guy before, during and after the mass suicide. I had a high school teacher who worked closely with Leo Ryan years before and I remember how concerned and upset she was because of all the dangerous shenanigans that were going on with Jones. The press coverage in SF was enormous and there wasn't a person you could talk to that didn't know what was going on–I'd describe it as overwhelming when the mass suicide happened. This isn't a good memory.

    November 14, 2008 at 12:49 am |
  10. rosella c carpenter

    I think Soledad O'Brien did a great job on this program. Like I told you
    several years ago when Anderson Cooper needed to be moved from
    reporter to his own program, this gal is great. I hope to see more from her in the future. Yes I know I see her a lot on CNN but she
    is one smart gal, give her more of these programs. I had almost forgotten about this-and that is bad on my part. I remember when it
    happened, and I was raising kids, but I don't think the real picture
    got to me as it did tonight.

    November 13, 2008 at 11:42 pm |
  11. diane

    I was 18 at the time of the Jonestown tragedy and remember the events vividly as if it were only yesterday. It made quite an impact seeing those swollen bodies in the jungle lying dead, many forced to their deaths. Thank you for bringing this all back in a heartfelt and dignified way. I just watched the entire special....A+

    November 13, 2008 at 11:24 pm |
  12. Courtlove

    Let this be a solemn reminder to ALL of us what happens when someone insist they hear/know/understand God more than someone else. Weak minded people are preyed on every single day by sooo many in the name of God. Maybe not ending in this type of horrific ordeal, yet hurt nevertheless. Be weary of someone who claims to be a messenger of what the world needs as most people never consider they are what the world needs.

    November 13, 2008 at 11:11 pm |
  13. Jilian from Mississauga, Canada

    Hi Soledad, I am from Guyana now residing in Canada, I was a teenager when this story took place in my country, at that time TV was not allowed in my country and many people in my country did not even know of Jonestown. This story is gutrenching even tough it is 30 years old. My heart goes out to the survivors.

    Thank you Soledad.

    November 13, 2008 at 11:04 pm |
  14. Adamant

    I am 22 years old and was born in 1986. I did not know what 'Jonestown' referred to, so I looked it up.

    I feel ill.

    November 13, 2008 at 9:26 pm |
  15. Jacque

    About 20 years ago, I met a girl named Paulette. One day, we became involved in a conversation about religion. I could see Paulette was visibly upset when someone said god would protect his children. She said god was not there for her family. She then told us her mother and younger brother had been murdered at Jonestown. I was stunned, I didn't know what to say. Until then, the images of those people were so far away from where I was and I really knew nothing about it. I now get an overwhelming sadness knowing that among those bodies were the last of Paulette's family and what was taken from her.

    November 13, 2008 at 9:16 pm |
  16. Scott

    I remember this vividly. I was in my early 20s at the time. I still marvel at the idea that one man could influence this many people. The country was a mess at this time, I can imagine this many people wanting something better out of life, but to die at one man's word ? I can't listen to a charismic speaker now without immediately thinking about Jim Jones.

    November 13, 2008 at 9:12 pm |
  17. Ann Navarro

    I met a man years ago who lost his wife and small children in Jonestown. When I finally heard his story, my heart ached at the thought of what his family had gone through and for what the loss he had to live with. He told the story that he did not want his wife and children to go but his wife went anyway. This very sick man, Jim Jones cost her and her children along with so many others their very lives. After they died, he said he was beside himself and drank everyday for several years to try and get through the grief and pain. When I met him, he had found God again and was able to get back to the living. He died several years after I met him alone in his apartment of a heart attack. I remember when I heard he passed away, I smiled because I believed he was finally reunited with his family who he dearly loved.

    November 13, 2008 at 9:11 pm |
  18. Pakala

    When referring to any grisly loss of life, the term "closure" for the ones left behind is often utilized, but I pray that your caring approach by reaching out to the survivors of this grim occurrence in history provided some long-awaited peace for the loved ones.

    November 13, 2008 at 9:10 pm |
  19. Lisa

    I remember the news of Jonestown as the most vivid memory from my childhood of world events. I believe it was the first realization I had of what tragedy was.

    November 13, 2008 at 9:06 pm |
  20. Annie Kate

    I'm looking forward to watching this special – I can remember the news of Jonestown and the Newsweek article about it. It was hard to wrap your mind around it, how mothers and fathers could kill their own children then themselves. How did someone get such power over a person to make them do something like that? As a mother I don't think I will ever understand how a parent hurts their innocent and defenseless child.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    November 13, 2008 at 9:02 pm |
  21. Leslie Farrow

    instead of saying suicides, we should really say cold-blooded murders. This "psycho" (but competent) man brainwashed and committed psychological rape of the individuals involved to make them believe they were doing something to somehow save themselves and their children. May the hottest place below be his home and forever.

    November 13, 2008 at 8:59 pm |
  22. Rowan

    "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it
    from religious conviction." - Blaise Pascal

    Thank you for keeping this story alive in the hearts and minds of viewers, lest we forget and it happen again.

    November 13, 2008 at 8:47 pm |
  23. Valarie

    Wow, after all this time, I have to say that; unfortunately this could actually happen again. God Bless ALL those poor soles.

    November 13, 2008 at 8:40 pm |
  24. Eden Mesfun

    I guess reading stories like this is why I want to write. Why I want to make something of myself using words. If anyone asked me last year, I would have confidently explained my aspiration as a journalist. My hunger for news. I still have that same hunger; the itch to inform and research. I have managed to still enjoy it, even after a year, and that's a big step for me (a 16 year old girl). Yet, when I read stories like this; stories that expose the truth about how another lives- it really inspires me. It makes me wish I could go to another country and let them tell their story. It makes me want to help.

    November 13, 2008 at 8:14 pm |
  25. Larry Pierce

    I have never forgotten Don Harris. I used to watch him on WFAA-TV when he was a new anchor; one unlike any other I have ever seen. I could talk for an hour about the unique quality of his reporting and analysis, but suffice it to say that Don Harris was involved in his stories and came across that way on television. I was stunned when he died, and very angry.

    I wonder how his wife and children have done over the years. I have thought about them periodically, but have never read or seen any reports. Would love to know that they have survived and are doing well. I know Don would hope for that.

    November 13, 2008 at 8:09 pm |
  26. Barbara

    How sad, Jennifer. I'm sorry.
    I am old enough to remember Jonestown. I have no personal connection to it they way Jennifer here does, but none the less I'm moved everytime I hear of it. Power corrupts.

    November 13, 2008 at 8:07 pm |
  27. David Alexander


    I Grew up in marietta, and have been watching and listening from the VERY beginning (WTCG-Watch this channel grow!).What it has grown into is truly awe inspiring.The humanity and compassion balanced with objectivity, well let's just say that it has been an honor to witness this in my lifetime.You truly change the world everyday.That said, I was 16 when jonestown occured and I remember having a horrible realization that what Hitler did was not just an anomaly from the distant past,but could and did happen again,any where,any time,under the right circumstances.This changed the way I understood human nature to be,and subsequently changed my life.We must never forget the past lest we repeat it.
    Thanks to all at CNN for everything you do.

    November 13, 2008 at 8:05 pm |
  28. Mary

    I was a young adult when Jonestown happened. I remember being heart broken and outraged at the same time. How can so many cults flourish in the United States? Even though it was in Africa the cult started in this country. We need to be aware of what is happening in our "churches" and religious organizations and speak out. When I lived in the midwest through the 90's, I was shocked at how many of the churches were becoming cult like. Thank you for not being afraid to show what happens when we bury our heads and pretend that evil does not exist in our world!

    November 13, 2008 at 8:02 pm |
  29. Christa

    Before Jonestown happened and especially after it happened, I have been aware that if you can not safely question your leaders, you are in a cult. Get out as quickly as you can.

    November 13, 2008 at 7:47 pm |
  30. Katy

    Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing. This was an oh so tragic scene. I have followed this story for several years, and it is very commendable that Soledad O'Brien and CNN do a follow up of this horror to remind us to be very careful who we listen to and let into our inner core. Those that survived have had the horror to live with, but I am so very thankful they survived and are with us today. My best to them and to CNN and Ms. O'Brien.

    November 13, 2008 at 7:36 pm |
  31. Marshall E

    Rev. Jones was simply nothing more than a wolf in sheep's clothing.

    I remember him well. And yes, there are many more just like him stocking our churches today. Personally, I had forgot about him for 30 years...and I look forward to the next 30 without hearing about him again.

    ....and may God bless those poor children.

    November 13, 2008 at 7:32 pm |
  32. Marcina

    Every year when the Jonestown anniversary is near, I try to understand how so many people of all races were brainwashed by Jim Jones. Are we, so desperate to believe that anyone can tell us what we want to hear and believe it? How can you kill your children because someone said to do so, with no reservation? I find it hard to understand that no Red Flags went to anyone before that dreadful day. How about believe in One Father and not man!!

    November 13, 2008 at 7:25 pm |
  33. Paul

    Sounds like a really interesting documentary... Any chance it is going to be shown on CNN en Español? I'm in Latin America and we don't get CNN/I nor CNN/US.

    November 13, 2008 at 7:23 pm |
  34. CR

    I was 14 at the time...each time I see a reminder of it on television, I think the same thing..."who is this guy, and why would all these people do this?" ......there is one picture that kept appearing-that I remember to this day... a boy on his stomach with a striped shirt, sneakers and black curly hair....looked like he was sleeping....they all did. The adults couldn't explain it either, only to say, people are so desperate to belong to something....this man was truly evil...

    November 13, 2008 at 7:16 pm |
  35. Mary

    I'm glad this is being remembered in history. There are so many young people today who use the phrase, "AWWW! Go ahead and drink the kool-aide!" without really knowing how and why that phrase came into being.

    Like 911 and other historical events, this story needs to be repeated so that the event won't be. In these financially and politically uncertain times, young people may be looking for a cult leader. This is a good warning about blind obedience and the necessity of thinking for one's self.

    November 13, 2008 at 7:15 pm |
  36. Paco - Tucson, AZ

    Life (or God) is in the details, so the saying goes. Thanks for sharing some of the more meaningful details in this post.

    November 13, 2008 at 6:59 pm |
  37. Joshua

    I guess we will never understand why so many made a choice to murder their children then kill themselves. It's strange how one man can convince so many to carry out such acts. Makes you wonder if we all are capable enough to believe in a person so much that you could do the unthinkable.

    November 13, 2008 at 6:58 pm |
  38. AHerbert; San Diego, CA

    Wow CNN does have the best documentaries; like always I will watch with my children (13 & 18) as it is educational. I am 40 years old and do not know much about Jonestown.... I do know that it was a massive suicide event and now knowing that children died is worst... never put that together it is just too sad. I need to educate myself on how one person could manipulate so many.... that just blows my mind.

    November 13, 2008 at 6:51 pm |
  39. Jarad

    A couple of years ago my wife left me for a cult – Warriorschool. It was quite traumatic on me when that happened...and even with that experience in my background, I can't imagine what it must have been like to live through Jonestown. Every time I read about cults injurying people, it just tears me up. Koresh, Bent, Alamo, Prather – seems like there is no end to Christ wannabees exerting their influence over others.

    November 13, 2008 at 6:47 pm |
  40. Kathy Scioscia

    After crying over a week ago in joy as Obama won the election I find myself sobbing in pain from this video.

    November 13, 2008 at 6:46 pm |
  41. ladyatlaw2

    Anderson, i was never satisfied that all of the perpetrators were brought to justice. I was a young adult still in college when this happened and now today as an Attorney with a deep understanding of the law and mind control, I am convinced that some people have gotten away with murder.

    November 13, 2008 at 6:42 pm |
  42. Francesca

    I was a young child living in (Suriname when this happened. It was never shared with me and I was unaware of the news coverage at the time. I realized this tragedy when I moved to the U.S. and many people had no idea where Suriname was. I always explained...it's one of the Guyanas...the Dutch one. Immediately it would become very clear..."Jim Jones and the Koolaid! "they would say. The first time someone responded that way, I researched it and was shocked and saddened...I imagined what the children must have gone through. Hard to believe it's been 30 years....and that it was so close to "home."

    November 13, 2008 at 6:33 pm |
  43. Jennifer

    In 1977 when I was nine years old my sister and I would walk to a friend of mom's house after school was out. In the evening my mom would come by and pick us up to go home. It went like this for maybe a year until my mom said that her friend and her two boys were leaving soon to move somewhere far away and that we wouldn't see them again. I found out later, that she actually had told my mom that see had met a man who was wonderful and who was taking her and many more people to live in Africa. After we found out what had happened to them our mom explained to us that she and her kids had died at Jonestown and that we would be going to a memorial service only for her. DOn't even know the name of the woman, and after asking my mom several times since she won't talk about it.
    I'm 40 years old now and when every Jonestown is mentioned I remember this woman and her sons and wish I could have done or said something that would have made her stay.

    November 13, 2008 at 6:30 pm |
  44. Sandra Robertson, Georgia


    Last night I doubted I would be able to watch this documentary, due to its heartbreaking content. As I read your words, I remembered why I always loved CNN's staff of reporters...the "C" stands for caring. Thank you Soledad and James; you are true humanitarians.

    November 13, 2008 at 6:17 pm |
  45. Cindy

    I have seen several documentaries on Jim Jones and the cult that he started in Indiana that eventually led to these mass killings and suicides in Jonestown. The NBC footage was in these docs. It is sickening to watch seeing all 909 people laying out there dead.

    It is a shame that they took these poor little babies and made them drink poisoned kool-aid. I just can't imagine anyone in their right mind doing that to a kid.

    I'm looking forward to seeing this report tonight to see it from the view of the survivors. And also to hear how they have coped with this horrific event.


    November 13, 2008 at 4:20 pm |
  46. Jennifer - Michigan

    Hi there, I'm looking forward to this documentary tonight. It will be interesting to learn what exactly happened there; I was only a little girl. My parents didn't tell me about it. Thank you for your hard work with this very emotional incident.

    November 13, 2008 at 4:09 pm |