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'Help Us Get Out of Jonestown'

In this series, Newsweek reconstructs the events leading to the Jonestown Massacre as it happened in 1978, day by day.

November 17, 1978: On Friday morning, Temple lawyers Charles Garry and Mark Lane flew to Georgetown on the same flight to strategize with the Temple leadership. When Garry discovered that Lane was on the plane, he refused to talk to him, still blaming Lane for fanning the flames of Jones's paranoia.

When the duo arrived at Lamaha Gardens to talk to Jim Jones over the ham radio, however, they found there was one thing they did agree on: the Temple leader must welcome Ryan into Jonestown. Barring the congressman would only validate Ryan's contention that Jones was hiding something, and when he returned to Washington, he'd probably hold hearings on the matter. Jones began ranting about conspiracies again, but Garry cut him off. "Cut the horseshit," Garry said, threatening to resign if Jones didn't host the congressman. After a few moments, Jones responded in a weak voice, "very well."

That afternoon, a plane carrying 18 members of Ryan's party and the two lawyers soared toward the northwest rainforest as scheduled and landed on an airstrip outside of Jonestown at 3:42. A few of Jones' security guards and aides were waiting, along with a Guyanese policeman who told the party they could not leave the airstrip. After some haggling with Jones' aides, Ryan, Speier and the lawyers were driven to the settlement in the back of the Temple's dump truck.

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They arrived around 5 p.m. Marceline Jones led them to the pavilion, where she offered the visitors iced tea and showed them a table of wooden handicrafts made in Jonestown. As she began to lead them on a tour, Ryan politely interrupted her, asking to speak to Jones so they could settle the matter of the group stranded at the airstrip. Thirty minutes later, Jones arrived dressed in a bright red shirt and sunglasses and flanked by his lawyers.

Ryan shook Jones' hand with a politician's practiced smile and complimented him on the neat village that he'd carved from the jungle. The best way to silence his critics, the congressman continued, would be to admit his entire party so they could see it for themselves. With the nudging of his lawyers, the Temple leader reluctantly assented.

He watched the dump truck drive back to the airstrip with a forlorn expression. "I hope to God I have done the right thing," he muttered.

Just after sunset, the reporters and four members of the Concerned Relatives arrived. There was a music show in the crowded pavilion. Although they'd been warned not to speak to the visitors, that didn't stop residents from openly staring at them. The reporters made their way to a front table, where Jones careened angrily from one topic to the next, his tongue lolling sloppily in his mouth. The newsmen wondered whether he was drugged, or even mentally ill. Their uneasiness was heightened when he abruptly stated, "Sometimes I feel like a dying man."

In the background, the "Jonestown Express" played the Guyanese national anthem and "God Bless America." A young Black man sang "The Greatest Love of All" and a well-dressed young couple got up to dance, according to script.

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Visiting relatives sat with family members, trying to have meaningful discussions over the noise. The night before, Jones had warned them: "as far as your relatives coming up to talk to you, be civil, but don't get engaged in long conversation with them... tell them how happy you are, you tell them what your food is, how much food, that you wouldn't go back to the United States if someone were to give you a ticket tomorrow."

At a side table, Ryan and Speier interviewed residents. They had 40 people on their list. To combat rumors that Jonestown was bugged, they showed each interviewee a card with instructions to nod if the person wanted to leave the settlement. Nobody nodded. But Speier noted a "patterned" response among interviewees and was told that several residents she'd requested to see were "unavailable."

Marceline interrupted the interviews to introduce Congressman Ryan to the crowd. In the NBC footage, Ryan, wearing a casual red-and-blue striped polo shirt, spoke with a statesman's polished diction. "I think that all of you know that I'm here to find out more about questions that have been raised about your operation here, but I can tell you right now that, from the few conversations I've had with some of the folks here already this evening, that whatever the comments are, there are some people here who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life."

Audio courtesy of the Jonestown Institute

His words were loudly applauded for a full minute. The NBC cameraman panned over the ecstatic crowd, before returning to the congressman, who waited for the noise to subside with an awkward smile. He attempted to speak again several times—but was drowned out by clapping, whistling, and shouting, and drums—and eventually gave up as the band struck up another song.

Around 11 p.m., residents started to fade into the darkness toward their cottages.

It seemed like Jones had pulled off the charade.

But earlier that evening, a man had slipped NBC reporter Don Harris a note, mistaking him for Leo Ryan. "Vernon Gosney and Monica Bagby," it read. "Help us get out of Jonestown."

Julia Scheeres is an award-winning journalist and author. Her books include Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.