Whatever Happened To The Jonestown Massacre Survivors?

The images of the more than 900 dead men, women, and children shocked the world as did the related news that a U.S. Congressman had been assassinated in the jungle of Guyana by a cult leader named Jim Jones. The portrayals of Jonestown and the Peoples Temple on film, television, and in the media, tend to focus on the church's mass murdering leader and the tragic ending of the community in South America on November 18, 1978. But what became of the survivors?

About 80 members of the Jonestown community — including two of Jones' sons — survived the massacre. CNN reported that 14 people managed to escape from the ambush by Jones' guards on U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, his staff, accompanying journalists, fleeing Temple members, and others. Of the survivors of that terrible day, they went on to various careers in politics, law enforcement, and business, among other occupations. Some even managed to forgive the man who devastated their and their loved ones' lives.


On the day of the massacre, Rep. Leo Ryan, a Democrat from California, a group of journalists, and concerned family of the Peoples Temple members, were at Jonestown on a fact-finding mission. Jones had moved his Peoples Temple from San Francisco to an isolated area in the jungle of Guyana a year earlier. After Ryan's group learned that there were members who wanted to leave, they headed for a nearby airfield. "It was a powder keg of emotions," Jackie Speier, Ryan's aide, told ABC News in 2018. "I mean it was so clear to me that this thing was about to erupt and we needed to get those who wanted to leave out of there as fast as possible."

As they prepared to take off, they were cut down by Jones' armed guards. Speier saw Ryan die and she suffered five gunshot wounds. She lay near a plane for nearly 24 hours before being rescued. She would go on to become a long-serving U.S. representative for California, including the area Ryan had represented. "It's informed everything I've done," she told CBS News. "I mean, it's made me into a fighter and to not take no for an answer," She retired in 2023. Vernon Gosney, one of the Jonestown defectors, was also shot. He suffered three wounds to the stomach and lost his young son Mark to Jones' madness. Gosney moved to Maui and became a police officer.

'The quilt of death'

The murders of Ryan, three journalists, and two others in their group led to Jones ordering the Temple members to die by suicide. They drank cyanide-laced fruit-flavored drink mix and injected others with poison against their will. Hyacinth Thrash, who had been a Peoples Temple member for years, hid under her bed. She fell asleep and woke up the next morning to find everyone dead, including her sister. The carnage was awful. Journalist Fred Francis, who was at Jonestown a few days after the massacre, told ABC News that because of all the bodies in various colored clothing it looked like "the quilt of the dead."

Thrash moved back to the United States after the massacre and lived in Indianapolis at a retirement home. She forgave Jones. "I just don't feel nothing towards him now, no bitterness towards him," she said (via the Indy Star). "I was at times, but I prayed to the Lord, because you can't hate nobody. So I was healed of that." She died in 1995, aged 90.

Fled through the jungle

On the day of the Jonestown mass murder-suicide, Leslie Wagner-Wilson, who had been a member of the Peoples Temple since she was 13, fled Jonestown with her 3-year-old son, Jakari. "I was so scared I was shaking," she told the New Zealand Herald in 2018. "I was waiting for a gunshot and a bullet and me dropping. I didn't expect to live beyond the age of 22." She carried her son on her back for 30 miles through the jungle, arriving the next day at a neighboring town to learn that her husband, mother, sister, brother, niece, nephew, and all her friends were dead.

After the massacre, Wagner-Wilson suffered from drug addiction, homelessness, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She has since become a writer, public speaker, and advocate for others facing hardship. Her son Jakari has been in and out of prison and is currently incarcerated for attempted murder and gun convictions. His mother said he too was a victim of Jim Jones. "Most of it was attributed to his trauma from his year in Jonestown," she wrote (via the San Diego State University site). Wagner-Wilson said a lack of proper nutrition at Jonestown, exposure to violence there, and Jones' brainwashing all played a part in what happened to her son.

Sent away at the last minute

Jim Jones sent Tim Carter on a mission on the day of the mass murder and suicides. He was away from the pavilion where the massacre took place getting ready to leave the compound. "I can honestly say that never once in my mind did it occur we're all going to die," he told ABC News. "Because 24 hours after that dinner and show, literally 24 hours later, everybody was dead." He heard screaming and came back to find his wife and child dying from cyanide poisoning along with the rest of his friends and family. "I was shocked with everything, I was shocked," he recalled. "I was completely overwhelmed with the death that was around me."

In the wake of the Jonestown massacre, Carter attempted to die by suicide twice, suffered horrible nightmares, and felt demonized. For years the taint of Jonestown clung to Carter. He had a hard time getting work and when he did, his co-workers often ostracized him. "There would be no such thing as a normal life for a long, long time," he wrote in 2013 (via the San Diego State University site). "I wish I could say that the general perception of survivors has changed significantly over the past 32 years, but I don't think that's the case."

Jim Jones' sons

Other Jonestown members were away from the compound in Guyana's capital city, Georgetown, at the time of the mass murders and suicides, including two of Jim Jones' sons, who were participating in a basketball tournament. Jim Jones Jr., Jones' adopted 18-year-old son, who is Black, learned that his father was planning to go through with his suicide plans. Jones Jr. and his brother, Stephan Jones, 19 at the time, went to the U.S. embassy looking for help. But it was too late.

Jim Jones Jr.'s first wife and unborn baby died that day. "Life's over as I know it, what I believed in ... who I loved ... I was stripped bare naked," Jim Jones, Jr. recalled (via ABC News). "I had nothing. Absolutely nothing." He remarried and has three sons. For a long time, he went by James Jones but has since come to accept his past. After the Jonestown massacre, Stephan Jones had substance abuse issues related to his guilt. He has since recovered and is an executive at a furniture company, is married, and has three daughters. "I know I've reached a better place and I don't fear lapsing back into the darkest times, but it's a daily process and one that I'm grateful to have," he told Haaretz.