In this 20th-anniversary article, the Chicago Sun-Times' Michael Sneed claims three significant exclusives he got credit for in the first few days after the Jonestown massacre. And as he crows more than once here: The New York Times went nuts.
But his opinion piece reads more like a religious apologetics, with a confessional tone as he comes clean as to why he stood out from the international crowd of journalists who had descended into Georgetown, Guyana to cover the story. However, in all three cases his explanations ring hollow, with the odor of the fiction writer.
He says he helped get the first aerial images of the Jonestown dead out on the wire to the Sun-Times, and he accomplished this solely because of the fact that he and the newspaper's staff photographer were both markedly thin. Why there was such a draconian weight restriction in effect for a simple fly-over isn't mentioned. He concludes that it was all a "Great ruse. It worked."
But he established an essential truth nonetheless: "The only route to Jonestown, mired in the middle of a jungle, was by bush plane. Jonestown was closed. Entry was forbidden." I don't know if the description "bush plane" also encompasses an 18-seat Otter half filled with fat people, of the kind Rep. Leo Ryan leased. But just because it was hard to get to doesn't mean Jonestown should be "off limits," but that is what he reveals. Jonestown was a very special summer camp filled with wannabe secret agents and some disposable cannon fodder. Whatever privileged sensibilities enforcing privacy restrictions that were in effect when Jones ran the encampment ended when all but a handful died. There are many reasons why the U.S. in collaboration with Guyanese authorities kept the scene of death a restricted secret.
Secondly, Sneed says he got the only interview with Larry Layton during his imprisonment in Guyana. Sneed expresses mystification as to his lucky access, but only scorn for the results he procured from a still drugged and dazed Layton-interview subject. But the kicker is where Sneed says he fully planned to offer his first-ever bribe to the jail or police official, but the man in charge turned down money, instead saying that Sneed was granted the privileged because he had treated the locals politely and with respect. Clearly Sneed hadn't grown up poor, or missed any meals in the recent past. His vision of some noble, incorruptible bureaucrat is fantasy bordering on science fiction. The aptly named Forbes Burnham never turned down any of the secret C.I.A. lucre he was paid while he ruled Guyana, first as Premier, then as Prime Minister, and finally as President.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Sneed says, "I found Stanley Clayton, whose story resulted in a copyrighted exclusive," that first broke news of homicide, and not suicide, being the order of the day. That story should have been told by an unmuzzled local pathologist, as it eventually was, and not by a creature with the ridiculous "survival by stethoscope" story, which differs significantly from the Sneed's version here of how he made it out alive. And this was all brought about by an intrepid taxi driver, who earned the major appliances he was able to buy by bringing the "secret survivor" in the "hidden hotel" and the journalist together. Too bad, for Clayton, I should think, that he didn't sell his exclusive story to the National Inquirer for $10,000 like other of the survivors did---but, then, people are different, I guess.
A professional colleague, Tim McNulty, is described by Sneed as being "my sidekick," while he calls the Sun Times' lensman, Val Mazzenga, "my photog." Sneed ends by saying, "And I now write a gossip column. Imagine." Who would have thunk it?
November 22, 1998, Chicago Sun-Times, Sights and smells of Jonestown linger still, by Michael Sneed, 700+ words
Sometimes, when the night is clear and filled with stars, I hear children screaming.
It is not a loud scream. It is more like an old whisper.
It is the two decades-old sound of children dying on a starry night in Jonestown, Guyana. It is the white noise of cyanide-induced death that inhaled the breath of innocent children and sucked the life out of nearly 1,000 cultists led by a monster named Jim Jones. I never really heard the children die, but I covered the story of Jonestown. And I clearly remember walking away from my typewriter, stepping onto the balcony of my squalid hotel room, looking up at the sky and wondering where all the screams of the children went.
I recall the odor of the shoes worn by my sidekick, Tim McNulty, left outdoors on the balcony on purpose; shoes permeated with the smell of death in the South American sun. The adrenaline of competing against journalism's most aggressive reporters dictates focus that masks emotion. It would be weeks before I was hit with the shock of what I was covering.
Now, two decades later, I recall bits of that nightmare story, shards that didn't appear in bylined stories.
The accommodations . . .
Georgetown, Guyana's capital, where the press was based, was a Third World pit. Rivulets of effluent were everywhere. The only decent food in town was purchased through the black market. Breakfast and lunch were always cheese sandwiches. Peahens, not sparrows, picked up crumbs under the hotel tables. The hotel toilets rarely worked. We had to wash our hair and shower by hauling buckets of water out of the swimming pool, which we would use occasionally. The water of choice was Red Label scotch.
The bush plane . . .
The only route to Jonestown, mired in the middle of a jungle, was by bush plane. Jonestown was closed. Entry was forbidden. But my photog, Val Mazzenga, and I were the first crew to get "in" by persuading a pilot to fly over the compound and get us as close to the scene as possible. He flew so low we practically touched the bodies and were the first "on the scene," even though we never touched down.
The pilot also cooperated in a little conspiracy that enabled us exclusivity because of a "weight restriction." I was thin. Mazzenga was thin. The other reporters didn't qualify. (He made us all get on a weight scale!) Great ruse. It worked.
Our story described Jonestown as "The City of the Dead," and the multicolored football-style jerseys worn by the victims made the bodies look like "colorful playing cards" strewn about a card table. The New York Times went nuts.
The first scoop . . .
Covering Jonestown like a Chicago crime story meant tracking down Larry Layton, the young cultist jailed for killing U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, whose death was the precursor to Jones calling for his "White Night" mass suicide. Consider my surprise when a jail official gave me permission to interview Layton and escorted me to his jail cell the next day. (I was the only journalist to interview Layton in his Guyanese prison. He is now in prison in California.)
Layton was obviously out of it. He was confused, spoke in a monotone and looked stoned or drugged. I remember his eyes. They were glazed. He was barely audible. He was barely an interview. But I remember wondering why I was permitted to interview him and did something I had never done before: palmed some money to give the jail official just in case. He refused to take it. "You were polite," he said. "You treated me with respect. That's all any human being wants."
The death squad . . .
The key to getting scoops was hiring a driver who not only knew the lay of the land but had connections. Our driver was a Guyanese named Roland, who was able to buy a new car and refrigerator with what we paid him. He was worth every penny. He arrived at our hotel one evening with news that a group from Jonestown had survived "White Night" by escaping through the jungle and were being secretly detained at a hotel. That was where I found Stanley Clayton, whose story resulted in a copyrighted exclusive that again drove the New York Times nuts.
Clayton was the first proof that what happened at Jonestown was murder, not suicide. That guards with guns had forced people to the cyanide vats; that babies were injected with cyanide. I found Clayton sitting on the floor between two beds in his hotel room and listening to music on a radio. In a monotone, he described how he survived by pretending to be looking for survivors by poking bodies in front of armed guards . . . and while engaged in this ruse, working his way to the front of the tent, telling a guard he was ready to die . . . hugging the guard . . . and then diving under a tent to escape. (In other words, Clayton had pretended to be a guard.)
The Carter story . . .
Roland also led us to Tim Carter, a cultist who watched his wife and son die and did nothing to save them. (It was the picture of his baby's son's feet wedged in between two dead adults that became the classic Jonestown picture.) I still squirm when I recall his brainwashed demeanor. One evening, in the midst of dictating notes to McNulty, we both paused without saying a word . . . and began to weep. Then, like a rainstorm across the prairie, it was over. And we went back to doing our job. Jonestown has now been reclaimed by the jungle. And I now write a gossip column. Imagine.