40 Years Later, Jonestown Survivor Speaks Out on Massacre That Nearly Killed 1,000

Illustration for article titled 40 Years Later, Jonestown Survivor Speaks Out on Massacre That Nearly Killed 1,000
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A black woman who was 22 years old when she escaped an encampment in Jonestown, Guyana, site of the infamous “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” suicide massacre, has come forward to tell her story in a new documentary.


Leslie Wagner-Wilson, now a 61-year-old grandmother, escaped certain death in 1978 when she fled with her 3-year-old son, Jakari, to escape from cult leader Jim Jones, who directed his followers to drink cyanide-laced Flavor Aid (not Kool-Aid, as is commonly thought) on Nov. 18, 1978.

On that date, 918 people lost their lives, including 276 children—most of them African American. Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Jonestown massacre was the single largest loss of U.S. civilian lives in a nonnatural disaster.

Wagner-Wilson, who lost six of her family members in Jonestown, is now telling her story in a new documentary on A&E titled Jonestown: The Women Behind the Massacre, which airs on Monday night.

The Arizona-based grandmother said that she hopes her story will help others avoid the same fate.

“I think Peoples Temple rose from a social/political environment that’s similar to what we’re facing now,” Wagner-Wilson told Fox News. “There’s a need. People want to be a part of something. They want to feel safe, they want to feel a sense of community … I want Jonestown to be a lesson … There are still folks out there and they are running under the guise of religious organizations. I just want people to be careful.”


Wagner-Wilson said her family, then based in San Francisco, joined the cult run by charismatic preacher Jim Jones when she was just 13 after her sister began using LSD. A family friend told them about Peoples Temple, which supposedly had a great rehab program.

Many African Americans joined the organization for similar reasons and because of its diversity and racial integration, which are an anomaly in religious congregations to this day.


Wagner-Wilson said that soon, though, Jones’ message turned dark.

“I think he was so insecure that he would always tout his sexual prowess and talk about how men were homosexuals,” she said. “He treated the women better because the women were more loyal. … But also, he was very manipulative and would try to separate families and destroy marriages, which would give him more power.”


The A&E documentary is about four “loyal” women who helped Jones carry out his sick plan of mass suicide in the South American nation, where his congregation abruptly moved after American authorities began to investigate claims of abuse.

“It was tough,” Wagner-Wilson said of suddenly moving to Guyana. “We had outhouses. We didn’t have flushing toilets … cold showers were OK because it was so humid and hot. But I went in with an open mind and tried to find the positive in that. I felt that this was a community where we could make a difference. … We were hopeful. We were optimistic that we could build something that was incredible. And with that comes some sacrifice.


“It just became a place where there was no future,” she continued. “I had a child. … We were basically starving. We were eating rice every day. No vegetables. No nutrients. It just became obvious this place was a prison. … I was ready to go. And if Jim had given people the option to go, I think there would have been a lot of people who were ready to get back to the states … but we had no voice. And that didn’t change in Jonestown.”

And so she fled with her baby boy, a move she does not regret.

“I feel grateful every day because I did not believe I was going to live past the age of 22,” she said. “I had to forgive Jim Jones and those involved in order for me to move on and live. I have two other children. I have grandchildren. I have a good life.”

Ms. Bronner Helm is the Senior Editorial Director at Colorlines. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.


  • Jim Jones was and still is one of the top Bogeyman.
  • I can see how people who have little in their lives could be swayed by a charismatic mofo like Jones
  • Powers Boothe portrayed the hell out of him in that long ago mini-series.
  • Jonestown helped shape my image of religion in a major way.
  • Blind faith is a helluva drug!

SIDEBAR: If Wagner was 22 in 1979, wouldn’t she be 61 in 2018