DOVER, Delaware (AP) — The cremated remains of nine victims of a 1978 mass cult suicide-murder in Jonestown, Guyana, have turned up in a former U.S. funeral home, officials said Thursday.
The nine victims were among the more than 900 who died on Nov. 18, 1978, when gunmen from the Peoples Temple cult ambushed and killed Congressman Leo Ryan of California, three newsmen and a defector from the group at a remote jungle airstrip. The visitors were on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of abuses of members, who had moved to Guyana from San Francisco.
Cult leader Jim Jones then orchestrated a ritual of mass murder and suicide at the temple's nearby agricultural commune, ordering followers to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Most complied, although survivors described some people being shot, injected with poison, or forced to drink the deadly beverage when they tried to resist.
After the deaths, bodies of 911 massacre victims were brought to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, home to the U.S. military's largest mortuary. Many of the bodies were decomposed and could not be identified. Several cemeteries refused to take them until the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California, stepped forward in 1979 and accepted 409 bodies. The remaining victims were cremated or buried in family cemeteries.
On Thursday, authorities said that the Delaware Division of Forensic Science had taken possession of the newfound remains, discovered at the former Minus Funeral Home in Dover, and is working to make identifications and notify relatives.
The dilapidated former funeral home had a padlock Thursday on the double front doors. The building showed few signs of its former use, although a floral design was etched in glass panes at the entrance. Dead vines hung from the building's white plaster walls, and cracked windows were repaired with blue tape. Torn carpet and damaged title could be seen inside. Out back, beer and soda cans, broken cinder blocks and empty cigarette packs littered the ground. There were two areas of disturbed soil, each about the size of a child's wading pool. The grass was overgrown, reaching 10 inches in some areas.
Last week, the Delaware agency responded to a request to check the former funeral home after 38 containers of remains were discovered inside. Thirty-three containers were marked and identified. They spanned a period from about 1970 to the 1990s and included the Jonestown remains.
On Wednesday, Delaware authorities also conducted an "exploratory excavation" on the former funeral home property after finding areas of loosely compacted soil, looking for other unclaimed, cremated remains. They discovered an arrowhead, two animal bones, oyster shells and charcoals.
Searchers also found several bronze gravesite markers for deceased veterans who served in World War I through the Vietnam War.
Jones ran the Peoples Temple in San Francisco in the early 1970s. He established a free health clinic and a drug rehabilitation program, eventually emerging as a political force. He became chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority in 1976. But allegations of wrongdoing mounted, and Jones moved to Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America. The cult leader believed he would be safe there from what he perceived as media and police persecution. Hundreds of followers moved to Jonestown, seeking socialism and racial harmony.