Forty years ago, Charles Krause lay on the tarmac of a remote jungle airstrip in Guyana, shot in the hip, holding still and pretending to be dead.
A Washington Post foreign correspondent at the time, Krause had come to South America along with California congressman Leo J. Ryan and his entourage to visit a remote cult compound known as Jonestown.
Ryan had constituents who had joined the agricultural commune following the charismatic, self-titled Rev. Jim Jones and his California-based Peoples Temple. After hearing reports from concerned family members — who claimed that temple members were held there against their will, assaulted and abused — the congressman decided to fly down to investigate, accompanied by several members of the press.
But Jones had no intention of allowing the visitors to leave and dispatched several of his armed followers on a flatbed truck to stop Ryan’s plane. What followed — the assassination of Ryan and the murder of four others at the airfield, and the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 Peoples Temple followers, including hundreds of children forced to drink cyanide-laced grape-flavored punch — would reverberate across the world and leave an indelible mark on American culture.
Despite his own injury, Krause kept reporting on Jonestown in the days after, filing detailed reports as the first journalist allowed to return to the gruesome site. He later wrote a best-selling book, “Guyana Massacre: The Eyewitness Account.”
Krause, 71, who now runs the Center for Contemporary Political Art in Northwest Washington, recently spoke with The Post ahead of the Nov. 18 anniversary of the massacre about his recollections and the lasting lessons of Jonestown. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve written so much about Jonestown over the years. All this time later, are there still certain moments that stand out most vividly in your mind?
When I first went back, I was looking for some of the people who I remembered were on that flatbed truck. At that point, the bodies were there, but they didn’t realize that they were stacked on top of each other. So they had counted about 450 people who were dead, but they were missing close to 500 or something. And so we didn’t know where they were. . . . I didn’t find any of them actually. But it turned out that most everybody was killed.
You spent time with Peoples Temple members just days before they were killed. Were there any people you met who made a lasting impression?
There were two, a brother and a sister. When we finally got there, each of us was greeted by someone who would come up to us and say, “Hi, I want to welcome you to Jonestown.” And it turned out that my minders, that’s what they were, were a brother and sister. Their last name was Tropp. Their backgrounds were virtually identical to mine. They were both white, Jewish, both had been educated at Ivy League schools, and we really had a lot in common. They had done their research, and they figured out who would present the best case for Jonestown. And I must say, they did. Even after everything happened, I still, because of them, I still have certain doubts. I mean some of the things that were going on there were actually good, if it hadn’t been for the psychosis of one man and the trap he led them into. The Tropps weren’t there because they believed in miracles or snake oil. They were there because they believed it was a socialist community and a place where different races and religions could be together.
What has it been like for you to process what you experienced and witnessed at Jonestown?
One of the things that I continue to wonder about is: Why did I survive? I was right next to the congressman, and they were shooting at him for sure. I wasn’t a principal target, but they certainly were there to kill everybody they could. But why did I survive it? And that is a question that has haunted me all my life. You know, there must be a reason. And what I’ve decided is that that reason is for me to continue to try to do what I can to try to make this world a little bit better. I guess I realized at that point that you have to live your life fully, and you can’t postpone everything until tomorrow, because tomorrow you may not be here.
We now have generations of people who are too young to remember Jonestown, and are more familiar with derivative pop-culture references — like the phrase “drink the Kool-Aid” — than the facts of the tragedy itself. But even that phrase isn’t true to what happened, right?
Right. I remember very distinctly, about three weeks after all of it, I heard from the president of Kool-Aid — and I was afraid, you know, are we going to start with a lawsuit and all of this? But it was just a very nice note saying, ‘Look, we just wanted you to know that as it turns out it wasn’t Kool-Aid, but we understand that Kool-Aid is sort of generic for all kinds of flavored drinks, and we wish you well.’ Apparently, it was Flavor Aid. But regardless, it was mixed with cyanide — and no, people didn’t take it voluntarily. In fact, there is a recording that exists, and you can hear the people asking, “Why are we doing this — do we really have to do this?” And then they had men with guns. So they really didn’t have much of a choice. And the children didn’t have a choice.
What do you think are the lessons of Jonestown, what it ultimately taught us about who we are?
I’m not sure, frankly, that, at the time, the real lessons of Jonestown were very clear. You know, people focused on the mass suicide-murder, the bodies. Anyone who was alive at that time, it was a very striking image, and people may even remember Jim Jones because there was something about him that was frightening. But the real lesson of Jonestown, and I wish our country had understood this: These people followed someone who led them to destruction. They believed in this guy. He lied to them. He cheated. He was involved with the sexual abuse of boys and girls in his temple. He took their money. He really enslaved them. And then he betrayed them, and then he led them to their deaths. I wish we had learned to be more cautious about following people who promise things and then betray the trust that people have given them. And I just hope that it doesn’t happen again.
Forty years later, in a world that has changed in so many ways, do you think this sort of thing could happen again?
Yes, there is the potential for it to happen again. It has happened again a number of times. We’ve had Waco, and we’ve had other incidents where it’s not as many people, but it’s the same sort of situation. I feel strongly that we need to be more skeptical about political or religious leaders who promise things, who seem to be hypocritical, who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.