3 decades later, remains of Jonestown bodies found
DOVER, Delaware — More than 35 years after the infamous suicide-murder of some 900 people — many forced to drink a cyanide-laced grape drink — in Jonestown, Guyana, the cremated remains of nine victims were found in a dilapidated former funeral home in the U.S., officials said Thursday.
The grisly discovery brought back memories of a tragedy that killed hundreds of children and a U.S. congressman and horrified Americans.
Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones in the 1970s moved his San Francisco-based group to Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America, as allegations of wrongdoing mounted. Hundreds of followers moved there.
On Nov. 18, 1978, on a remote jungle airstrip, gunmen from the group ambushed and killed U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California, three newsmen and a defector from the group. All were visiting Jonestown on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of abuses of members.
Jones then orchestrated a ritual of mass murder and suicide, ordering followers to drink cyanide-laced grape drink. 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, 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.
The newly discovered remains were clearly marked, with the names of the deceased included on death certificates, authorities said. But Kimberly Chandler, spokeswoman for the Delaware Division of Forensic Science, declined to release the names of the nine people to The Associated Press. Chandler said officials were working to notify relatives.
She said the agency found the remains last week on a site visit prompted by a call from the property’s current owner — a bank, according to Dover police. Officials found 38 containers of remains, 33 of which were marked and identified. Chandler said the containers included remains from Jonestown.
“It’s simply a case of unclaimed cremains at a closed funeral home,” Chandler said, adding that there is no reason to believe the five unmarked containers contain remains of more Jonestown victims.
It’s not unusual for families to authorize cremation and then leave the ashes unclaimed at funeral homes, said Delaware funeral directors.
“I’m going to say most all funeral establishments have cremains in storage that people have not come to collect,” said Harvey Smith, president of the Delaware State Funeral Directors Association.
On Thursday, the dilapidated former funeral home had a padlock on the double front doors.
Funeral director Edward G. Minus Sr., 74, died in 2012, according to an obituary. The bank then took over the building.
A spokeswoman for Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at the military base didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment. Dover Police Cpl. Mark Hoffman said police assume the military contracted with the funeral home to handle the remains.
Survivor Yulanda Williams, 58, called the discovery of the remains another bizarre turn of events.
Williams spent a decade with the temple, including three months in Jonestown. She left with her 8-month old daughter before the massacre.
“This is just another example of how these victims were further victimized,” she said.
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