By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
There were more White Nights, more defections of high-level staff and more dire threats of imminent destruction. Jones’ final nemesis turned out to be California Representative Leo Ryan, a Democrat from the Bay Area’s 11th Congressional District, who, spurred on by the Concerned Relatives and surrounded by camera crews, flew to Guyana on November 14, 1978. The Jonestown choir sang for the congressman, who sat down to a pork dinner in the pavilion. When a small group of disaffected community members passed to Ryan notes asking that he take them out with him, the congressman confronted Jones on their behalf. Jones said little and watched impassively as, moments later, a follower assaulted Ryan with a knife, drawing blood before he was pulled away.
As the shaken politician and his entourage boarded their aircraft at the Port Kaituma airstrip, they were attacked by a group of armed temple members. Representative Ryan was shot dead. When Jones heard the news, he staged the final White Night. This time, there was cyanide in the fruit punch, brought out in vats and distributed by the nursing staff. Three accounts by eyewitnesses placed Phyllis Chaikin among the group that, under the supervision of Dr. Schacht, dispensed the lethal drink.
Attorney Charles Garry was in Jonestown on the last night. He had asked to see Gene but was refused. After the carnage began, Jones advised Garry to run for his life. He managed to escape into the jungle with Mark Lane, another lawyer on Jones’ payroll. Terrified, Garry and Lane tore through the undergrowth. Later, exhausted, they sat beneath a tree and tried to make sense of what they had just been through. In an interview with Robert Scheer in the Los Angeles Times on November 26, 1978, eight days after the catastrophe, Garry recalled, “I kept wanting to see Gene Chaikin. They kept telling me he was sick. And Mark kept telling me not to ask them anymore. He said, ‘They’re not going to let you, don’t ask anymore.’ And when we were in the jungle, I said, ‘Why did you keep telling me not to ask?’ Then he told me the whole story. He said, ‘Gene Chaikin is drugged, if he’s still alive.’ If I had known all of this, I would not have been a party to going [to Jonestown], I would not have asked anybody to go down there, and I would have gotten the hell off the case.”
In his Jonestown book The Strongest Poison, Mark Lane wrote that Gene’s brother Ray had convinced the U.S. consular official Richard Dwyer to visit Jonestown in order to ascertain the state of Gene’s health and to question him about his recent experiences there. This interview, which even Jim Jones was powerless to prevent, took place on the night before the mass murder/suicides, in the Extended Care Unit of the medical building, where Dwyer reported Gene had been confined. Lane believes Gene was murdered there shortly afterward while in a tranquilized and helpless state.
As far as I can determine, the remains of Gene Chaikin lie with those of Phyllis, Gail and David in a mass grave for the unclaimed dead of Jonestown in Dover, Delaware.
For many years after the death of their only child and her family, Herbert and Freda Alexander continued to live in the house they built. Neighbors still recall this “sweet” elderly couple weeping with joy when they won a Halloween pumpkin-carving prize at a local children’s party. By the early ’90s, a niece, who appears to have been their only surviving relative, persuaded the Alexanders, now infirm, to move into a residential home for retired academics, in Westwood, where they both died.
A few months ago, after my 9-year-old son, Nathan, and I talked about the contents of the briefcase found in our basement, Nathan knocked on the door of the principal’s office at his school, Ivanhoe Elementary, and, entirely of his own initiative, asked one of the assistants if Phyllis Alexander had ever attended. He told her what he knew about Jim Jones, Peoples Temple and Jonestown. The assistant went through the files and confirmed that Phyllis had indeed attended Ivanhoe, as had Gene Chaikin. Nathan and his sister will follow Gene and Phyllis to Marshall High, where Phyllis was ostracized for being the daughter of a communist.
Over the Fourth of July holiday this year, our family was among the few privileged outsiders to be invited to a Peoples Temple commemoration picnic in San Diego. We sat with Claire Janaro, who had introduced the Chaikins to Jim Jones in Ukiah. Shortly after her own two teenage children died in Jonestown (neither she nor her husband, Richard, were in the compound on the night of November 18, 1978), Claire had attempted to return some of Phyllis’ belongings to the Alexanders, telephoning in advance, but Freda had screamed hysterically at her and slammed down the phone.
At the picnic we spoke to Tim Carter, the Vietnam veteran whose wife and infant had died in his arms before he escaped into the jungle; to Don Beck, who had helped Gene Chaikin to carve a community out of that jungle; and to Terri Buford, a defector who learned from Gene’s experience not to return to the community in a moment of loneliness. We also spent a little time with a lean, charismatic man named Stephan Jones, while our 7-year-old daughter, Lena, played in the grass with his little girl, Jaden Rose, Jim Jones’ strikingly beautiful granddaughter.
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