By: Joe Strupp
Since he was wounded outside Jonestown, Guyana, 30 years ago during an attack by members of the Peoples Temple, Tim Reiterman has written numerous anniversary stories about the incident and mass suicide that followed.
But, this year, things seem different. Now a news editor for Associated Press, Reiterman, 61, says looking back on the deadly incident that occurred during his days as a San Francisco Examiner reporter is not the same.
“Every time I write an anniversary piece, it seems like it gets harder rather than easier,” Reiterman said by phone from San Francisco. “I know it is painful for the people I approach to relive. These survivors have become saturated.”
Reiterman says he has written such stories on the 10th, 20th and 25th anniversaries of the Nov. 18, 1978 tragedy that ended with 900 dead at the hands of leader Jim Jones. The link to the Bay Area is key as that is where the People’s Temple began and Jones built political power.
“This one was different in the sense that most of the people I talked to, more than half, were people I had not spoken to for other pieces,” says Reiterman. “There has been a kind of healing process. A lot of the survivors have started to come together.”
He also notes: “Now there is a whole new generation who has never heard of the story.”
That latest anniversary piece will be distributed by AP this Sunday. The 2,500-word account delves into Reiterman’s own story of being among the reporters who traveled with Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate complaints from worried family members of those who had joined Jones’ cult in the jungles of Guyana.
On Nov. 18, 1978, as Reiterman, Ryan and several other journalists and officials boarded a plane to return to the U.S., several members of the temple ambushed them, unloaded gunfire, and killed Ryan, along with several journalists, including Reiterman’s colleague, Examiner photographer Greg Robinson.
Hours later, back at the People’s Temple jungle camp, Jones directed members to drink cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid, eventually leading to the deaths of hundreds.
Reiterman, wounded in the attack, focuses more on the impact to others in his piece. But he says he still has remnants of the bullets that hit him in the wrist and forearm: “I still have some pieces in there, and others have worked their way out.”
The impact on San Francisco was immense given Jones’s ties to the Bay Area, which included serving on the city’s Housing Commission. The city was shaken just nine days later when Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by fellow Supervisor Dan White.
That 30th anniversary is also approaching, marked even more so this year by the film, “Milk,” in which Sean Penn plays Milk, the first openly-gay elected public official.
Reiterman, a former AP reporter, joined the Examiner in 1977 and was working as a police reporter in Oakland when word began to spread about the Peoples Temple in San Francisco.
That resulted in a two-part series about the controversial cult, and later a follow-up on the life and death of one of its members who was the son of a photographer. When Ryan visited in 1978, Reiterman was a natural to join the press contingent.
“There are some people I spoke to who did not want to be associated with it in the past,” he recalls. “Now they have become open about the temple. But there are others who have said this is the last time they will be interviewed for it; some said I am the last reporter they will ever speak to about it.”
Reiterman said one reason he has continued to write about the incident is to make clear that it was not a mass suicide, but a mass killing. “There were 200 children who were killed,” he says. “This was mass murder and I believe that some of that has started to sink in.”
Afrer the 1978 tragedy, Reiterman stayed at the Examiner until 1989, writing a book in 1982 about the tragedy titled “Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones,” with fellow scribe John Jacobs. The book was just re-released in paperback.
After the Examiner, he joined the Los Angeles Times where he worked until this past September and rejoined AP as a Northern California news editor based in San Francisco.
While he has covered other big stories, such as the Patty Hearst case, the Black Panthers, and the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King verdict, Jonestown remains the biggest.
“I don?t think any of them have the longevity and public recognition that this one did for a long time,” he says.