BARSTOW• Thirty-three years after one of the most deadly non-natural disasters in U.S. history, a Jonestown survivor spoke to a local congregation Saturday and detailed his experiences with the infamous Jim Jones.
Victorville resident Hue Fortson Jr. was spared his life but lost his wife and 3-year-old son in the mass suicide at the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana, better known as Jonestown.
Fortson was one of about 80 Peoples Temple members who survived the massacre that killed over 900 people, including 300 children, according to San Diego State University's comprehensive list. He was not in Jonestown when the massacre took place.
Fortson told his story to the audience at the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Barstow; the audience listened closely and asked questions as he recounted his years of interaction with the cult leader.
"I was ignorantly pushed into leadership," he said.
Fortson served as one of 12 personal bodyguards to Jones for four years, he said.
"I joined and saw it as a vehicle to help other people," he said.
Every Sunday church members were reminded that they were "poor black and white people" as a mind control tactic, according to Fortson.
"He (Jones) had a rainbow family and claimed to love all of God's people," Fortson said. "I was deceived by the man Jim Jones."
Beginning in March 1978, Fortson spent about six months in the Jonestown commune. In September of that year it was out of the blue, he said, when Jim Jones got on the loudspeaker at the compound to announce three people would be leaving for a short period: Jones' wife Marceline Jones, one of Jones' girlfriends and Hue Fortson Jr.
Fortson would be a personal bodyguard to Marceline as she went to purchase supplies in San Francisco for a furniture-making project they were beginning in Jonestown.
Jim Jones told Fortson in a one-on-on conversation that he was one of the few young black men that he trusted, he said.
A week before Fortson's planned returned to Guyana in November 1978, Marceline Jones came to him at the San Francisco temple and asked that he stay for one more month until a replacement was sent. Fortson said he complied, and it was only a week-and-a-half later that the mass suicide took place.
The members drank Flavor Aid poisoned with cyanide and other toxic substances. It remained the largest single loss of American life in a non-natural disaster until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
More than one attendee on Saturday asked the question: "Were you not reading your Bible?"
Fortson said the Bible wasn't read from directly in the church and that Jones would twist the "Word of God" to teach his message, claiming the Bible was historically used to oppress African-Americans. About 68 percent of the congregation and those who died in the mass suicide were black.
In the months that followed the massacre, Fortson said he contemplated taking his own life and felt stupid for believing in Jones. He also felt responsible for his wife and son's death.
"I thought I was really crazy," he said.
He went to a psychologist in Los Angeles who told him he wasn't crazy but that he had made some wrong decisions in his life. The therapist encouraged him to go back to church and restart his life, which Fortson credits for allowing himself to believe again.
Today he is now remarried and the father of six children. He is also a pastor at In His Habitation Ministries in Victorville, which he started with his wife.
Fortson said at the close of the gathering: "My greatest prayer is that this will go out as a warning."
Contact Brooke Self at: firstname.lastname@example.org or (760) 256-4123.