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30 years after Jonestown, one member finally tells his story

Clifford Gieg, right, and his brother, Stanley, were 18 and 19 when this photo was taken at Jonestown, Guyana. Photos like this one were sent home to families to assure relatives that people were happy, even as the utopian ideals faded away at the commune, Gieg said
Clifford Gieg, right, and his brother, Stanley, were 18 and 19 when this photo was taken at Jonestown, Guyana. Photos like this one were sent home to families to assure relatives that people were happy, even as the utopian ideals faded away at the commune, Gieg said Idaho Statesman / Courtesy of Clifford Gieg

For 30 years, the world has watched the last images of Stanley Gieg.

A newsman's blurry footage shows the blond 19-year-old behind the wheel of a tractor that carried Jim Jones' gunmen to a Guyanese airstrip on Nov. 18, 1978.

The attack that soon followed killed a congressman and several others and marked the bloody start of a massacre that left more than 900 people dead in Jonestown.

But Stanley's brother, Clifford Gieg, believes - he knows - there is more to Stanley's story.

Clifford Gieg last saw his brother alive just hours before the shootings. Clifford would live through the day. Stanley would not. Now, in a bid to honor his brother, the Boise cabinet-maker is talking publicly about his experiences for the first time.

"He died. He was murdered," Gieg said. "I know he was murdered. He was shot. And he was a victim. And I want him recognized as a victim and not as part of it."

Gieg calls himself a true believer who was duped by Jones until the end. His life and loss in Jonestown aren't so much a secret as something he just doesn't discuss. He doesn't need to talk about it, Gieg says, because he lives it every day, especially in his nightmares.

Gieg's wife of four years, Norma, learned many details for the first time as she listened to him being interviewed.

Gieg couldn't come right out and talk about Stanley, or what happened. He started with a photo, taken just feet away from where Jones' mother was buried in the Guyanese jungle. Clifford is 18, Stanley 19. Stanley has a shock of almost white-blonde hair. Clifford is darker. There is no clue in the photo of what is to come.

"It was what it was," Gieg said. And then he launched into the tale.

CHILDREN OF THE TEMPLE

Gieg's mother joined the People's Temple Disciple of Christ in California in 1968, when he was 8 and Stanley 9. She's still living - she never went to Jonestown - and he won't share her name. She was attracted by the church's cathartic therapy-like sessions and by Jones' teachings of racial and class equality.

"It was all about the people," Gieg said. "He would welcome anybody. People on drugs - help them get off drugs. Losers all over the place."

Gieg's parents divorced when he was 11, about the time he started playing drums in the People's Temple band.

"My mother basically could not take care us. So the church took my brother and myself in, and we were put in a foster home. I think my mother was forced to give us up because we were living in poor conditions," Gieg said. "Financially my mother couldn't handle it, and emotionally ... and the church basically took in the two youngest ones."

To be a member of the People's Temple meant being "very involved," Gieg said.

At first, it was fun and loving, Gieg said. There were the sleepovers with Jones' children, and long bus trips crisscrossing the country from Niagara Falls to Philadelphia, to Indianapolis, to San Francisco.

"We would call him Uncle Jim," Gieg said. "I remember sitting on his lap at Easter and getting a chocolate Easter egg from him. That's a true story ... He was definitely a father figure to me. He became a monster."

FROM FAVOR TO EXILE

Jones' charisma attracted more people to the People's Temple and garnered him powerful political allies.

Gieg recalls meeting Rosalynn Carter and hearing from revolutionary speakers like the Black Panther-connected Angela Davis and Huey Newton. Gieg remembers Jones' political connections and quasi-celebrity after the church moved to San Francisco in 1971. Eventually, Jones and the People's Temple came under fire, and talk turned to building an egalitarian, socialist society in Guyana.

A year after the first Jonestown settlers left for South America, Gieg followed. Stanley, now 17, was already there. Their cousin would come as well.

"I was a kid. I was 16 at the time and it just sounded like an adventure. We are going to build a community, a town in the middle of the jungle. And it's a promised land," Gieg said. "There will be no monetary system ... it will be heaven on Earth. That was the big promotion. It was like heaven on Earth."

But the thick Guyanese jungle was anything but heaven, Gieg said. He and other church members worked 12-hour days, six days a week. Gieg, a talented carpenter, worked "like a slave" to build 12-by-24-foot houses for church members.

"At first there was plenty of food, chicken and regular meals. But as soon as more and more people started showing up, it was like things were getting rationed. There were no more pops. No more Pepsi. No more goodies," Gieg said. "I constructed a template, or a jig, to build the houses - 52 houses that were built there to house this thousand people. That was fulfilling. Of course, it was a lot of work."

A FUN JOB AND FREEDOM

When the pilot of the church's boat got it stuck in the mud in Venezuela - for which he was beaten - Gieg got a new assignment. He was the new, 18-year-old pilot of the Temple's 80-foot, wooden-hulled vessel, the "Cudjo." Gieg would ferry people and cargo to and from the boat launch at Port Kaituma and other sites in Georgetown and Morowana. It was an assignment he relished.

Like most teen-age boys, Gieg thought with his stomach. The residents in Jonestown ate "rice and gravy" for three meals a day. For breakfast, they'd get brown sugar with their rice. The river gave Gieg more freedom, more adventure and a more varied diet. He'd eat curried fish and crab cooked on the boat with the Guyanese people he would ferry for $1 a ride.

As he talked about these happier days, Gieg grabbed a pen and mapped out that area of Guyana, drawing the ocean and interconnecting rivers and the location of ports. He once took a speedboat across the border into Venezuela to buy Vienna sausage and Irish potatoes, he recalled. He once sold a calculator at a store for a package of cookies. For that infraction, "I got a slap on the wrist," he said.

He'd fish with the local children; he fondly remembers a boy named Rennie. He'd catch piranhas. He'd swim in the "root beer"-colored river.

"I was on the boat; I was out, kind of free," Gieg said. "That was kind of fun."

But while Gieg was a true believer, quietly obedient, Stanley was "always in trouble," he said.

Stanley worked as a mechanic and drove the church's World War II-era Army truck. Stanley didn't like it, and for him life was far from ideal.

CRACKS IN THE VENEER

"To be honest with you, my brother and I didn't really see eye to eye on much," Gieg said. "We were kind of 'discommunicated.' In fact, we were put in separate foster homes. And that's probably where it started the most. Stanley was always rebellious."

Stanley was part of the "hard hat brigade," forced to wear yellow hats and run everywhere inside Jonestown after committing minor infractions like stealing food or cursing. With his golden good looks, Stanley was "popular with the ladies," Gieg said.

Gieg's father wanted his boys home, and Gieg was still under age. Gieg remembers a short-wave radio conversation with his father, who had come to the temple in San Francisco.

"We talked to him. Said, 'Yeah, everything is great. We fish. We're great,'" Gieg said before a sarcastic chuckle. "Yeah."

To keep Gieg in Guyana, Jones found him a wife named Joan. He didn't spend time with the woman. She survived Jonestown, but Gieg later had the marriage annulled when he came back to the States.

As Gieg delivered more residents to Jonestown, they quickly learned the truth; it was no utopia, Gieg said.

Everyone, including ailing senior citizens, worked like "slaves," after surrendering all their money and possessions to Jones, Gieg said. Jones would sell the possessions at a store in a nearby town.

"There is such a fine line between socialism and fascism. It can go either way at any time," Gieg said. "Yes, it was ideal. We have no worries, no responsibilities. We don't have to worry about paying bills. We can look at the monkeys in the jungle. But as more and more people got there and more and more pressure got on Jones, it became he was on the loud speaker all the time, telling people, reading stories about all this terrible stuff that's going on in the world ... It was a total brainwashing operation, and he was an expert at it. And it worked."

But no one could leave. People who tried were rounded up, brought back and beaten, Gieg said. The rest stayed through brainwashing and threats, he said.

"We had a lot of meetings in the pavilion where, hell, everything was going on. Beatings ... Fisticuffs. Someone would come up and just beat them as a discipline for disrespecting. One guy come up, a guy named Tom Grubbs. He was a teacher, and he complained to Jones that there was not enough nourishment in rice and gravy to educate - he was a teacher - to educate children. And he got beat for complaining.

"There was dunkings, where they had this huge well, an open pit well, where they had like the old witch days. They would take someone and just dunk them in, whoosh, and pull them up. Dunk them in, whoosh, and pull them up. And you never hear about that on TV, but it's true."

Jones became paranoid that people who left the church had hired mercenaries to kidnap family members and attack Jonestown. He held "White Nights," or practice drills for ritualistic suicide and taking poison, Gieg said.

"It started to hit me, like, what's going on here," Gieg said. "This is falling apart here. And then you'd never see him either. All you did is hear him."

AN ESCAPE ROUTE, CUT OFF

In November 1978, after hearing rumors of abuse and theft, U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California arrived in Guyana with an entourage of media and relatives of People's Temple members. At first, Jones blocked the road to Jonestown. But Ryan and the media were eventually allowed into the settlement.

The last night the community existed, Gieg played drums in the Jonestown band for the visitors.

"In fact, before Leo Ryan was murdered, I actually leaned over my drum set and shook his hand that night because we had been playing and everything was great on the surface," Gieg said. "He was a good man. He was trying to help the people. And I knew it in his tone when he talked to the congregation that evening."

But some church members wanted out, and Jones' paranoia got the best of him.

At about 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 18, Jones' security guards told Gieg and his boat-mate to take the Cudjo 50 miles downriver. Now, Gieg suspects Jones was cutting off all means of escape.

"My brother, Stanley, drove us to the boat in Kamaka and there were some senior citizens on there, sleeping on the boat, watching the boat," Gieg said. "So he dropped us off at the boat, myself and Herbert Newell, who is on the list (of survivors)."

Early the next morning, at about 1:30 a.m., the heavily armed Guyanese Defense Force descended on the Cudjo. Gieg and Newell were arrested, interrogated and put in a small "shack" that served as a jail.

"When we first got interrogated by the constable, they said there has been a mass suicide at Jonestown. We were just crying and carrying on," Gieg said. "After he told us 'everybody is dead in Jonestown,' he put us back into the cell and we were bawling like kids, you know. There were probably 10 people consoling us outside of this jail."

STANLEY'S FATE IS SEALED

With few exceptions, everyone in Jonestown was dead by poison or bullets - including Gieg's cousin, his wife and their 3-year-old baby.

Leo Ryan and three journalists had been murdered by Jonestown gunmen at the Port Kaituma airstrip while attempting to leave with disenchanted church members.

Stanley Gieg had driven a tractor towing the gunmen to the airstrip. He was among the dead at Jonestown. He'd been shot, Gieg said.

Stanley wouldn't have had a choice, he said, and wouldn't have liked what happened.

Gieg has run through the scenario a thousand times in his mind.

"I've lived it so many times and in so many different ways. I wasn't there. I can only imagine, but knowing my brother forever, I bet you he was bawling like a school girl. I know he had a sensitive side, but he always had a hard shell. He was something else," Gieg said. "After that happened, I'm sure he was crying. After he got back to Jonestown, he was murdered. He probably tried to run or something. He had some morals. I bet you he was bawling after realizing what was going on. Yeah, he was hard-assed, his exoskeleton. But he was like breaking an egg."

THE AFTERMATH

After a couple of days, Gieg and Newell were escorted to a church compound in Georgetown and kept under house arrest with other survivors. Weeks later, they were allowed to go to a local hotel, where Gieg's father had sent money for a ticket home.

He came back to the States on a plane filled with police. An army of television and newspaper cameras blinded him from inside the airport terminal. He and other survivors were escorted into waiting Winnebagos for strip searches and interrogations with federal officials.

They asked about the guns and about Jones.

"Just about the whole involvement. Everything," Gieg said. "I was just an innocent kid. I was duped. I believed Jones could raise the dead, heal the sick, you know, make the blind see. Yeah, that he could see the future. He would say, 'I am the I am,' you know, that he was God."

Gieg rejoined his father in Reno, wearing only a South American warm-weather shirt. He remembers a woman loaned him a coat. He was adrift. His father gave him a job and served as a crutch. For years, he was afraid that People's Temple members would come to kill him. The "family" he had known was all but gone.

"It was all we had," Gieg said. "It was everybody I ever knew. Everybody I had ever communicated with suddenly died."

Stanley's body was brought back to the States, where he was cremated and buried at sea. The family never held a memorial.

"He's not buried at the mass grave in Oakland," Gieg said. "I've been hounded to come over there, but I'm not interested. There's a lot of people I don't want to see. They should be dead, instead of some of the kids. They deserved a future. Even me at 18, I lived a partial life."

LIFE AFTER DEATH

Gieg moved to Boise, Idaho, 19 years ago. He won't discuss the circumstances. He's worked as a cabinet-maker for years. He's been married twice more. He lives in a humble, orderly home in Southeast Boise. He drinks beer. He's in physical and emotional pain, saying he "destroyed" his body with hard physical labor in Jonestown.

The feds took his passport, and he never got another one. He still likes rice.

Until now, he's kept his past mostly to himself, in part to appease his mother, who feels guilty about Gieg's suffering and Stanley's death. He cringes when he hears people joke about "drinking the Kool-Aid." He's tried, unsuccessfully, to put his past behind him.

"It seems like yesterday. Thirty years is a long time, I know. But some of the things I see in my mind," Gieg said. "It will never change. My memory is not going to deteriorate. It's like it happened yesterday. The good times and the bad times, the people. Oh yeah, I remember. I was there."

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