GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — Thirty-five years ago Monday, nearly 1,000 Americans died as a part of the infamous Jonestown massacre in Guyana. Eleven survivors got out of the compound that morning and one of the survivors, who now lives in Duluth, spoke about her story of survival three decades later.
"This voice came to me and said 'If you don't go, you'll never see your child again.' That's how I got to Jonestown," Leslie Wagner-Wilson told Channel 2's Erin Coleman.
Wagner-Wilson said she was indoctrinated in the People's Temple, led by Jim Jones, when she was a child growing up in California. She was part of the church, but started to have doubts. That's when her family, including her husband and their young son, moved with the rest of the church members to Guyana in the late 1970s. Two months, later she went, too.
"Jim separated the nuclear family. The cause and he were center to everything, and so your family didn't mean anything to you. It was the cause and him," she explained.
In Guyana, Wagner-Wilson said followers were starved, beaten, forced to work all day, and held prisoner in the compound, fearful to speak out.
"Anybody who went against Jim threats of leaving they were put in this extensive care unit and they were shot up with
Thorazine," she said.
So, she joined a group of defectors, planning their escape. And on the morning of the massacre, they got out by walking 30 miles through the jungle to safety.
"I remember shaking so badly and I had my son tied with a sheet to my back and I was waiting for a bullet. I said, 'We're not going to make it," Wagner-Wilson said.
It wasn't until days later, she and the others learned that 918 Americans died; the vast majority ordered by Jones to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the largest ritual suicide in history. Nine members of Wilson's family were killed on Nov. 18, 1978.
"I lost my mother Inez, who was 50, my sister Michelle, my brother Mark, my niece Danielle, my nephew Duron, and my husband Joe Wilson and a host of people I grew up with since the age of 13," she said.
Wagner-Wilson said she had no idea what was going to happen. The plan all along was to go to the
U.S. Embassy, then return to get the others out. She dealt with survivor's guilt.
"I lived with that for years. Did they think I left them and I knew? Did they think I left them and I
knew? It took me a long time to come to grips with that," she said.
But now, she
said she wants to make sure no one forgets the lives lost, or the lesson.
Wilson said Jonestown "was a horrific tragedy but definitely a lesson in what we need to not do anymore."