Jonestown's Medicine Man

A young Houston physician designed a lethal cocktail that killed more than 900 men, women, children and babies at a place that was supposed to be a paradise but is better known as Jonestown.

Jonestown's Medicine Man

I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.

— The Hippocratic Oath

Body I-054, a white male, was decomposed, and the face partially skeletonized, by the time of the autopsy on December 15, 1978.

Survivors say Schacht credited Jones with turning his life around by sending him to medical school.
Peoples Temple Collection, California Historical Society, MSP 3800.35.0822
Survivors say Schacht credited Jones with turning his life around by sending him to medical school.
Larry Schacht (center) told Jim Jones (right) he wanted to first test the cyanide on one of Jonestown's pigs.
Peoples Temple Collection, California Historical Society, PC 010.07.0740
Larry Schacht (center) told Jim Jones (right) he wanted to first test the cyanide on one of Jonestown's pigs.
Children were the first to be forced to drink Larry Schacht's infamous potion, which was mixed in a battered vat. More than 270 kids ages 16 and under were killed.
AP Photo/Frank Johnston, Pool
Children were the first to be forced to drink Larry Schacht's infamous potion, which was mixed in a battered vat. More than 270 kids ages 16 and under were killed.

Laurence Eugene Schacht, date of birth October 2, 1948, had been dead for one month. His body was one of more than 900 found spread among the grounds of a commune in Guyana in South America.

The corpse reeked of formaldehyde used in the embalming process that occurred before it was shipped via C-141 from Guyana to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. It was clad in a short-sleeved green shirt, light green undershirt, heavy brown pants and brown socks tucked into black oxfords. Wrapped around the left foot was a tag labeled LARRY SHATT. Someone somewhere got the last name wrong.

The body was one of seven the U.S. Department of Justice selected for autopsy; there were simply too many for them all to be examined. Besides, both Guyanese and American investigators believed that the evidence, like the bodies, lay out in the open: An old brown vat in the compound's pavilion contained a purplish solution of diphenhydramine and Flavor-Aid. According to the autopsies conducted on the seven bodies, no cyanide was detected in the vat. The forensic pathologists noted that this was not unexpected: The solution was too acidic. But it had definitely been in there: Scattered around the vat were bottles of cyanide salt and syringes, some without needles, containing the poison.

Schacht's father, Ezra, an electrical engineer living in Houston, signed off on the government's request. Ezra and the rest of the Schachts — mother Mona, older brother Danny, younger sister Paula — had waited for days to learn whether Schacht's was even one of the bodies found in Guyana. In that time, the family endured a barrage of media reports quoting survivors who said Schacht — the compound's sole physician — was a willing executioner, the man who had designed the deadly cocktail that nurses sprayed into the mouths of screaming, squirming ­children.

Just as in the vat, no cyanide was detected in Schacht's tissues. Again, this was not surprising: Schacht's organs putrefied under the tropical sun for five days before his corpse was refrigerated. Embalming would have severely diluted or vanquished any remaining traces.

Therefore, the forensic pathologists could only label the cause of death as "probable" acute cyanide poisoning. The manner of death was trickier. The presence of poison at the compound was one thing; why 900 people would ingest it was almost beyond comprehension.

The pathologists wrote: "Because of the bizarre circumstances surrounding this death and the lack of any information about self-­intent or possible coercion, it is not possible to form a conclusion as to manner of death; hence: Undetermined."

"Undetermined" might be an apt descriptor for how Schacht, a middle-class, well-educated Jewish man from Houston, wound up in a secluded jungle compound, researching the most effective ways to slaughter men, women and children, in the first place. How did such an obscure person, a former meth addict barely 30, help orchestrate the worst mass killing of Americans by other Americans since the Civil War?

As the 35th anniversary of the Jonestown tragedy approaches, the story of the deaths is still being told; one book, released in 2011, includes information culled from FBI records that were released only in 2009 after a lengthy lawsuit filed by a woman (and her husband) whose sisters and nephew died in Jonestown. Another book, based on extensive interviews with survivors, is slated for March. Books and documentaries released in the past seven years have attempted to correct myths and errors, of which there are many. But some questions — like the ones about Schacht's life and death — may never be ­answered.

To answer your question, "How am I dealing with living with uncertainty," I am not sure, but can see that it is really the healthiest way to live. Will think about it more."

Larry Schacht, letter to Jim Jones, October 6, 1978
_____________________

Approximately three months before he wound up on a slab in Delaware, in the summer of 1978, Larry Schacht stood in the pavilion of the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project and spoke into a microphone about his willingness to die.

He speaks evenly, but with conviction: "We've had to face the threat of being taken over by fascists and not being able to live our humanitarian lifestyle where we have eliminated ageism and sexism...Defectors have gone out and traitors have continually poured out lies against us."

In this suicide drill, he speaks as if he believes what he's saying, even though, on a base level, he had to know every word was a lie.

This compound in the middle of nowhere — six miles of undeveloped road from a shantytown and airstrip, and 150 miles from the capital city of Georgetown — was supposed to be paradise. Jones called it The Promised Land. Soon, everyone was calling it Jonestown.

It was not ready for the roughly 600 people who migrated from Peoples Temple churches in San Francisco and Los Angeles within the previous year. Each individual or family was supposed to have his or their own cottage; the gardens were supposed to yield lush tropical fruit. Clearing of the land began in 1973. Peoples Temple members back in the States were updated through letters and taped interviews with their loved ones that were shown in the California congregations.

Peoples Temple had long since ceased being a church in the traditional sense; for years, Jones told his congregation that the only thing the pages of the Bible were good for was toilet paper. Peoples Temple was a sociopolitical organization, and in the Bay Area, Jones was a revered liberal leader.

But increased media scrutiny, including a series in The San Francisco Examiner and a 1977 investigative piece in the magazine New West, based on interviews with defectors, told the tale of a delusional, paranoid madman who abused and exploited his flock. At the same time, Jones was embroiled in a convoluted child-custody battle with two high-ranking defectors. Fueled by paranoia and an increasing dependence on barbiturates, Jones wanted to leave the States, and he wanted to take as many followers as he could with him.

Although the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project was supposed to be a shining example of a socialist society, there was a power elite, and as the community's only doctor, Schacht was part of it. He had a respiratory therapist and a few nurses to help him, but for the most part, Schacht alone was responsible for the well-being of nearly 1,000 people, from infants to the elderly.

Meanwhile, Jones was the community's conduit to news from the States; the compound's residents were cut off from the world. Incoming and outgoing mail was censored or altogether trashed. Loudspeakers blared Jones's interpretation of world events, tales of government oppression and race wars and a society rotting from the inside out. The addresses ranged from exaggerations to outright ­fabrications.

In one such public address, from May 1978, Jones describes a bloody Hispanic uprising in Houston — an "absolute revolution...killing some 17 police. Houston is really rocking and reeling from the resistance of the...Spanish-speaking, the Chicano population."

At any time, Jones warned, everyone in the community was subject to a fascist invasion and must be willing to commit "revolutionary suicide."

People who showed signs of hesitancy, and even those who were late to meetings, were subject to a variety of punishments, including time in "The Box," a six-foot-by-four-foot underground locker. Persistent violators were isolated in a cabin called The Extended Care Unit, where they were plied with Thorazine, either intravenously or in specially prepared meals.

This was the kind of society Schacht was willing to lay down his life for, or at least that's what he says in the recording from the summer 1978 meeting where residents pledge to give their lives.

"And we've decided to take our lives, and I've decided to take my life, because we can't...give to the world what we really want to give," he says. "We really want to give what we are, the way we work here together, the cooperative Marxist-Leninist communist lifestyle we live and uphold, we can't...give to the world what we really want to give."

It is highly unlikely that anyone outside of Jones's inner circle knew that by this point, the idea of "revolutionary suicide" was not just philosophical, and not even suicide. Despite Schacht's sanctimony, he had already been tasked by Jones with finding the best method to kill everyone in the community­.

"I need a good book on forensic medicine — tells many different ways people are actually killed," Schacht wrote in a letter to Jones around the time of this suicide drill. "I recall seeing a book in the States with color photographs."

I do not trust myself, I've seen too many "white" Jews, educated scum, hauty, narcissitic, weak bastards not to fear that very same pattern in myself [sic].

— Larry Schacht, letter to Jim Jones, undated (likely July 1978)
_____________________

Larry Schacht grew up in a house where he learned that being different and outspoken has real consequences.

Ezra and Mona Schacht were communist, antiwar Jews living in Houston in the 1960s; they practically rolled out the red carpet for whoever it was who burned a cross on their lawn and fired buckshot at their house.

A Peoples Temple member who knew Schacht would tell federal agents in 1978 that Schacht told him that he was "motivated in his cause primarily because his parents had been harassed when he was a child since they were Jewish and that his parents were very pro-integration." But it wasn't just bigots the Schachts had to deal with; it was the government.

The Schachts were on the government's radar as early as December 1963, when Ezra's and Mona's names popped up in a U.S. Secret Service memo generated during the investigation of the Kennedy assassination.

"Mona Schacht is an official in the State communist party and considered the top ranking communist in the Houston area," the memo states. Secret service spooks also saw Mona and Ezra speak at a March 1962 "Picnic for Peace" in Austin's Zilker Park, an apparently suspicious event that also featured such potential enemies of the state as "a folk singer affiliated with leftist movement, and several members of the Young People Socialist League of Houston."

The Schachts' oldest son, Danny, was a member of the University of Houston's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. In December 1967, Danny acted in a bit of street theater outside the Armed Forces Induction Center. What the skit lacked in writing, it made up for in heavy-handedness: According to court records, Schacht and another man portrayed armed soldiers who opened fire on a third actor portraying a Viet Cong combatant with squirt guns loaded with red liquid. The kicker was the twist ending: After "killing" the enemy, Danny and his partner walked over to assess their kill, at which point they exclaimed, "My God, this is a pregnant woman!"

Because Danny Schacht wore an actual Army jacket and hat, he was charged with violating a federal law prohibiting the "unauthorized" use of a military uniform. In 1968, he was convicted and sentenced to the maximum penalty under the law, six months in prison. Danny appealed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. And won.

While Danny Schacht was fighting his legal battles, brother Larry was carving out a similar antiestablishment path.

A friend of Larry Schacht's from that time, who asked that her name not be used, remembers that his reputation preceded him. Word was that Larry Schacht headed an SDS chapter at Lamar High. (Whether there was actually such a chapter, or if Schacht was the sole member, is unclear).

The woman (we'll call her Judy) was a student at Oak Forest who became disenchanted with what she saw as a materialistic culture.

The goal "was not to go out and make a whole lot of money so you can be better than somebody else...Your goal was that you wanted something to happen to society where...everybody was in harmony with one another and you could be accepted for who you are."

So when she first heard about Schacht, she thought, "Here was a person who was fighting for those principles...This was a person that cared about something besides just getting a job and becoming a banker...He was more interested in something besides material wealth."

Another friend from that time, Sherrie Tatum, wrote about Schacht in a work-in-progress posted on a Web site dedicated to Jonestown research.

"He always sounded so certain of everything, sure that he was right, that he spoke the truth," Tatum wrote. "As a young girl, I found this very reassuring. Others must have felt the same, since Larry was quite often the central focus of the loosely knit group of budding young political, artistic and poetic types that comprised his friends in Houston in the mid-'60s."

After weeks of hearing about Schacht, Judy finally got her chance to meet him at a party. Not even knowing what he looked like, she identified him instantly.

"The minute he walked in the door, I said, 'You're Larry Schacht.' And we were both stunned," she laughs.

They were of course fast friends. They spent days in Hermann Park, checking out museums, or getting high and listening to records in the garage apartment behind Schacht's house.

In Schacht's case, puffing on a joint was a somewhat remarkable activity, since he believed he was being monitored by federal agents.

Tatum recalls one late evening when the two of them were kissing and talking in a car parked on a quiet residential street. According to Tatum, Schacht pointed to the driver of a car parked down the block and chuckled, "That's my FBI agent who follows me everywhere."

Such an anecdote might seem apocryphal were it not for a December 1978 FBI memo making it clear that the smoking of weed by this particular Lamar High School junior was a subject of national concern: The 1978 memo references an existing FBI file on the Schacht family and notes that, as early as 1966, Houston G-men knew that Schacht enjoyed marijuana and LSD.

For Judy, such drugs, coupled with music, were a vehicle toward a higher understanding, not a means for escape. Or at least that's how she felt at the time. Now a born-again Christian, she says, "It was a lie. All of it. It's not spiritual."

Schacht might have figured this out sooner; for one thing, he started shooting methamphetamine, a decidedly unspiritual substance.

"I have always considered it a miracle that I left Texas..." Schacht wrote around August 1977. "I had done five years in the drug scene, and after 150 trips on psychedelic drugs and two years shooting speed, I was wasted."

The last time Judy remembers speaking to Schacht was in 1969, within a year of his departure to California. By that time, Judy had found Jesus Christ, and she tried to introduce him to Schacht.

"Larry called me and so I was trying to tell him about...the Lord," Judy says. "And he said that he had found something more ancient than Christ...I was hoping that I might be able to get together and talk about the salvation that had come to me, and, you know, get my head on straight...But he was taken away."

What took him away is unclear. But both Judy and Tatum remember Schacht as an outgoing, confident teenager before he started shooting meth. After that, he seemed to have lost his grip.

Danny Schacht and three of Larry Schacht's Houston friends contacted for this story declined to comment. But an FBI memo from the Jonestown investigation suggests that what lured Schacht to California was a cosmic call.

The memo indicates that a Peoples Temple member, whose name is redacted, told agents that "Schacht supposedly had a vision to come to California — and another vision which told him to go to Jim Jones."

I have always considered it a miracle that I left Texas, traveled to California, and heard Jim Jones speak my third day in that new state.

— Larry Schacht, affidavit in support of Jim Jones, August 1977
_____________________

When Jim Jones met Larry Schacht, he pulled a neat trick: He healed Schacht's body while simultaneously destroying his spirit.

Jones helped Schacht get clean and offered to pay for medical school. Then, according to an affidavit purportedly written by Schacht, Jones had sex with him. This was one of Jones's customs, a way to exercise complete control over his followers. Jones described these coerced encounters as a personal sacrifice on his part, as if the sex was purely for the benefit of the ­follower.

As in the cases of other church members who signed affidavits, the one bearing Schacht's name was likely heavily coached if not plain ghostwritten and is of dubious validity. Still, Schacht was willing to sign it, as it was intended to support Jones in his child-custody battle with two former church members.

It reads: "Jim Jones has always shown great love and concern for me. He permitted me to accept my bisexual nature by having sexual relations with me at my request before I went to medical school. He penetrated me in the anus." This in turn gave Schacht the confidence he needed to become a doctor and "fulfill my goal to be of service to suffering humanity in the medical profession." (How such an affidavit was supposed to help Jones's court case is clearly beyond ­explanation.)

In another FBI memo from December 1978, an unidentified former Peoples Temple member told agents that, upon first coming to a Temple service, "Schacht was quickly evaluated by Reverend Jones and members of [the] 'inner circle' as [an] extremely intelligent individual who demonstrated unstable, insecure emotional state. Schacht possessed dissatisfaction with 'state of things in general.' Schacht characterized as extremely rebellious personality...It was these personality flaws which prompted Jones to personally select Schacht to attend medical to serve Jones' and PT ends."

Bottom line: "Schacht characterized...as loner who was used as tool by Jones."

Former Peoples Temple Laura Johnston Kohl, who was at the PT's offices in Georgetown the night of the deaths, met Schacht at the church's northern California commune around 1970. She describes Schacht as being especially easy prey for Jones.

"Larry was really different because once he got [to the commune], he never really established close relationships with anyone. It's almost like he was kind of a recluse in the community." She adds, "There wasn't anybody else in Larry's life that was anywhere near as monumental as his relationship with Jim...there's not one friend that I can think of that Larry ever spent time with or hung around with."

In 1970, Schacht and a few other Peoples Temple members enrolled in Santa Rosa Junior College and moved into the dorms. Church member David Parker Wise had the bunk below Schacht's. Wise, who says he was one of the rare freethinkers in the church at the time, says Schacht was willing to overlook certain things about Jones out of a profound sense of gratitude.

"It was just more in his personality to be deeply grateful that anybody loved him or took him in, and he was capable of ignoring things that were wrong," Wise says. "He was just an extraordinarily sweet, nice guy."

Wise also picked up on a bit of his bunkmate's depressive streak. Schacht painted morose self-portraits, infusing his face with dark circles under the eyes and an exaggerated nose.

After two years at Santa Rosa, Schacht studied for a year at UC-Berkeley and another year in Guadalajara before being accepted into the medical school at UC-Irvine. In 1977, after graduating, he scored an internship at San Francisco General Hospital. Five weeks into it, Schacht was called to Jonestown.

Schacht didn't explain his sudden departure to the staff; he didn't even clean out his locker. But a hospital secretary would later tell The San Francisco Examiner that, right after Schacht left, she received a phone call from a woman named Sharon Amos.

"This is Larry's sister, and our father is ill," the secretary recalled Amos saying. Everyone at the hospital assumed it to be a family emergency. In fact, Amos was a high-ranking Peoples Temple member. According to the article, she came to the hospital to clean out Schacht's locker and collect the paychecks that Schacht had never bothered to pick up during his brief time there.

Although he was at San Francisco General for only a brief time, Schacht apparently made a positive impression. A staff supervisor at the hospital told The New York Times after the Jonestown deaths that Schacht "was a very intense young man with a tremendous concern for people."

Schacht had been proud enough of that internship to immediately write to his sister and mother, who had moved from Houston to New York City.

In her reply, Mona Schacht wrote, "Congratulations and may your future be full of good news always." The kudos may have been slightly diminished by the fact that Mona got her youngest son's middle name wrong on the envelope. It was addressed to Lawrence Jay Schacht.

It was his brother Danny's middle name.

Sex is a key issue + I know I really haven't faced it. The fact that I was nothing before you found me is not thought of enough. I want to even it up.

— Larry Schacht, undated letter to Jim Jones
_____________________

The speed of Schacht's descent into contempt for himself and intolerance of others in his 16 months in Guyana is astonishing.

Crawling out of a brain-frying meth addiction and into a respectable hospital internship was a platform for pride. Here's what's not: Sticking a mentally unbalanced, inexperienced intern into the depths of a jungle compound where he is responsible for the medical needs of 1,000 people who aren't allowed to leave without the express consent of a drug-addled lunatic.

In the beginning, Schacht might have been as naively optimistic as anyone about the experiment in utopian ideals that was the Peoples Temple Agricultural ­Project.

A person reading the Project's Summer 1977 Progress Report might be impressed by the community's classrooms, the sawmill, the gardens, the piggery, the chicken coop and the cottages. Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham apparently was; the booklet includes a photo of the smiling official standing next to an equally happy Jim Jones.

The booklet boasts of a developing medical clinic featuring a doctor "and two licensed medical practitioners, one in neuro-surgical specialty, and the other in pediatrics," which was simply not true.

Also, while Schacht may have been licensed in the United States, he had no license in Guyana, which is something that wiped the smile off Prime Minister Burnham's face when he found out. The government would have been happy to grant a license to Schacht if he had followed protocol and fulfilled a one-year internship in Georgetown, but Jones didn't want the young doctor out of his sight. Schacht was forced to make up for this lack of real-time training by listening to Sunday-morning lectures conducted by a network of medical professionals around the world who gathered via ham radio.

Based on an interview author Julia Scheeres conducted with one of the network's doctors for her book A Thousand Lives, "Schacht's questions were so simplistic — about basic procedures to set broken bones or treat skin rashes — that the [network] members were surprised to learn he was a practicing physician."

Leslie Wagner-Wilson, who escaped from Jonestown the morning of the massacre, was a nurse in the medical department. The 21-year-old, who aspired to be an ob-gyn, arrived in Guyana around the same time as Schacht and saw him unravel under the demands of his job.

At first, Wagner-Wilson recalls, Schacht was "lighter in his spirit and more open." But he grew troubled enough to complain to Wagner-Wilson about Jones, which was a major infraction — residents were told to rat on anyone who complained or made overtures about leaving.

"One situation that really had me concerned about him, because he started getting really tired [and] really, really upset. He said he had been at Jim's house all night, and, you know, he was sick and tired of it. And then he kind of stopped himself...for him to even speak that, he was taking a chance."

Unbeknownst to Wagner-Wilson, Schacht found her attractive, which may have added to the doctor's stress. His letters to Jones during his time in Guyana show a man almost completely overcome with sexual frustration.

Annie Moore, Jones's personal nurse (and the person believed to be responsible for shooting Jim Jones in the head before shooting herself), picked up on Schacht's pent-up urges and relayed her complete annoyance in an undated letter to Jones.

"He told me he was still hung up on sex and relationships...He has done this before, but I never thought of him as coming on to me, probably because I don't wish for him to. I told him if he wanted to fuck, he should clear it with you...and I'm sure you would OK it. Then he would get it out of his system. Then he said that maybe he didn't really want to, that he was not agressive, so he never made much headway with people [sic]."

Moore writes that, contrary to what Wagner-Wilson says, it was Schacht who was always pestering Jones for sex, which suggests that either Schacht was lying to Moore or Moore was lying to Jones.

Although Moore found the doctor repulsive, and while she "personally [felt] the urge to kill him most of the time," Moore told Jones that, if necessary, she'd be willing to have weekly sex with him so that "maybe I could line him with care & all the ego building he needs."

Although the "Letters to Dad" were mandatory, and although each person was expected to confess to sins real or imagined, there is an especially miserable streak in Schacht's letters. Instead of generally beating himself up in a paragraph or two, he tends to write page after page about what a terrible person he is and how he doesn't deserve to be called "Doctor."

Meanwhile, according to newspaper accounts in the wake of the deaths, Schacht had been writing letters to family and friends describing a heaven on Earth.

According to a New York Times story, "His letters spoke of his happiness at having recently married one of the Jones followers" and adopting four children.

Wagner-Wilson says Schacht grew increasingly insensitive toward his patients, and, ultimately, "He started to be really...sadistic. He took on the same form as Jim, I think, in a lot of ways."

She stresses, "It's hard to talk about someone who's dead that played such a major part. Because you want to show the compassionate side of them — because it was there."

The last time Wagner-Wilson saw Schacht was November 17, 1978, the day before the deaths. She and a friend were sitting on the pharmacy steps, "and I remember him coming out of the office with a really concerned look on his face, very intense. And that's the last I remember of him."

The next morning, Wagner-Wilson and ten others escaped into the jungle, pushing their way through 30 miles to a military outpost and freedom. Strapped to her back was her three-year-old son, Jakari — Jonestown's youngest survivor.

Symptoms of cyanide poisoning are Increase of respiratory rate at first and then depression, blue color, Headache, loss of consciousness, asphyxia and seizures which precede death (often). [sic]

— Larry Schacht, undated memo to Jim Jones (likely May 1978).
_____________________

The one area in which Schacht seemed to have found real purpose and direction was plotting the deaths of every man, woman and child in Jonestown, including ­himself.

Only those in the inner circle knew that Jones was planning a real "revolutionary suicide" months before the November visit of U.S. Representative Leo Ryan, whose subsequent murder by Peoples Temple members at the Port Kaituma airstrip triggered the Jonestown deaths.

Schacht's responsibility was perhaps the most important: finding the best way to kill ­everyone.

In a January 1978 letter to Jones, Schacht explains that "there is a good chance I can develop germicidal means. Botulism + staphylocci [sic] in process now." He's also aware of the fear and panic it could incite, and is thinking of ways to minimize such complications. He's confident, ­proactive.

"I am quite capable of organizing the suicide aspect + will follow through + try to convey concern + warmth throughout the ordeal."

At the same time, a nurse named Phyllis Chaiken was offering her thoughts on the same subject. In an undated letter to Jones, she suggests dispatching armed guards to round up everyone in the pavilion. The next step would be to call random names. Then, one by one, each individual would be escorted away from the pavilion and shot in the head.

"If Larry does not believe they are definitely dead, their throat [would be] slit with a scalpel...The bodies would be thrown in a ditch." Like Schacht, Chaiken was mindful of the panic this might cause.

"It might be advisable to blindfold the people before going to the death place in that the blood and body remain[ing] on the ground might increase the agitation," she suggests.

Ultimately, Schacht's research paid off and he came up with what he thought to be the quickest, cleanest method: cyanide. His undated memo to Jones says it all.

"I had some misgivings about its effectiveness, but from further research I have gained more confidence in it, at least theoretically. I would like to give about two grams to a large pig to see how effective our batch is to be sure we don't get stuck with a disaster like would occur if we used thousands of pills to sedate the people and then the cyanide was not good enough to do the job."

He adds further down, "Cyanide may take up to three hours to kill, but usually [it] is within minutes." He requests a particular article on acute cyanide poisoning from a medical journal, and just in case anyone back in the States asked, "We could say that a child was brought in to our free medical clinic who had ingested rat poison containing cyanide and we want this article on the subject."

The scene, as reported in various news media and by government officials of Guyana, was said to be grotesque in the extreme.

— Autopsy of Larry Schacht, December 15, 1978
_____________________

There is no way of telling what went through Schacht's mind when he saw the words from his memo put into ­action.

His voice is not one of those identified on the infamous "death tape" that captures the administration of the poison to children. According to Odell Rhodes, one of the few survivors who actually witnessed the event, the residents were called to the pavilion and surrounded by armed guards. After it was made clear that everyone was going to die, the first to step forward was 24-year-old Ruletta Paul, carrying her 18-month-old son, Robert Jr.

Rhodes stated in a Guyana coroner's inquest that Paul "took a syringe filled with this brownish liquid and squirted it into the child's mouth; this said syringe had no needle. She took another syringe which also filled with this brownish liquid and squirted it in her own mouth."

Rhodes was standing by the table that held the vat and syringes, so he was close enough to Schacht that the doctor told him he needed a stethoscope from the nurses' office, apparently so he could later make sure that people were indeed dead. He may have started this process as soon as people collapsed, hence his being too occupied to be heard on the death tape.

One thing's for sure, though: Schacht would have known that an aide of Jones's was lying when she tried to reassure the parents who hesitated in coming up to the table after hearing the anguished screams of the first children to ingest the poison.

"They're not crying from pain," Maria Katsaris said over the children's wailing. "It's just a little bitter-tasting."

A similar lie came from Peoples Temple lawyer Mark Lane when, after the world heard the news, he was contacted by Ezra Schacht. Only this time it was meant as a token of mercy for a bewildered father. According to an FBI memo, Ezra "called Lane from Houston and asked...if Lane believed his son was a poisoner, adding that he (the father) was very shaken by the press coverage his son had received in Houston, Texas. Lane tried to put his son in the best possible light by advising Schacht's father that his son was possibly engaged in mercy killing to prevent more painful deaths in view of the presence of armed guards."

At the time, Schacht's fate was unknown; his body had not yet been identified. Danny Schacht, then 33, told the Associated Press that he doubted his brother would have killed ­himself.

"I don't see how a person who has invested so much time and effort in himself would be likely to throw it away," he was quoted as ­saying.

Apparently, Ezra had trouble seeing that as well. According to Jonestown researcher Fielding McGehee III, Ezra — ever distrustful of the government — believed the whole thing was a conspiracy. An exceptionally bright, detail-­oriented man, Ezra created a complex "triptych" mapping out what he believed was a CIA connection to ­Jonestown.

According to McGehee, Ezra remained convinced Jonestown was a conspiracy right through the time he was killed in a car accident in Kemah in 2010. He was 91.

His obituary in Houston's Jewish Herald-Voice stated that he was survived by his son, daughter and second wife. There is no mention of a son preceding him in death.

In a way, the absence of Ezra's youngest son from his memorial is fitting. After all, at the time of Larry Schacht's death, he was calling another man "father."

craig.malisow@houstonpress.com

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4 comments
Gorgo Aleksandr
Gorgo Aleksandr

I read this article last night, precisely. It is absolute madness what our ludacris beliefs can make us do =(

Judy Ohr
Judy Ohr

Stick to posting recipes! What a horror to relive that terrible time.

 
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