Jonestown's Medicine Man

UPDATE September 16, 2014, 11:30 a.m.: Officials are seeking relatives of two Texas women whose ashes were among cremains discovered in a Delaware funeral home in August 2014 and identified as victims of the 1978 Jonestown massacre.

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.

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."

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow