Ex-Examiners: Former reporter-editor recalls Jonestown, 1980s newsroom 

click to enlarge Tim Reiterman, a former reporter and editor for the San Francisco Examiner, traveled to Jonestown to cover the Peoples Temple in 1978. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Tim Reiterman, a former reporter and editor for the San Francisco Examiner, traveled to Jonestown to cover the Peoples Temple in 1978.

Before readers contacted news reporters via e-mail, online comments and Twitter, there was snail mail. And in the late 1970s, Tim Reiterman, a former reporter and editor for The San Francisco Examiner, received plenty of it.

"I remember getting a lot of very hostile, aggressive mail," recalled Reiterman, 67, who today works as a news editor for The Associated Press in San Francisco. "I filled my drawer with 'fan mail' from the Peoples Temple."

Yes, that Peoples Temple — the Bay Area cult led by the infamous Jim Jones from San Francisco to a makeshift village called Jonestown in the depths of the Guyana forest in South America. Reiterman was hired by The Examiner and assigned to investigate the Peoples Temple in 1977, around the time that Jones moved his followers to Guyana.

Long considered a political force in The City, public opinion of Jones had waned by the late 1970s following Reiterman's and other reporters' accounts of brutality within the Peoples Temple.

Reiterman recalled a story he wrote about the mysterious death of Bob Houston, a Temple member whose body was found in a Potrero Hill freight train yard. Houston was also a former student of teacher-turned-congressman Leo Ryan, who would later be murdered by followers of Jones.

"I wrote about [Houston's] life and death, and the Temple, and I think it was one of the occasions where they picketed The Examiner," Reiterman said. That's when the so-called "fan mail" began to flood the newsroom, he added.

Soon after the story about Houston was published in The Examiner, Ryan planned a trip to Jonestown to serve as a fact-finding mission for concerned relatives of Temple members. Reiterman, then 31, went too, along with Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, 27, and six other members of the media.

click to enlarge The Rev. Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, clasps a man at Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978 during Rep. Leo Ryan's visit. Hours later, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, who took this photo, and other media members were killed, along with Ryan, in an ambush at Port Kaituma, Guyana. - GREG ROBINSON/AP PHOTO
  • Greg Robinson/AP Photo
  • The Rev. Jim Jones, founder of the Peoples Temple, clasps a man at Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978 during Rep. Leo Ryan's visit. Hours later, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, who took this photo, and other media members were killed, along with Ryan, in an ambush at Port Kaituma, Guyana.

The trip in November 1978 ended in what was the largest single mass death of U.S. citizens until the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Ryan, three newsmen (including Robinson) and a defector were shot to death at a Guyana airstrip, and more than 900 Temple members died at Jonestown after drinking cyanide-laced juice. Reiterman was shot in the arm, but survived.

"None of it makes sense," Reiterman wrote from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, where he was flown for treatment after the massacre. The exclusive eyewitness account was published in The Examiner on Nov. 20, 1978, two days after the mass suicide and murder.

In that story, Reiterman wrote about the "emotional tug-of-war" at Jonestown as defectors announced they wanted to leave, and the angst of Jones to the point where he was "almost hunted-looking" prior to orchestrating the murders of Ryan, the newsmen and nearly everyone at Jonestown.

As men on a tractor trailer rolled toward the terminal shack where Reiterman and others were boarding a plane to leave Guyana, Reiterman turned to his colleague and said, "It looks like trouble." Reiterman wrote that Robinson, the Examiner photographer, continued shooting pictures — the last he would ever take.

"All these lives were wasted, and I don't know why," Reiterman concluded in his story. "I keep remembering what Jones had said in the pavilion. 'Destroyed,' he said, 'from within...'"

Reiterman went on to investigate Jonestown for The Examiner in the following years. In 1982, he published the book "Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People" with John Jacobs, another Examiner reporter.

"We had the complete support of the paper," Reiterman said of covering Jonestown after the massacre. "The entire staff was devoted to getting to the bottom of it."

Reiterman continued in-depth reporting for The Examiner in the 1980s, helping to form what would become the paper's iconic investigative unit with several other reporters.

"We had our own office right off the elevator. We undertook in-depth projects of all sorts," Reiterman said. "I tell people that some of the most fun that I've had as a reporter perhaps was at The Examiner when we had this team."

The investigative team covered everything from nuclear safety at Rancho Seco to a surge in illicit gun shops that operated out of homes and businesses in The City.

"We decided to show, for a sidebar, how easy it is to get a firearms license to sell guns. I applied for one and got it. We called it the dead-eye team, our gun shop," said Reiterman. "We operated our little gun shop and then did the story, closed it down, turned in our license and gave our guns to the cops."

After the story was published, the number of firearms dealers in San Francisco quickly plummeted from around 150 to two or three. Newspapers elsewhere in the U.S. were soon inspired to follow similar methodology in covering bogus gun dealers and a nationwide crackdown ensued.

"The Examiner was just a collection of really fine journalists, the sort of place where people had a lot of fun," Reiterman recalled. "I was a firm believer and the people there were firm believers in accountability journalism, keeping government honest, and looking closely at how well The City works or doesn't work.

"I think that's always been a hallmark of The Examiner, that spirit of keeping those in power honest."

About The Author

Laura Dudnick

Bio:
Laura Dudnick, a Bay Area native, covers education and planning for The San Francisco Examiner. She previously worked as a senior local editor for Patch.com, and as the San Mateo County bureau reporter and weekend editor for Bay City News Service.
Pin It
Favorite

Latest in 150th Anniversary

Monday, Nov 20, 2017

Videos

Most Popular Stories

© 2017 The San Francisco Examiner

Website powered by Foundation