The Witness

Bob Brown

Just as I walked out of a trop­i­cal fish shop on Mel­rose Avenue in Hol­ly­wood, a van plowed head-on into the grill of a small car right in front of me. This was in the late 70’s before car seats and airbags, so I expect­ed the worst as I ran over to the crash. A young moth­er sat behind the wheel of the car, bleed­ing from a deep gash to her fore­head. A lit­tle boy lay on the floor­board in front of the pas­sen­ger seat, cry­ing. I pulled the mom out, hand­ed her off to a woman stand­ing on the side­walk, and went back for the lit­tle boy. By that time a man wear­ing a kha­ki car­go jack­et had picked him up and car­ried him to a bus stop bench. The boy seemed stunned, but unin­jured. Oth­ers tend­ed to the dri­ver of the van, an elder­ly man, clutch­ing his chest. A fire engine and an ambu­lance arrived, and the res­cue work­ers took over.

I sat down on the bench to pull myself togeth­er. The man wear­ing the car­go jack­et sat next to me. We talked about the acci­dent. About all I remem­ber about our con­ver­sa­tion was that he men­tioned he was a cam­era man for NBC. After­wards, we went our sep­a­rate ways, and I for­got about him.

A few months lat­er, I was watch­ing the night­ly news when pho­tographs of four men appeared on the tele­vi­sion screen. One of them looked famil­iar. The reporter iden­ti­fied him as Bob Brown. When she said he was an NBC cam­era man, I rec­og­nized him as the man I had met at the acci­dent.

A hol­low place opened in the pit of my stom­ach as she report­ed that fol­low­ers of the cult leader, Jim Jones, had mur­dered the four men and that Brown had filmed his own exe­cu­tion.

In the fol­low­ing days, the press didn’t pro­vide much infor­ma­tion about Brown, focus­ing instead on the main char­ac­ters in the bizarre sto­ry that led to the mur­ders: Jim Jones and Con­gress­man Leo Ryan.

Jim Jones

Jones was an ordained Dis­ci­ples of Christ pas­tor. He found­ed the People’s Tem­ple in Indi­ana and even­tu­al­ly moved it to San Fran­cis­co. He attract­ed a nation­al audi­ence and gar­nered the sup­port of influ­en­tial Bay Area politi­cians, like Willie Brown and Har­vey Milk.

In the mid-70’s, he became delu­sion­al, announc­ing that he was the incar­na­tion of Jesus, Gand­hi, Bud­dha, and Vladimir Lenin, but thou­sands of his church mem­bers remained loy­al to him. In 1977, he moved the People’s Tem­ple to Guyana, a small coun­try on Brazil’s north­ern bor­der. By 1978, 1100 church mem­bers had fol­lowed him there to live in a set­tle­ment dubbed Jon­estown.

Rumors that Jones would not allow dis­senters to leave the set­tle­ment and alle­ga­tions of sex­u­al abuse and tor­ture soon reached rel­a­tives of the People’s Tem­ple con­gre­ga­tion. Frus­trat­ed that the State Depart­ment would not address these claims, a Bay Area Con­gress­man, Leo Ryan, put togeth­er a fact-find­ing team to go to Jon­estown. The group includ­ed Jack­ie Speier (then Ryan’s leg­isla­tive assis­tant, now a mem­ber of Con­gress), sev­er­al reporters, and an NBC cam­era crew led by Bob Brown.

Brown turned down the trip at first. His friends lat­er said he had a pre­mo­ni­tion that he would die there, but NBC per­suad­ed him to go.

Con­gress­man Leo Ryan

Fore­cast­ing the great risk posed by the trip didn’t require clair­voy­ance. Jones had built Jon­estown in a remote, iso­lat­ed area. The only way in was to fly a small plane from George­town, Guyana’s cap­i­tal, to a dirt airstrip near Port Kai­tu­ma, and then trav­el by truck through the jun­gle for an hour and a half. Jones’s loy­al­ists were heav­i­ly armed. Ryan’s del­e­ga­tion con­sist­ed of eigh­teen unarmed civil­ians with no secu­ri­ty detail.

Ryan’s par­ty arrived in Guyana on Novem­ber 14, but Jones wouldn’t allow them to vis­it the set­tle­ment until the 17th. The ten­sion between Jones and Ryan’s del­e­ga­tion is pal­pa­ble in that day’s video­taped scenes recov­ered from Brown’s cam­era after his mur­der. That after­noon, some­one slipped a note to Ryan: “Please help us get out of Jon­estown.” Fif­teen peo­ple even­tu­al­ly stepped for­ward to say they want­ed to leave. Ryan nego­ti­at­ed with Jones about their depar­ture, and he gave his con­sent reluc­tant­ly.

The next day, Ryan’s team and the defec­tors returned to the airstrip to board two small planes bound for George­town. One of the defec­tors turned out to be a plant. He pulled a gun and began shoot­ing at the oth­ers. At the same time, a truck sped onto the airstrip car­ry­ing rifle­men, who opened fire on every­one in Ryan’s par­ty.

Corpses beneath the plane

Brown stood at the tail of one of the planes when the shoot­ing began. He imme­di­ate­ly raised his cam­era and moved toward the gun­men. Reporter Ron Javers said, “I was knocked to the ground by a slug in the left shoul­der . . . Bob Brown stayed on his feet and kept film­ing even as the attack­ers advanced on him. . . He was incred­i­bly tena­cious.” They shot Brown in the thigh, and he fell to the ground, still tap­ing, as one of the rifle­men approached him and shot him in the face at point blank range. The video­tape recov­ered from his cam­era flick­ers and goes blank, pre­sum­ably at that moment.

Jack­ie Speier, wound­ed

Four oth­ers were killed, includ­ing Ryan. Ten were wound­ed. The sur­vivors played dead or ran into the jun­gle. The pilots fled in the air­planes, and the gun­men sped back to the set­tle­ment. The wound­ed, includ­ing Jack­ie Speier, who had been shot five times, had to wait 22 hours for help to arrive.

The after­noon of the attack, 909 Tem­ple peo­ple died clus­tered around Jonestown’s main pavil­ion. The FBI recov­ered an audio­tape of Jones telling them that hos­tile forces would take revenge for the mur­ders. Men will “para­chute in here on us . . . shoot some of our inno­cent babies . . . and tor­ture our chil­dren.” He con­vinced them to com­mit “rev­o­lu­tion­ary sui­cide” by drink­ing cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. The adults gave the Kool-Aid to 304 chil­dren and then drank it them­selves. Jones’s corpse was found wedged between two bod­ies, a gun­shot wound to his tem­ple, appar­ent­ly self-inflict­ed.

Mass Sui­cide

Most of the sub­se­quent cov­er­age con­cen­trat­ed on the mass sui­cide, Jones, and Ryan. Reports about Ryan’s mur­der some­times men­tioned Brown in pass­ing, but the press pub­lished very few details about his back­ground. All I could find was that he was 36 when he was killed, he’d been a TV reporter in LA before switch­ing to pho­to­jour­nal­ism, and he was known among his col­leagues for human inter­est sto­ries.

Eye wit­ness­es to his death are uni­form in their praise for his courage. Oth­ers ran away when the shoot­ing began, but he advanced on his mur­der­ers with­out hes­i­ta­tion, lens up. He had to know they would kill him, but he nev­er wavered. It seems clear he made a con­scious deci­sion to sac­ri­fice his life to make sure the world would know what took place on the airstrip that day.

Hon­ors were bestowed on him in the months fol­low­ing his death. NBC set up a dis­play about the mas­sacre in its New York offices that reads in part: “Show­ing extra­or­di­nary brav­ery, cam­era­man Bob Brown record­ed the attack, per­haps even the shot that killed him.” San Fran­cis­co State Uni­ver­si­ty estab­lished the Bob Brown Memo­r­i­al Schol­ar­ship for Jour­nal­ists. And Pres­i­dent Carter pre­sent­ed a posthu­mous ded­i­ca­tion to Brown and two oth­er press mem­bers at the 1979 Emmy Awards show. “It is no acci­dent,” he said, “that the root mean­ing of the word ‘mar­tyr’ is ‘to wit­ness’ . . . (T)hese men were our wit­ness­es.”

Short­ly after the trib­utes, Brown’s name and sto­ry fad­ed from pub­lic aware­ness. Today, almost no one knows who he is or what he did.

I’ve tried over the years to recall more about him, but I can bare­ly remem­ber him. You expe­ri­ence brief encoun­ters with thou­sands of peo­ple over a long life. Most of them fade from mem­o­ry with­in days, if not hours. This one seemed no dif­fer­ent. I met an ordi­nary guy on Mel­rose one day, friend­ly enough, but unre­mark­able.

Or so I thought at the time.