Parks family carries on 35 years after Jonestown

Local family lost Patricia Parks as members of Jim Jones’ infamous cult drank poisoned Kool-Aid.

Nothing at Patricia L. Parks’ Ferncliff Cemetery grave site mentions Jonestown, Guyana, the Rev. Jim Jones or the cult of the Peoples Temple.

But on this day 35 years ago, Parks’ shooting death was among the first of a cascade of homicides and suicides that killed nearly 900 members of Peoples Temple members at its overseas jungle plantation.

Even those born well after the event know the chilling method by which so many went to their deaths through our culture’s most vivid warning against mindless conformity: “Drinking the Kool-Aid.”

Parks’ grave is a reminder that the man who mixed it set foot here on his way to infamy.

Parks’ widowed husband, Jerry, first met Jim Jones in the 1950s when the evangelist came to preach at South Charleston’s United Holiness Temple, which Parks’ grandfather had built.

Twenty-one to Jones’ 23 at the time, Mr. Parks said Jones “seemed like an OK guy. He was real friendly. He cracked jokes and was a very charismatic, intelligent man.”

Based in Indianapolis, Jones would preach at South Charleston and Columbus. During one visit, as he preached, he walked over to the piano Mr. Parks was playing and invited him to speak at the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, “which I did,” Mr. Parks said.

Like his ministry of the time, Jones’ charisma seemed genuine.

“You actually felt like you were in the presence of special man,” said Mr. Parks. “That’s kind of what drew you to him.”

It was when Jones’ charisma drew the Parks family to California that William Chaffin, Patty Parks’ brother and Jerry’s brother-in-law, started to worry.

“According to him, the world was going to have a great nuclear war, and God told him this won called Ukiah in California is down in a valley and they would be protected there,” Chaffin said.

Patty Parks “really believed that,” he added.

“My remembrance is that her husband didn’t want to go.”

After the Parks family gave up running the Lawson’s store near Community Hospital and went west, Chaffin wrote to his sister about his concerns.

“She wrote back and told me it wasn’t any of my business,” he said. “She’d never been so happy.”

Confessed Mr. Parks, “We swallowed it hook, line and sinker.”

The Parkses took along daughter Brenda, son Dale, and baby girl Tracy, who was just six weeks when they relocated.

Now 47, Tracy Parks Diaz has some happy memories from her childhood, but none associated with church.

“That’s the crazy part,” she said. “I would sit as a child in those church meetings and look around at those adults (including lawyers and doctors) thinking: What the heck are you guys doing? You think this is OK?”

When Mr. Parks came back to Ohio for a time, “Jones sent word by Mom that if I didn’t come to California and be near him, I was going to die,” he said.

What seems so striking to Mr. Parks now is that he returned, though it was to his family as well as to Jones. In addition to turning over 25 percent of the family’s annual income to Jones, when Jones needed money for the People’s Temple move to Guyana, the family sold its house and gave him the $16,000.

It didn’t take long after his family arrived in Guyana in April of 1978 that Parks discovered Jones’ descent into brutality and sexual exploitation, including liaisons with married women in the temple, then with men as well.

On his second day there, after saying he wanted to return to the United States, Mr. Parks was called up to the stage at an evening meeting and beaten in front of the whole community.

It was just one aspect of a life daughter Tracy, who was 11 when the family arrived, likens to hell:

“I was in school from 8 a.m. until noon and then straight to the fields to work.”

A full afternoon of that was done in time to “run to the shower (to) stand in line to eat rice and greens with bugs in it.

“Then (it was) off to the pavilion to listen to that nut scream and yell until 2 or 3 a.m. — all to turn around and do it all over again.”

She remembers, too, the suicide drills Jones conducted so that Peoples Temple members would be prepared to act when the United States government came after them.

“It was a constant state of fear,” Diaz said. “I was living like I was going to die.”

It was when California Congressman Leo Ryan stopped in Jonestown to check out the reports given by defectors that the imprisonment ended and the reign of death began.

Mr. Parks, who had been planning an escape, saw Ryan’s visit, in which he was accompanied by an NBC News crew, as his only opportunity.

Although Ryan tried to arrange transportation for the Parkses and all those interested in leaving, Jones loyalists were not going to let anyone escape. Their paranoid leader thought any message taken to the outside world would bring his dreaded enemy, the United States, down on him.

The Parks family did board a truck taking them back to the airfield. On the ride there, Mr. Parks remembers his wife was “scared to death,” Mr. Parks said of his wife.

Ill, malnourished and down to 111 pounds, “she knew something was going to happen, and she said ‘Please take care of Tracy,’” her husband recalled.

Something indeed happened. Jones loyalist Larry Layton went along, took up a rifle hidden at the edge of the airstrip and started firing at two airplanes waiting to depart.

Although their plan to kill everyone fell apart, Jones loyalists killed Ryan, the NBC news crew and Patricia Parks.

Sitting in the doorway of a plane disabled by gunfire, Mrs. Parks was shot, her husband said, “and her whole skull and brains blew up on (their older daughter) Brenda’s back.”

Layton fired at brother Dale’s chest, but the slug didn’t come out, and Dale wrestled the gun away.

Brenda fled with her stained shirt, her sister Tracy, and three other children into the jungle growth at the edge of the airstrip.

“On the third day, we were so sick, we were ready to die,” Tracy Diaz said. “I was begging the Lord to take me.”

But sister Brenda, then 18, heard what she thought was music, but later turned out to be generator. To the sound she goaded her lost group, though fatigued to the point of hallucinating, to safety.

“She was wounded real bad,” father Jerry said. “She’s the one that saved them in the jungle. Her mother’s brains were on her back. She lived with that three days and three nights in the jungle, the smell on her.”

In the confusing investigation and identification of remains that followed, the Parks family was delayed in Guyana, and relatives here called on Uncle George Ingling, a South Charleston funeral director, to retrieve Patricia’s remains from Dover Air Force Base, Del., and bring it to South Charleston for a service, then burial.

Diaz said that for years, her lasting memory of her mother was of a body with its head largely destroyed on the air strip at Jonestown.

“I never, ever got to say goodbye. When we were found, she had already been shipped in Georgetown (Guyana). So I didn’t get to see her or nothing. Nobody took me to the grave. Nobody took me to the funeral. I didn’t get that proper closure.”

It was closure that came only five years ago when Diaz, the youngest survivor of Jonestown, persuaded a CNBC producer doing a documentary 30 years after Jonestown to take her to the scene of the crime.

Upon her return, she told Bob Burgess, a reporter for the Daily Journal in Ukiah, Calif.: “I feel I can fly.”

On the way home, she made her first visit as an adult to her mother’s grave in Ferncliff Cemetery, decorating it with flowers and telling her what she constantly reminds her father as he wrestles with his guilt over exposing his family to Jones.

“I felt loved as a child,” Diaz said.

In moments out of Jones’ control, “we did a lot of normal stuff,” she added.

“I knew my dad didn’t want to be in that church. I knew it as a child.”

At 80, Mr. Parks says “it helps to hear them say that. But the memory’s still there. It never goes away. I have to do the best I can to put it behind me. And I will until the day I die. I will not let it beat me, because if I do, Jones wins.”

Diaz takes pride in how well she’s done: running a preschool daycare in her home for 22 years; raising two daughters now in their early 20s; and enjoying life with three granddaughters and a set of twins on the way.

She plans to be in Oakland, Calif., today to attend her first of the annual events remembering the Jonestown victims and survivors.

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