Maui man, survivor of Jonestown, speaks out about mass murder-suicide
He called it a dream. They called it utopia.
Vernon Gosney was 25 years old when he arrived in Jonestown with his 5-year-old son.
But Gosney would soon realize what so many others did not: Jonestown would not save them. Jonestown would end them.
"How very much I've loved you. How very much I've tried to give you the good life," came the cracked voice of Jim Jones.
Nov. 18, 1978.
Through the crackling sounds of an old audio tape, you hear a haunting voice, as if in a trance.
It was Jim Jones, the man who called himself "God," drawing his followers to their final moments.
"We've been so betrayed. We have been so terribly betrayed," he tells them.
"This is Kuan Yin. She's the goddess of compassion and mercy," began Vernon Gosney in his Maui home.
"In order to be free I had to forgive him. I had to forgive the unforgivable," he said.
Lifted by the spirits on his walls, documented in the pages of his album, Gosney relieved the past.
"Welcome to Jonestown," he said, showing KITV reporter Lara Yamada a picture of the entrance to a plot of jungle land.
From the People's Temple in San Francisco to the jungles of Guyana in South America, he said they came by the bus loads, following Jones' simple message of equality, love, peace, and happiness
"There's a sense of cohesiveness, closeness," began Jones in an undated interview in what became known as "Jonestown."
"We started with about 141 people and from that we've grown to a very thriving congregation of a few thousand," he continued.
"It started with a dream, but then, things start to go wrong," said Gosney.
Gosney said despite the lush green surrounding them, homes built by their hands, fresh water was miles away, the soil was poor, and that dream began to die.
"There are a lot of things I wish I could have gone back and done differently, but I can't. I can't take back the past," he said.
Just days before the day of reckoning, cut off from their families, U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan had come to investigate.
Gosney said despite a show of unity, it was he who revealed their suffering, in a written note that would accidentally end up in Jones' hands.
"It was great terror and fear. I never thought I was going to get out alive," he said.
Several tried to leave that day, reaching a small plane on a dirt airstrip, but Jones' supporters would follow, killing Ryan and four others.
Gosney, shot three times in the stomach, would escape to the jungle and survive.
But he was unaware who would not.
"For god sakes let's get on with it. We've lived, we've lived as no other people have lived and loved, we've had as much of this world as you're going to get. Let's just be done with it," Jones could be heard saying on that audio tape. He had already told his congregation Ryan and others had been shot. It would only be moments later when they would begin to die.
"There's not a day that I don't think about my son," said Gosney.
In the aftermath, more than 900 lay dead from cyanide poisoning, including Gosney's five year old son Mark.
"This is where I came to heal, with the mana of the land, the spirit. All the people that I've met here, I've been embraced here," said Gosney, walking down a stretch of beach in Kihei.
He moved to Maui in 1982 following a spiritual group that eventually fell apart, but it led him to the place that would eventually heal his heart and mind.
"These are my love birds. There's a certain squawk when they call to other birds," he explained, walking through an enclosed porch attached to his apartment.
Today, he is surrounded by beauty, successful in therapy and happily retired after 30 years on Maui's police force.
"It's been a very, long journey," he said.
Decades after Jonestown, he said he's finally created the light to conquer the darkness of his past.
"I don't deserve to be here anymore than anybody else, but I am. So, there's this incredible grace that I live with, that I'm not able to understand it, but I'm grateful for," he said.
Gosney has been holding talks with students at Hawaii Pacific University, sharing his story, and helping them understand a dark part of America's past.
He said he hopes to keep working with young people to prevent another Jonestown from ever happening again.
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