Jonestown survivor tells his story after 30 years

Tom Beikman
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Rich Van Wyk/Eyewitness News

Indianapolis - A local man who survived the Jonestown Massacre is telling his story thirty years later. On November 18, 1978, the world was shocked by the mass murder and suicides in Jonestown, Guyana.

The Reverend Jim Jones began his ministry in Indianapolis in 1955. The horror of Jonestown lives among the survivors and relatives of more than 900 dead men, women and children. - many of them infants.

Tom Beikman's mother and brother both appeared in televised video from Guyana.

"Yeah, both of them are dead," Beikman said.

Beikman's mother, Becky and his 11-year-old brother Ronald died in a ritual of suicide and murder led by Reverend Jim Jones. By pure luck, Tom survived and for the first time in 30 years, is speaking out.

"He (Jones) took a piece of your life. You never got it back. You never got to redo it," he said, fighting back tears.

Beikman grew up in Jim Jones' People's Temple. His family followed the preacher from Indianapolis to California and then the promised utopia of Jonestown, Guyana.

"It was no heaven on earth. Quite the contrary," he adds.

He remembers 18-hour work days for him, his father, Charles, and his mother. A meager, near-starvation diet and thoughts of escaping were dashed by armed guards and a jungle prison.

"You couldn't get out in the jungle because it was so thick. You got 10-12 feet in there, it was like you went from daylight to dark. You would get lost and die in there," he explained.

A broken arm saved his life.

Tom was away getting medical treatment when People's Temple gunmen killed Congressman Leo Ryan and three others as they tried to leave. It was the beginning of mass suicide and murder carried out by cyanide-laced grape drink and gunfire.

Beikman quietly admitted he knew how it would all end.

"Yes I did, yes I did," he said.

Becky Beikman's body was eventually flown back to Indianapolis. The body of young Ronald was never identified and is buried in a mass grave in California.
Charles survived, but was jailed and accused of murder.

A skinny 21-year-old Tom Beikman came home confused. For 14 years, life in the People's Temple was all he knew. Relatives were strangers.

"If it wasn't for all those people, I don't know if I could have went on," he said. "I don't know if I would have wanted to. I was so messed up. My brain wasn't mine. It really wasn't. I had to relearn how to live and think."

And yes, even eat. 

"My uncle took me to an all you can eat pizza store and after two-and-a-half years of eating rice and flour and water, after a while they asked me to leave," he said with a huge laugh.

After 5 years in a Guyana prison, Charles Beikman came home, too. Tom says his dad enjoyed his grandson, but never recovered, drank heavily and died seven years ago. Tom married his sweetheart, Cheryl. Their son Todd, now a former Marine, served in Iraq.

They live modestly. Tom is medically disabled, but to this day struggles to keep memories of Jim Jones from ruining his life. 

"That would be letting him have the final say so. He wasn't going to control me, even in his death."