Leslie Wagner-Wilson and her toddler-son became famous after she jostled through Guyana’s jungle with her child strapped on her back for three days without food or protection, while defying her survival odds against snakes, jaguars and other jungle wildlife; – simply because she was desperate to save her son from certain death.
Her jungle survival story is so nail-biting that it has made its way into almost every major newspaper and television network on earth, and is often repeated year after year, without anyone ever getting tired of hearing it.
In reality, the months and days that led to her gruesome three days of shocking jungle survival, exactly forty years ago, began in such a smooth way that she never thought it would have evolved into a nightmare that has continued to haunt her even up to this day.
As a matter of fact, Leslie Wagner-Wilson’s story started off sweetly, and on a promise of a better life.
Back in 1976, the then charming, well-mannered and adorable young woman was just one of the many well-educated Americans who had boarded a flight to Guyana that year, in her quest to find a utopia that had promised to offer her family, the life of Paradise on Earth.
Like every other young woman, she was desperate for happiness, and was an easy prey for great promises. So she agreed to leave her relatives behind in the United States and come to Guyana along with her husband and her baby boy, because she was told that things would be better here.
Upon her arrival in Guyana back then, the landscape was certainly the most beautiful glimpse of planet earth that she had ever seen. It was like nothing many of the others like her have ever seen before.
With green forested trees, rolling green mounds that shape like dreamy hills, sparkling crystal springs, gushing waterfalls, and free-roaming birds of colours, Guyana’s natural terrain was a sight that she had only seen in imaginary drawings of nature.
As she travelled further into Guyana’s hinterland, the friendliness of the Guyanese people were so warm and welcoming that she wishes for more than just a stay.
Her final destination, however, was Jonestown, a small religiously aligned self-catering private township that claimed to be the modern-day Garden of Eden.
At first sight, Jonestown seemed so perfected in nature that Leslie actually began to believe that the founding of the religious enclave in Guyana, was a God-inspiring mission. But it was a mission that only housed and offered refuge to Americans, and was being run by an American – Jim Jones.
Being a God-fearing woman herself, she quickly settled in with her husband and their baby boy, and had no issues initially with the goal of Jim Jones – which was building a larger utopia for all mankind to live free and happy with the blessings of God.
In a matter of days, her husband (shown in the family photo above) was drafted into the inner security circle of Jones, and quickly became his Head-of-Security.
But as the months went by, her husband would raise concerns about Jim Jones, and what he was privileged to know. So for her, it was no surprise when the focus of Jonestown began to shift into a cult-like state that despised and guarded itself against outsiders.
Soon, no one was free to come to Jonestown, and no one was free to leave – one of the many reasons why then US Congressman Leo Ryan decided to make a November 1978 fact-finding trip to the religious cult enclave; – a trip that will eventually end in tragedy not just for him, but for almost a thousand other people.
Ryan was a tough Congressman who took the interest of Americans at heart. So after arriving in Guyana and having what was considered to be a tense tour of Jonestown in November 1978, he left for the Port Kaituma airstrip to board a Guyana Airways flight with 15 of Jones People’s Temple followers in tow, whom the cult-leader soon labelled as dangerous defectors.
But Jones could not have allowed the Congressman or the 15 defectors to reach to the United States, and reveal all of the growing issues with Jonestown. So before congressman Leo Ryan and the defectors could have boarded the plane at Port Kaituma, Jones caused his security detail to riddle their bodies with bullets; – thus killing every one of them on the airstrip.
Interestingly, Leslie Wagner-Wilson was one of ten from another set of defectors, who had also left the People’s Temple hours after Congressman Ryan, but were headed in a different direction, and was not caught up in the Port Kaituma airstrip killing.
In a subsequent interview, she spoke of strapping her then 3-year-old son to her back, and battling through the mosquito, snakes, and tiger-infested jungle without food for three days in a bid to save her son life – since learning of Jones plans for a mass killing of the children, prior to his mass suicide orders.
Her husband, who was Jones top security aid was left behind, and did so at the behest of Jones, who used his security detail to force the injecting of cyanide into the mouth and veins of almost 300 children, and then mass-feeding over 600 adults with cyanide, who all convulse and froth to death on the 18 November, 1978, in what is considered to be the largest mass suicide in human history.
Today marks exactly 40 years, since the Jonestown Tragedy.