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Former Peoples Temple members remember Jonestown 40 years later

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – Sunday, Nov. 18 marks 40 years since 913 people died in the mass suicide known as the “Jonestown Massacre.” Many of the victims were from Indianapolis and had followed cult leader Jim Jones all the way from his start in Indianapolis to their deaths in Guyana.

Many families feel the lasting impact of what happened, including Gene Cordell’s family.

Cordell is 89 years old but his memory is sharp. He remembers working on Jones’ car and busses back in 1954. Before that, in 1953 Cordell’s aunt, who adopted him, Edith Cordell, came in contact with Jim Jones while the young preacher was selling monkeys to raise money for his church. 

“We met him first got acquainted with him in 1953. My aunt Edith was raising monkeys and one of the monkeys hung itself, in the cage,” said Cordell. “So, she wanted another monkey so she looked in the paper and found Jimmy Jones had a monkey, so she went down to see him and get the monkey and he said he was a Methodist minister and he had a little church on South Keystone. He wanted her to come to Easter Sunday service in 1953. She didn’t want to go by herself so she came over and got my wife and my three children and took them to Jones’ little Methodist church on South Keystone.’

From then on Edith Cordell was a member of The Peoples Temple. Gene Cordell saw right through Jones. 

“Then he said the Bible was all wrong and don’t follow the Bible, follow me. I follow no man except Jesus Christ,” Cordell recalled.  

Edith was under Jones’ spell, along with others. Cordell says his aunt was so taken she eventually signed the deed to her home to Jones. Cordell recalls her personality changing as well. 

“[Jim Jones and his wife] came to the house they were in the kitchen and Jimmy got really mad at me,
” said Cordell. “I had had Jimmy arrested for giving Edith what they called the flu shot. Her arm was all black and blue and she was a different person. She wasn’t the same Edith. I went over to the house the day Edith was packing up the car to go to California. I went to get the ladder out of the garage. I had the ladder on top of my car. Edith came out with her clothes and got in the car and didn’t even say goodbye to me. She raised me from a baby. “

Donna Lawrence is Gene Cordell’s daughter and remembers what it was like in church on Sundays with Jones as the pastor. 

“It was very scary for a child, very demanding,” said Lawrence. “It scared me. I wanted to crawl underneath the seat I was terrified.” 

To this day their family wishes it could have been different. 

“Anything I can do to stop a cult from developing I will do,” said Cordell. “As long as I’m alive.”