Crime Mock Suicide Drills, Child Labor and Armed Guards: Inside Jonestown in the Days Before Mass Poisoning More than 900 people died in the 1977 Jonestown massacre, the largest mass suicide in U.S. history By Johnny Dodd Johnny Dodd Instagram Twitter Senior Staff Writer, PEOPLEJohnny Dodd is a senior writer at PEOPLE, who primarily focuses on human interest, crime and sports stories. For more than two decades he has covered some of pop culture's biggest, most-tragic and most-talked-about stories—and interviewed a staggering assortment of A-list celebrities, extraordinary everyday people, thugs and even the occasional heroic family pet. Johnny has appeared on "The Today Show," "CNN," "Extra!" and numerous episodes of Investigation Discovery's "PEOPLE Magazine Investigates." He has also written three non-fiction books that have been translated into numerous foreign languages. Johnny's work over the years has earned over a dozen regional and national journalism awards, including a Hearst Fellowship. People Editorial Guidelines and Greg Hanlon Published on June 11, 2018 02:47 PM Share Tweet Pin Email When Tracy Parks’ parents joined the Peoples Temple in 1966, they were drawn by the Christian gospel, socialist politics and racial equality espoused by the founding pastor, Jim Jones. In the church’s early days, Jones was considered an advocate for the downtrodden and marginalized, drawing praise from a host of politicians. Former San Francisco Mayor even described him as “an American Gandhi.” (Jones and his cult are featured on People Magazine Investigates: Cults, airing tonight (9 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.) But Tracy, who was 12 when more than 900 people died in the largest mass suicide in modern history in 1977, was always skeptical. She got an eerie feeling from the armed guards who stood watch over worship services and the way Jones would stomp on Bibles and rant against the government. Tracy tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, “Even as a child, sitting in these meetings, I’d look at all the adults around me and think, ‘What’s wrong with these people? How can you think this is okay?” Girish Gupta/Reuters As time went on, rumors escalated about Jones’ drug use and sexual affairs with male and female congregants, as well as stories about his controlling nature and abuse. Jones took to wearing sunglasses at all times, saying it was “because he sees too much without them on,” Tracy’s father Jerry Parks tells PEOPLE. In 1977, after a scathing magazine article, Jones moved his congregants to Jonestown, a 3,800-acre jungle compound in Guyana, where he promised a vision of paradise. It was the scandal that rocked America’s most storied political family and changed the course of presidential history. PEOPLE‘s first-ever podcast, Cover-Up, dives into the Chappaquiddick scandal and attempts to piece together what happened in the hours after Ted Kennedy’s car went over a narrow wooden bridge, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne. Subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play or wherever podcasts are available. But the reality was far different, says Tracy. She and the other children spent eight hours a day working under the blistering sun with gun-toting guards watching her every move, while Jones’ paranoid, delusional rants played on the compound’s loudspeaker. Worst of all were the mock suicide drills, called “White Nights,” in which Jones would rehearse mass suicides by making cult members drink from a mixture they thought contained fatal poison. AP/Rex/Shutterstock • For more on how Tracy Parks escaped Jonestown, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. Kayt Jones All of it culminated in a tragic chain of events that began when California Congressman Leo Ryan came to Jonestown in response to complaints from relatives about Jones’ abuse. When Ryan tried to take 15 members back to the Unites States with him on a plane, the group was ambushed by gunmen sent by Jones. Ryan, three journalists and Tracy’s mom, Patricia, were killed in the gunfire. Tracy and her sister hid in the jungle as Jones summoned his congregation to the open-air pavilion, the same sight as the suicide rehearsals. Jones told them soldiers would soon be “parachuting” into Jonestown to kill everyone, and that it was time to drink the cyanide-laced punch that had been prepared in nearby vats. People Magazine Investigates: Cults airs tonight (9 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.