One of the men who helped make Jim Jones and The People’s Temple a powerhouse in the 1970s and then turned against him just before Jones killed more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana, has now written his version of the story.
“Marked for Death” is the title of the new book out this week by Tim Stoen, Jones’ former attorney, right hand man and People’s Temple chairman of the board.
Stoen lived in Redwood Valley and San Francisco on and off during the heyday of the People’s Temple, but was just a few miles away in Georgetown, Guyana when the Jonestown massacre happened, a tragedy that also took the life of Stoen’s 6-year-old son, John.
Stoen now lives on the coast in Mendocino County and has been a prosecutor in the DA’s Office since 2000, hired by former DA Norm Vroman. It’s Stoen’s second go-round as an assistant DA, a job he had in the 1960s when he worked both for Jim Jones and as county counsel when that office was part of the county DA’s Office.
Stoen had a middle class upbringing, was a Republican and a recent Stanford law school grad driving a Porsche when he took a job in Ukiah in 1965 with the DA’s Office.
But his views had begun to change a couple years earlier when he was startled by the poverty among the homeless during a college era trip to Paris. By 1967, he was still in the DA’s Office but reading more about economic and racial equality and decided to jump to a new job in Ukiah with the Legal Services Foundation. This organization was helping the poor and doing work Stoen thought important.
At a meeting of the directors of the legal services organization, he met board member Jim Jones.
Much of “Marked for Death” is Stoen’s ruminations on the dichotomy between his attachment to the ideals of communal living, equality and racial harmony and the incessant pull of what he calls “culture,” particularly women and jazz. He swings from lawyering for the Black Panthers to jetting off to London, and seeing John Guilgud in “Julius Caesar.”
Stoen goes into great detail about his years with The People’s Temple, especially once he has met and married the love of his life, Grace, another on and off Temple enthusiast.
At the heart of the book and one of the prime mysteries in the Stoen-Jones relationship was the fate of the child borne in 1972 by Grace and named John Victor Stoen.
The boy is claimed as Jones’ own son before he is even born, and Stoen, admitting to having an open marriage, does not dispute it. In fact, it is a promise to Jones that he would always provide Jones access to John that leads Stoen to some of his worst decisions.
This is among the harder parts of Stoen’s story to grasp. It is the legal attempt, in 1978 to get 6-year-old John back from Jones — who has taken him, with his parents’ permission, to Guyana — that appears (to Stoen anyway) to finally send Jones over the edge to the mass suicide-murder in Jonestown.
Yet the Stoens willingly allowed John to be fostered in the home of other People’s Temple members as a toddler, and allowed him to move around with Jones and the People’s Temple during his young life.
The book also raises lots of questions about Stoen’s ability to come and go from the church, at one moment a devoted servant, at the next telling Jones he never promised to be a lifetime member.
Stoen was involved in setting up offshore bank accounts, keeping Jones just inside the legal line in his activities, yet acknowledging the severity of Jones’ methods.
Jones forced tithing by Temple members, collecting millions; he had his inner sanctum spying on members, including Stoen; he encouraged members to rat out each other over who was more devoted.
Jones also, in essence, took control over the Ukiah community by having Temple members in lots of areas of government. He even sent members out in force to courtrooms to, in essence, try to intimidate judges on behalf of defendants.
Besides Ukiah, Jones had offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, a publishing business, a fleet of 11 Greyhound-sized buses which he would dispatch full of Temple members to carry out whatever political mission he gave them.
Stoen relates all of this, clear-eyed even at the time, but never walks away, telling himself Jones is “doing far more good than bad.” Stoen does point out that if he was foolish and naive about Jones, so were many others.
Jones was a darling of the San Francisco political crowd. Former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown was among his admirers, as was columnist Herb Caen. He dined with many powerful men and women, including First Lady Rosalyn Carter, none of whom saw the dark side, the side that increasingly, Stoen says, he began to notice.
In an interview in Ukiah before the book’s publication, Stoen said he’s been trying to write this book for many years but it wasn’t until more recently that he felt he had the perspective and distance to do it.
“It’s not a tell-all, but it’s truthful,” he said of the book.
Stoen said much of the book’s purpose is to assure people who have made serious mistakes in their lives, that they can survive it and move on. He also hopes the book will help warn people against a future Jim Jones, a man suffering from what Stoen calls “malignant narcissism” (using a term coined by German psychologist Erich Fromm).
Someone who gains power and influence through charm and mental coercion must be met with power, not negotiation, Stoen believes. He says it wasn’t until he had threatened Jones’ empire with multi-million dollar lawsuits on behalf of former Temple members and their families that Jones actually considered him an opponent worth paying attention to.
While Stoen was in a high position in the Temple, he says he was not a constant member, he didn’t go to the meetings, or the services, always had a separate job and that while Jones trusted him, he never invited him into the inner circle of staff — all women.
Stoen gave Jones general legal advice and advice on political and financial matters.
When asked about John’s upbringing, he said he and Grace believed in the communal ideal, but he saw John all the time.
“I was an extremist,” he said. “I wanted a sociocentric child. I didn’t want to be a selfish person, owning a child.”
If you don’t know very much about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple this book will certainly provide a good basic history, albeit from one man’s point of view.
If you already have read widely on the subject, there is little news here. Stoen does not add to the record on his relationship with Grace, who he believes saved his life by giving him the information he needed to realize it was time to oppose Jones.
But he does tell, for the first time, of the moment he realized Jones had crossed the line into darkness. During the interview, he also explained that the millions in offshore accounts was retrieved after the massacre and much of it went to the US government for the costs of bringing all the bodies back from Guyana and some went to survivors and their families.
Mostly the book encompasses Stoen’s determination to explain himself — which many have been waiting years for him to do — and counter stories that have followed him about his role in the Temple and of alleged election tampering in San Francisco, which he denies and of which he was cleared.
Stoen has been accepted back into the Mendocino County community by most, although there are certainly those who will never forgive or forget his role in making Jim Jones the powerhouse he was and helping him to establish an organization that in the end was devastatingly lethal.
Stoen calls Jones a devil – a term more in keeping with his new Christian beliefs than the old communal ones. Although he still tears up when he speaks of John, Stoen says he has managed finally to get past the guilt over his son, over being part of the Temple, over not doing more to stop Jones earlier. And he hopes anyone who reads the book will put it down and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
“Marked for Death,” by Mendocino County resident Tim Stoen, will be available in Ukiah at The Mendocino Book Company later this week.
(Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal)