September 25, 2003, North Coast Journal, page 1, Standing in the Shadows of Jonestown, by Hank Sims,
Assistant District Attorney Tim Stoen. Photo by Bob Doran.
See the EDITOR'S COLUMN introducing this story
Tim Stoen's story, by Keith Easthouse,
November 1978 was not a good time for the Bay Area. In the third week of that month came the horrifying news of Jonestown, the mass suicide of 900 members of the Peoples Temple, which until the previous year had been based in San Francisco. Then, nine days later, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down in City Hall by Dan White, who was disgruntled because Moscone refused to reinstate him after he changed his mind about resigning from the Board of Supervisors.
It seemed as if everything had suddenly come off the rails and crashed into some dark corner. It seemed as if madness were more powerful than reason. It seemed as if the twisted death wishes of two men -- White and Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones -- could change the world.
This week our cover story is about the man who for much of the `70s was Jim Jones' right-hand man -- Tim Stoen, who today is District Attorney Paul Gallegos' top lawyer. That in itself is not news. Stoen was high-profile when the Peoples Temple, known for its good works with the poor and minorities, was being feted by the likes of Moscone and then-Assemblyman Willie Brown. He also drew attention when he broke with Jones the year before the events in Guyana, and afterwards when a state investigation exonerated him of any wrongdoing. He is a key figure in books on Jonestown, and numerous newspaper articles, most recently a Los Angeles Times story in July, reference his past.
Nonetheless, it's likely that most Humboldt County residents knew nothing about Stoen's Jonestown connection when Gallegos brought him on board earlier this year to head up his controversial fraud case against the Pacific Lumber Co. That's one reason we had staff writer Hank Sims do this story. The other has to do with the fact that a whisper campaign aimed at discrediting Stoen has been going on for the past several months, no doubt led by those outraged by the PL suit and intent on seeing Gallegos recalled. We thought airing out the whole story would be a healthy antidote to backstabbing.
It's the longest cover story the Journal has run, and it's not something you can blow through in a few minutes over your morning cup of coffee. Stoen, as you'll see, was forthright, answering every question but the one he has refused to answer for more than two decades: Why he chose to sign a statement saying that the son born to the woman who at the time was his wife was fathered by Jones, only to later insist that that wasn't true. We think it's regrettable that Stoen chose not to be more forthcoming on this point, particularly since much of the rumor mill has been turning on it. But it is arguably a private matter, and we don't subscribe to the view of Stoen's critics that it proves he is a "weirdo" with a questionable moral character.
We think the opposite is true, and that's why the story of Stoen's involvement with the Peoples Temple is, ultimately, both sad and impressive. Sad because Stoen ended up paying a terrible price for failing to recognize early on that Jones was coming unhinged. And impressive because he was able to recover from something that could easily have destroyed him.
So find some place comfortable and settle into the story. Take a break and reflect if you need to. And when you get to the end, regardless of your reaction, consider the weight Tim Stoen has been carrying around all these years. Think of the weight.
TIM STOEN SITS ALONE IN A SECOND floor hallway of the Humboldt County Courthouse, staring down at the yellow notepad and stack of files cradled in his lap. The court's afternoon session is scheduled to begin in a few minutes, and the assistant district attorney is preparing to argue for the arrest of the owner of the Eureka Inn.
As he waits, arms folded, other attorneys -- colleagues in the chummy world of law and justice -- pass by on their way to their own courtroom assignations. They say a few hasty words in greeting, nodding and smiling politely. Stoen looks up, recognizes faces and says, "Hello, how are you?"
The passing lawyers most likely know the 65-year-old Stoen, the DA office's second-in-command, as the man heading the county's fraud suit against the Pacific Lumber Co. They probably recall, for a moment, that their acquaintance sits at the center of the most bitter political fight the county has seen since the Timber Wars of the early '90s, a fight that has led to calls for his boss's head and his own. They may briefly remember the groundbreaking cases he prosecuted for the Mendocino County District Attorney's office a few years ago, or his whisker-thin defeat in the Republican primary race for the state Assembly last year.
But who can ever really tell what people are thinking? Perhaps they think first, as some always will, of the Tim Stoen of 25 or 30 years ago. Perhaps their curiosity was piqued by a brief reference to that Tim Stoen in recent newspapers. Perhaps what they are thinking is: Peoples Temple. Jonestown. Kool-Aid. The Rev. Jim Jones.
Nothing much happens in court -- the judge recuses himself from the case, due to a conflict of interest, and a date is set for the next week. Outside, a reporter asks Stoen if the DA's office would consider dropping its charges, given that the Inn's owner had just paid back all the overdue taxes he had owed the city of Eureka. "Under the law, restitution is not a defense," Stoen says. In 2002, when he was with Mendocino County, he sent a real estate broker to San Quentin for a similar offense.
Regardless of his considerable career accomplishments, Stoen will never be able to completely leave his history behind. He walks back up to his office, where a binder full of papers and photographs sits in silent witness on a shelf, waiting to remind him of his grief and his shame. And rumors go around. Supporters of the effort to recall District Attorney Paul Gallegos pass about photocopied documents from the 1970s and whisper into reporters' ears. They usually tell half the story, at best.
For eight years -- from 1970, when he joined the Peoples Temple, to 1978, when Jones extinguished the church and over 900 of his followers one White Night in the Guyanese jungle -- Tim Stoen was the Rev. Jim Jones's doppelganger: first a committed ally, later a powerful enemy. Educated, urbane, comfortable in the world at large, Stoen was everything the mesmerizing hick preacher was not, and vice versa. In the seven years of their strange association, they built a movement of thousands that won the respect of California's political establishment and the era's radicals alike. Then, for a year, they waged frantic war on one another in the press, in the U.S. Congress and in courts on two continents.
The subject of that war, and the cause for Stoen's defection from the Temple, was a 6-year-old boy each man claimed was his own.
A group of do-gooders
In 1967, the year of San Francisco's Summer of Love and the flowering of the hippie movement, Tim Stoen was a young graduate of Stanford Law School who had taken a job with the Mendocino County District Attorney because, he calculated, experience as a prosecutor was the most expeditious way for a lawyer to make the jump into politics.
Though he missed city life and made plans to move to the Bay Area, he decided to stay in Ukiah when the state bar association asked him to head an effort to open a legal services center for the poor. Stoen was deeply influenced by his fundamentalist Christian background. He was committed to helping those less fortunate.
One of his first tasks at the Legal Services Foundation for Lake and Mendocino Counties was to renovate a suite of offices. He spent a few days fruitlessly seeking volunteers to help with the work, until someone gave him the number of a church in the nearby community of Redwood Valley. A member of the church told Stoen to name a time and place. Stoen asked if they could come Tuesday morning.
"I show up Tuesday thinking there'll be nobody there," Stoen says. "I see a line of about 20 to 30 people, black and white, young and old, carrying paint and Tide and hammers and nails. They take the place by storm. What I think is going to take two weeks they do in one day. They come back the next day, put in some Masonite paneling and disappear. They don't ask for a word of thanks. I say, `My gosh, this is like a dream!' That was my introduction to Peoples Temple."
Only later did Stoen connect the hard-working group of do-gooders with a preacher named Jim Jones [photo at right] , who served on Legal Services' board of directors. Jones had introduced himself to Stoen after the board interviewed him for the job. Jones -- a tall, soft-spoken man with jet-black hair -- had said that he admired Stoen's response to the board when they asked him to describe himself: "I am a theological conservative and a social radical," Stoen recalls saying.
The statement could have applied equally well to Jones himself. Founded in Indianapolis in 1960, the Peoples Temple, as Jones conceived it, was a socialist movement dedicated to equality -- especially equality among races. Its outward trappings were Christian, and Jones used his background in fundamentalist versions of the faith to perform -- or so it seemed to some --miracles: curing cancer, causing the blind to see and the crippled to walk.
Unusual for the time -- before the civil rights movement -- the Peoples Temple was an integrated church. It ran a large soup kitchen for Indiana's needy. But even in those days, and apart from his bogus faith-healing claims, Jones fell prey to his own delusions of grandeur. He once had a powerful vision of nuclear holocaust striking Indiana, and at that moment he decided that the church needed to move.
The Temple relocated to Northern California in 1965, after Jones read a magazine article that listed the safest places in the country to be in the event of a nuclear war. At the top of the list was Eureka -- but a church member sent to scout out sites got a job in Ukiah, which the magazine said was at the southern limit of the Eureka safe zone, and Jones decided to settle in Redwood Valley.
Stoen and Jones became friendly through their work with Legal Services, and the more Stoen learned about the Temple, the more moved he became by the Temple's mission. "Whenever I had a client who had a problem, a counseling problem or a marriage problem, and I asked people in the community to provide help, Jim Jones was the only one who never said no," Stoen says. "So that was another thing that impressed me about him -- the altruism of his people."
While he lived in Mendocino County, Stoen was driving down on weekends to attend services at Berkeley's First Presbyterian Church, of which he was a committed member. But after a year or so, he accepted an invitation to go to a Temple service being held at the county fairgrounds in Ukiah. Buses full of parishioners from the Macedonia Baptist Church -- a black San Francisco church -- were coming up to hear Jones. Stoen was amazed at the ease with which members of the two churches, the white folks and the black folks, got along and prayed together.
Stoen also met Jim Jones, Jr. -- a black kid whom Jones and his wife had adopted, and to whom Jones had given his own name. "I said to myself, `Man, it takes a lot for a person to commit themselves for 18 years, to raise a black kid -- particularly in Indiana, where there's a lot of racism,' So that was my impression of Jim Jones going in."
Soon after, Stoen finally made the move down to the Bay Area, buying himself a Porsche and renting a comfortable apartment stocked with books of poetry and art. He took a job at a Legal Aid office in Oakland, where he was assigned to defend low-level Black Panthers on their low-level criminal charges. He went to environmental and social justice rallies, causes consistent with his political identity as a "Teddy Roosevelt Republican."
But at one such rally in the summer of 1969 his religious convictions came flooding back, drowning the life he had built for himself. "I'm marching around, and I'm looking at a man in front of me wearing a very expensive buckskin jacket, with fringes," he says. "A feeling of revulsion came over me. I said, `Here I am with a group of people who think they are so moral and self-righteous, and we're all going to go home to our cocktail parties and talk about how pure we were, and it hasn't cost us a damn cent.' I just turned on my heel, walked back to my car and went back to my office."
He decided to move back up to Ukiah and join Peoples Temple. Stoen says he drove to Redwood Valley, pulled up to the church, went up to Jim Jones and said, `You need me.'"
Rising in the ranks
When Stoen joined the Peoples Temple in early 1970, he didn't come alone. A few months before he moved back, Stoen, then in his early 30s, had fallen in love with a young woman, a San Francisco native named Grace Grech. The two would marry, in a Temple ceremony, a few months later.
Stoen got back his job with the District Attorney's office, this time in its civil division -- he became what today would be called the county counsel, the county government's legal advisor and representative. He voluntarily turned most of his salary over to the Temple, keeping only what he needed for his modest personal expenses.
He started to devote his talents to the growth of the organization, rising in the ranks of the church to become one of its most important members. He quickly became its attorney of record, and he would end up as the chair of its board of directors. Jones's sermons and his miracles held little appeal for Stoen. He was interested in helping to further the preacher's vision of an egalitarian society. In the peculiar logic of the time, such a goal was not inconsistent with his religion or even his brand of conservative political ideology -- both held out for personal humility and equality among people, and many young people shared the notion that society was so broken that radical measures were required if it was to be fixed.
Left: A Temple service. Right: Jones with Temple children in Redwood Valley.
Photos courtesy of the Jonestown report.
"Everybody got hooked in on a different level," says Sherwin Harris, a Bay Area resident whose daughter was a Temple member. "If you were somebody unsophisticated, [Jones] wowed you with his magical powers, he appealed to your superstition. Then he had this Marxist, `save-the-world' rhetoric for certain people. Even though they knew his tricks were phony, it was OK because they were going to save the world."
Even as membership in the Temple swelled -- the church reported a nearly tenfold increase in membership in the three years following Stoen's arrival, up to nearly 3,000 in 1973 -- Jones became increasingly unhinged. While urging his followers to abstinence, he seduced several of the congregation's women. He posted armed guards around the perimeter of the Redwood Valley church, saying that it was under imminent threat of attack from racists. He played mind games with his followers, testing their loyalty to the cause.
"The signs were there early that he was going off the rails, and I should have listened to them but I didn't," Stoen says. "I wanted to be loyal to the Temple, because I thought he would get better."
A fateful letter
The Stoens, who lived apart from the Temple's Redwood Valley headquarters in a small Ukiah home, were deeply in love, though Grace resented the amount of time her husband spent working for the Temple and she distrusted Jones. On Jan. 25, 1972, she gave birth to a son, John Victor Stoen.
Two weeks later, Stoen was asked to sign a letter. The document stated that Stoen had authorized Jones -- "the most compassionate, honest and courageous human being the world contains" -- to sleep with his wife and "sire" a child by her. It said that Jones and Grace reluctantly agreed to this plan. It expressed the hope that John Victor would "be instrumental in bringing God's kingdom here on Earth, as has been his wonderful father."
Without telling Grace, Stoen signed the document. His signature was witnessed by Jones's wife, Marceline.
Today, Stoen acknowledges signing the letter, but says its contents are false. He will not say why he signed it.
Jones and his followers later said that he was simply admitting a fact. Some writers, scholars of the Temple, speculate that he saw it as a way to ensure that John would be raised by the Temple if anything happened to Grace and him. Others suggest that Stoen was somehow coerced into signing it, that Jones threatened him in some way. While he is careful not take sides, in his book Raven, the definitive history of the Temple, journalist Tim Reiterman writes that Jones "was bemoaning to one of his lovers that he could not claim John Stoen as his own" the day the child was born.
But even that's cryptic. Was Jones upset because he knew the child wasn't his, or because he thought it was? In either case, Stoen may have signed the letter for the same reason: to pacify Jones's megalomania. As bizarre as it seems, he may simply have fulfilled the role of a loyal cult member. He signed the letter to please the leader of the cause to which he had dedicated his life.
The document had no real legal weight -- Stoen was still John's legal father, and he insists that he was his biological father as well. So, according to Stoen, does Grace. (She could not be reached for this story.)
"I signed it, and I was a fool," Stoen says. "Not only was I a fool, it was an immoral thing to do and it was a sinful thing to do."
An excellent lawyer
Stoen declines to explain himself further, even though he knows what the likely consequences of that choice will be.
"This is going to cause people to say, `What kind of guy do we have in the DA's office that would sign his kid away?'" he says. "So what do I have to do? I have to go to churches, to timber groups, everywhere the hostility is, and say, `Ask me anything you want. You may not like my answers, but you're going to look into my eyes and see that I'm not a bad person.' I owe it to Paul to do that."
His worry is not idle. A proponent of the Gallegos recall has lately been giving copies of the paternity statement to local newspapers, and rumblings of Stoen's involvement in the Temple have been growing louder as the 25th anniversary of the Temple's mass suicide -- Nov. 18 -- approaches.
"When I read in the paper that this whacked-out guy was coming into the community, I thought, `Good Lord, what are we in for?'" says Arcata's Robin Arkley, Sr., a frequent commentator on KINS radio and one of the principal sponsors of the recall.
What kind of man do we have in the DA's office? Colleagues say that first and foremost, Stoen is an excellent attorney. "Frankly, I've never seen him lose a case," says Mendocino County District Attorney Norm Vroman, who hired Stoen back to the Ukiah office in 2000. Most notably, Stoen successfully prosecuted, in Ukiah, an identity thief who had never been to the county -- a precedent-setting case that won plaudits from the California District Attorney's Association.
When Gallegos took office early this year, he set about looking for an assistant. A former defense attorney, he had wanted someone who had a good reputation as a prosecutor. At the same time, Stoen was thinking about a move to Humboldt County, where Kersti Stoen, his wife of five years, has roots. The fit was natural, according to Gallegos.
"He's a very highly regarded, skilled, ethical, experienced prosecutor," Gallegos says of Stoen. "I wanted someone who had experience, not only for helping me with the work but also to help bridge the gap between me, an outsider, and the office's deputies, who were insiders."
Gallegos added that Stoen's conservative credentials -- except for a brief flirtation with the Democratic Party in the late '80s, Stoen has remained a lifelong Republican -- were also a plus for a DA who was already being called a radical with too-strong ties to the environmental community.
Stoen has always been up-front about his relationship to Peoples Temple, Gallegos says, but that history was not of importance when he decided to hire Stoen.
"When we first met, he said 'This is in my past,'" Gallegos says. "I certainly looked into him, but as an attorney. If you look at what he's done, he's a heck of an attorney."
Furor over PL case
Stoen's conservative credentials became irrelevant when, a few weeks after taking office, he and Gallegos filed the earthshaking PL lawsuit, which alleged that the company had deceived regulatory agencies during the negotiations to buy Headwaters Forest. Almost immediately after they filed the case, people associated with the timber industry began to talk about a recall. Arkley offered $5,000 to the cause.
Stoen never gave up on his dream of entering politics. He is a Republican because he opposes abortion, and the Republicans have an easier time accepting an environmentalist than the Democrats do a pro-life candidate. Stoen has run for office four times since 1990, coming closest in the 2002 Republican primary race for the assembly seat currently held by Patty Berg. The race, between Stoen and former Lake County Supervisor Robert Brown, was so close that it took weeks to declare a winner. With over 35,000 votes cast, Brown eked out victory with a 94-vote margin. Stoen can boast of the fact that he swept Humboldt County, though -- he took 40 percent of the local Republican vote to Brown's 31 percent.
These days, with conservative feeling against the DA's office running high, Stoen would be hard-pressed to repeat that result. But he's too busy with the PL case -- and the three white-collar criminal cases he has brought since he came to the county -- to have time to think about higher office anyway.
When Stoen talks about the PL suit, his complete confidence in its success is disarming. "I will win this case," he says. "If Paul's not recalled, I am guaranteeing you that we will win this case. I don't know what the penalties will be, but this case is as solid as a rock."
In the early to mid-'70s, dissent in the Temple and criticism from without became more and more intolerable to Jones. Stoen says he learned later that Jones was starting to use methamphetamines, and his increasingly bizarre behavior began to reflect that drug's well-known effects. Jones started imagining that the CIA was out to ruin the Temple, as the government could not tolerate the example of a successful socialist society within its borders. To achieve that society, Jones demanded obedience from church members.
"I went along with Jones's `end-justifies-the-means' philosophy," Stoen says. "One of the main ingredients was authoritarianism. All the communes in Northern California were disintegrating, and I didn't want that to happen to ours."
When eight young members of the church defected, Jones railed at them from his pulpit and in meetings of the church's inner circle. He threatened people who had shown "disloyalty" to him or the Temple. Still, Stoen says, the church had not abandoned its good deeds, and he stayed with the Temple more out of loyalty to the church's mission than from fear of Jones.
"We buy a church in San Francisco, we buy this national landmark church in Los Angeles, we've got 13 Greyhound buses going up and down -- there's a sense of vitality," he says. "We take in the oppressed. We take in people who nobody else would take in, people who didn't even know how to groom themselves for a job interview, and we'd teach them how to do that. And then we'd help them get a job. And then we'd monitor them on the job. And these people started to flower, because they saw somebody cared. We took in rejects, we took in parolees."
Toast of the town
With his urban congregation growing, Jones decided to move his base of operations down to the San Francisco church, located in the Western Addition, a black neighborhood. Stoen got a job with the San Francisco District Attorney's office.
In San Francisco, Jones cultivated relationships with the city's political figures. Friendly politicians were promised campaign workers and favorable coverage in the Temple's newspaper. When George Moscone, whom the Temple had supported, was elected mayor of San Francisco, he repaid Jones with a seat on the city's Housing Authority. The city's political establishment later held a fete for Jones, recognizing the Temple for its good works for the city's downtrodden. Moscone was in attendance, as were members of the Board of Supervisors, Gov. Jerry Brown and state Assemblyman Willie Brown.
[Photo at left: Jones awarded for humanitarian work in 1976.
Photo courtesy of the Jonestown report.]
Of course, Jones's high profile in the city was drawing more and more press attention, some of which was critical of the church. It prompted Jones to crack down even harder on his disciples, cajoling them into presenting a unified front by hiding the Temple's dark side.
The pressure got to be too much for Grace Stoen. She had been working long hours as the Temple's lead counselor, and she was tired of the grip Jones had on her family. She drove up to Redwood Valley one weekend in 1976, collected her things and disappeared to think things through. She did not take John Victor, who was living in communal Temple housing in San Francisco, with her.
In their telephone conversations, Grace Stoen would plead with her husband to take care of John and begged to be allowed to see him. Stoen thought that Grace's anger would blow over. He promised her that he would be a better husband in the future. He begged her to come back.
Jones was suspicious of Grace's intentions -- she was the highest person in the Temple yet to defect, and she knew many of the church's secrets -- but he agreed to a meeting at the Temple's Los Angeles church. There, Grace Stoen suggested that she would sue to retrieve John.
Soon, Stoen and his son left the country, to spend time at the church's agricultural settlement in the South American country of Guyana. The church called the settlement "Jonestown."
Going to war
Stoen calls the weeks he spent in Guyana the happiest of his life. He and John Victor spent every evening together after Stoen finished his long work days doing manual labor for Temple projects.
But all was not well. Jones, still in San Francisco, was beginning to have suspicions about his aide. Kept abreast of developments in South America by Temple officials, he discovered that Stoen had opened private back accounts without his permission. He also learned about the growing bond between Stoen and John Victor and didn't like it. Eventually, Stoen was resettled in Georgetown, the Guyanese capital, where he could resume his legal work. John stayed in Jonestown.
Daily life in Jonestown. Photos courtesy of the Jonestown report.
Stoen knew that the preacher was becoming ever more paranoid. Jones worried about an article that was going to be published in New Westmagazine. He knew that the article's author was speaking with Grace Stoen and other defectors from the Temple, including the eight young people who had split when the church was still in Redwood Valley. In addition, Stoen had learned that Temple members were speaking ill of Grace to John, trying to sever the child's ties with his mother.
In June of 1977, Stoen, without notifying other Temple members of his intentions, slipped out of the country. He says that he hadn't known at the time that he would not return, and that he felt that John Victor was in safe hands, as Jones was still in the United States.
"When he wasn't there, the people were so wonderful," Stoen says. "It was like a utopia."
He found Grace, who had taken up with a man who had helped her escape from the Temple and had tried to persuade her to take John with them. Grace told Tim stories that she had learned as the Temple's chief social counselor -- stories of physical abuse at the hand of Jones. Stoen hadn't known things had gone that far, he says, and he resolved to sever his ties with the Temple. He also resolved to rescue his son, but he knew that going down to Jonestown and physically removing him would be highly dangerous. Nonetheless, several months later, as the situation grew more dire, he told the State Department he would use "any means necessary" to get John back.
"If I went back, I thought I would probably be a corpse within 30 days," he says. "That's why I chose to go to war." Stoen started meeting with previous Temple defectors and people who had relatives in Guyana, a group that came to be known as Concerned Relatives.
Stoen's defection, in addition to the upcoming New West article, seemed to send Jones over the edge. He had tried to pressure the magazine to have the story killed, but it became apparent that it was going to run in the fall of 1977. Before it did, Jones arranged to move the entire Temple to Guyana. In the space of a few months, almost a thousand people, including Jones himself, moved from California to Jonestown.
Sherwin Harris, one of the founders of Concerned Relatives, says that Stoen's defection was a major boon to the group. He was able to bring them inside information on how the Temple operated, and his legal experience gave them help in fighting on that front.
"We wrote petitions to the Secretary of State, to the government of Guyana, to the Peoples Temple," he says. "Tim was essential in all those endeavors."
Stoen also joined Grace in court, to support her in an effort to retrieve John. The court ruled in the Stoens' favor, and sent a letter to the Guyanese government demanding the child's extradition. A Guyanese judge ordered Jones to produce him, but Jones refused and was judged to be in contempt of court until some of the country's political leaders, whom Jones had courted, intervened. John Victor had become a symbol of the church's unity, and all Jonestown came to believe Jones when he asserted his paternity of the child.
Jones's former legal and business manager became his obsession. He sent the paternity statement Stoen had signed to reporters in the United States. He told his followers that Stoen was a secret CIA plant who had been sent to undermine the church. A Jonestown spelling test, reprinted in Reiterman's book Raven, included the sentence "Tim Stoen has hiredmercenaires [sic] to come over here and destroy us."
Even more, the fight for John Victor inspired Jones to devise a plan that would ensure the world-historic stature he felt was his due. By committing a mass act of "revolutionary suicide," the church would make a final statement against the forces of oppression that were trying to destroy it. Jones began holding "White Nights" in Jonestown -- long, ranting sermons that would prepare his parishioners for death. He said that the church had two choices -- to be destroyed and murdered by the reactionaries or to stand up by taking their own lives.
Heart of darkness
The Concerned Relatives caught wind of these sessions and redoubled their efforts to get the United States to take notice. Stoen flew to Washington to speak with members of Congress. Finally, one Congressman -- Rep. Leo Ryan of San Mateo -- agreed to help the group.
Ryan arranged to charter a flight to Georgetown in November 1978. He brought members of Concerned Relatives, including the Stoens, as well as some journalists along with him. The Stoens and most of the other relatives stayed in Georgetown, so as not to provoke Jones, while Ryan, his staff and the reporters flew to an airstrip near Jonestown.
At first, all went well. Slowly, though, Jonestown residents began to approach the visitors, asking them to take them back to the United States. By the time the party was ready to leave, they had agreed to take 16 people along with them.
When the party reached the airstrip and started to board their planes, two of Jonestown's trucks came racing toward them. The men in the trucks got out and opened fire on the party, killing Ryan and four others.
Left: Rep. Leo Ryan. Right: the Port Kaituma airstrip, where the Ryan party was attacked.
Photos courtesy of the Jonestown report.
In Jonestown, Jones summoned his people to one final White Night. He told them that Ryan was going to be killed, and that the Guyanese military would soon come for them. It was time, he said, and he had his aides bring in a drum of cyanide that the Temple had acquired before Ryan's visit. The children went first, brought by their parents to the barrel of poisoned FlavorAid -- a South American Kool-Aid imitation.
Stoen and the rest of the Concerned Relatives, holed up in their Georgetown hotel, got the news a few hours later.
Most Sundays, the Stoens go to morning services at Arcata's First Baptist Church, a 600-strong congregation with a mission in an impoverished African nation and, seemingly, an endless appetite for corny jokes. First Baptist is a music-loving church, and today it is in for a treat -- a string band composed of church youth is sitting in for the usual group.
As he and Kersti work their way to their seats, Stoen is embraced and clapped on the back by his co-worshippers. This will be the last chance for Stoen to be at church for a couple of weeks -- next Sunday he'll be at the state Republican Party convention in Los Angeles. He tries to go to these things every year, he says, but this year he's especially looking forward to a party-sponsored workshop on campaigning.
"It's going to be great," he says. "Robin Arkley is going to pay for me to learn how to help Paul!" With that, the nattily dressed attorney explodes in a fit of laughter that threatens never to end.
The band starts some feet-stomping numbers. Kersti Stoen dances in the aisle while her husband beats out the time on the pew in front of him. With the final chorus, Stoen gives the bench a final whack and shouts, "Yeah!"
But this is nothing compared to the church's emotion when the band turns to slow songs -- songs of doubt, of losing the way. Eyes close, couples embrace, hands rise up in the air in testimony. The crowd finds its voice, singing more strongly and assuredly than before.
Stoen says that after Jonestown he was in a deep depression for 10 years. An investigation by the state Attorney General's office cleared him of any wrongdoing. He moved down the coast to Morro Bay, where he didn't know anyone, and attempted to write a book about the Temple. Page after page, he says, came out sounding like, "I was a fool, I was a fool, I was a fool." He abandoned the project.
He spent a few years working for his brother, who was involved in oil exploration in the South Pacific. In 1988, the 10th anniversary of Jonestown, a journalist he met (and briefly fell in love with) talked him into being interviewed on television. He agreed, and he credits the opportunity to tell his story with the defeat of his depression. He moved back to Ukiah soon afterward. He wanted to confront his detractors there, he says, and -- in a move characteristic of both his ambition and his optimism -- to run for Congress.
It is a comfort, Stoen says, to know that his son did not suffer. He and Grace, who remain close, believe that John was given sedatives before he was given the poison. It's a small comfort, though.
"I can say this truthfully," he said. "I would go through all the misery of Peoples Temple again just to hold him in my arms for five seconds. No question."
There are those who would like to punish Stoen all over again, to get their own cuts in now that he is here in the county and in the public eye. He knows they may try to push him out of the DA's office, through the recall or through political pressure. Maybe there are those who would just like to see him gone. They wouldn't be the first.
"We win when we go down," Jim Jones had told his followers minutes before the first of them were to die. "Tim Stoen has no one else to hate. ... Then he'll destroy himself. I'm speaking as a prophet today. I wouldn't have sat in this seat and talked so serious if I didn't know what I was talking about."
Jim Jones was wrong. Twenty-five years after Jones's madness destroyed Stoen's only child, his youthful dreams and a good portion of his life, there remain parts of Tim Stoen that Jones couldn't destroy: his talent, his devoutness, his drive.
"If you could undo it, you would," Stoen says. "But you can't, so you go on. It's that simple."