When reporter Les Kinsolving attended a church service at the Peoples Temple in Redwood Valley in 1972, he knew there was something wrong.
The pastor, the Rev. Jim Jones, seemed like a harmless faith healer. But there was a sinister feeling about his church.
"I'd seen faith healers before -- a lot of them," said Kinsolving, who covered religion for the San Francisco Examiner. "I wasn't particularly fooled."
[He'd read Elmer Gantry.]
What shook Kinsolving were the Temple's ushers. They were carrying guns.
["Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!" (Citation needed.)]
Six years later, on Nov. 18, 1978, Jones led more than 900 followers to their deaths at the Temple's jungle colony in Jonestown, Guyana. About 150 came from Mendocino County, where Jones built his Temple into a political force before moving to San Francisco and ultimately to South America.
The dead included the 6-year-old son of a former Ukiah attorney, the 24-year-old daughter of a Ukiah school principal and a 42-year-old Ukiah mother and her five children, ages 8 to 24.
Today, 20 years after Jonestown, the Rev. Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple are a fading image for most people in Mendocino County. But for some, today's anniversary rekindles memories of the worst mass murder-suicide in U.S. history. "It brings back a lot of sadness," said Marge Boynton, a Ukiah civic leader who knew Jones.
"People just want to forget about it," said Dennis Parks, a former Temple member whose mother, brother, nieces and nephew escaped Jonestown. Parks' sister-in-law died there, along with an uncle and several cousins.
The psychological roots of Jonestown can be found in Mendocino County, although there are few visible reminders of Peoples Temple. Jones' former church in Redwood Valley, empty for years, now is home to an Assembly of God congregation. The watch tower, where Jones' armed guards once surveyed the Temple grounds, is gone. So is the indoor swimming pool where Jones held mass baptisms.
[Very spooky; especially since every photograph, from Wikipedia on down, describes the Jonestown guard tower as being the "radio tower," even though documentary photographs depict the much taller single-pole-and guidewire structure which functioned as the international communications locus.]
The county was the domain of ranchers, loggers and fishermen when Jones and his Temple arrived in 1965. Jones said he was worried about the threat of nuclear war and wanted to find a safe place for his growing flock.
Jones grew up poor in rural Indiana and got his start as a fiery, self-ordained minister. By 1955 he was drawing large, interracial crowds to "miracle healing" services in Indianapolis.
He chose rural Northern California for the Temple's new home after finding it on a list of spots deemed safe from atomic fallout. About 100 disciples followed Jones from the Midwest to Mendocino County in 1965.
[Reeks of Conestoga wagons and not mushroom clouds. How'd they replace that rich guy in Indiana with the Masonite factory who'd hire anybody in the Temple willing to work?]
Handing over income
There was another lure, according to Temple historians. Under California's liberal welfare policies, the Temple's poor parishioners easily qualified for government aid and could use it to support the church.
[An added technique was for congregants to pauperize themselves by giving all their property to the church, then qualify for further welfare payments. This must have been a witting game plan for most of them.]
The Temple also made money operating state-funded care homes for the elderly, the disabled and troubled teen-agers.
[In many cases, parents gave up their parental rights to further qualify children as wards of the state. This is why you can never figure out the legal names and family structures as proffered over at Alternative Considerations. I think Hillary Clinton's "It takes a village" was meant to mean something else entirely.]
Jones quickly made his mark in Mendocino County. Within two years, he was a juvenile justice commissioner and chairman of the county's grand jury. Jones and his followers became known for their good works, visiting the sick and feeding the hungry.
[Oh the charisma! I'm getting a semi-hardon!]
His church welcomed all races, and Jones set an example by adopting a mixed-race family. The Temple brought busloads of inner city residents from San Francisco and Oakland to his sprawling new church when it opened in 1969 in Redwood Valley, eight miles north of Ukiah.
[In the theater, with a bomb, they call this "papering the house."]
The Temple's commitment to equality and civil rights attracted idealistic young whites, such as Timothy Stoen, a Stanford Law School graduate from a well-to-do Colorado family.
[Is it idealistic to sign over your parental rights within ten days of your wife giving birth. Does it go over well at the club?]
But the Temple had another side. Ukiah teachers said Temple children couldn't stay awake in class because they'd been up all night at Jones' marathon sermons.
[Being waterboarded at the bottom of a well is exhausting for a six-year-old too.]
Temple families endured long bus trips to Jones' appearances in other cities, sometimes sleeping in the luggage racks.
[Serves them right for voting out of their districts.]
There were whispered tales of adults and children who were beaten for violating the Temple's strict rules. Defectors said they were pressured to sign over their homes and life savings to the church.
Trouble inside church
Jones' miraculous healings were a fake, claimed former members, who said Jones now insisted he was God. Ex-followers said Jones slept with the church's young women and encouraged family members to spy on each other.
The preacher, called "Father" by his disciples, told them the Temple was under attack by outside forces and they should be ready to die for their beliefs.
[And eat rice and gravy and shit in a latrine for those b eliefs too.]
Jones warned Temple dissidents they would be punished, and several Temple defectors died under mysterious circumstances, according to ex-members.
Ukiah resident Brenda Ganatos said she was startled by the accounts of ex-Temple members and pressed local authorities to investigate. But no one in the county's government would listen, she said.
Stoen, Jones' top aide, was the assistant district attorney. Other Temple members held high positions in other county departments and Sheriff Reno Bartolomie was Jones' personal friend.
[There's no conspiracy here folks. Just move along.]
"Everywhere you went it was like hitting your head against a brick wall," Ganatos said.
Kinsolving came to Redwood Valley to investigate the reports of Jones' fantastic healing powers. He also talked to Temple defectors who called it a dangerous cult and said they feared for their lives.
After Kinsolving's series on the Temple started appearing in the Examiner, he felt Jones' wrath. More than 150 Jones followers picketed the paper, accusing Kinsolving of spreading lies.
Stories were killed
When the Temple threatened to sue the Examiner for libel, Kinsolving's editors killed the rest of his stories. Kinsolving, who now hosts a radio talk show in Washington, D.C., still is bitter about the episode.
Jones' church continued to grow, opening branches in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But cracks began appearing in the Temple's foundation.
[That's not "growth." It's cancer.]
There were more defections and ex-Temple members were speaking out. A turning point came in 1973, according to Stoen, who left the Temple two years later and became Jones' staunchest critic.
Eight of the church's members, students at Santa Rosa Junior College, suddenly left a Temple house in Santa Rosa. The defectors were led by Jim Cobb, a black who said Jones had turned his back on African-American followers.
[Jim Cobb will reappear in our story shortly, so not to worry.]
"That's what made Jim Jones go crazy," Stoen said. "The leader felt like he'd been dismembered.
[I won't touch that one with a ten-foot pole.] The Temple went into a siege mentality."
[But the "turning point in 1973" was also about the time when Jones' was opening those magnificent temples in LA and SF. So which way are we turning?]
By 1974, the Temple had pulled up stakes in Mendocino County and moved to San Francisco, where the message of social justice had a much wider audience. Jones' flock grew to several thousand and he soon became part of the city's liberal establishment.
[Ward bosses used to win over the Irish with simple beer.]
Won over politicians
He turned out voters to support San Francisco's political leaders, and they rewarded him generously. Then-Mayor George Moscone made Jones head of the city's housing commission.
[Turn, turn, turn...]
Elected officials, such as then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, former Assemblyman Art Agnos and then-Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, rushed to Jones' defense whenever he came under attack.
[There is a season...turn, turn, turn...]
But the questions were mounting. The Temple faced a government investigation for tax fraud and a pile of lawsuits from ex-members who claimed they were swindled out of their property. Relatives of Temple members alleged they were being brainwashed.
Jones posted guards around the Temple's Geary Street church.
[But according to Kinsolving in 1972, the USHERS in MENDOCINO COUNTY already carried guns!]
Convinced his enemies would never give up, Jones stepped up work on his ultimate plan. The Temple would leave California for a farm colony in the South American jungle, where his foes couldn't touch him. The first Temple members arrived at Jonestown in 1975 and Jones left the United States for good two years later.
[Puleeze. Jones' "ultimate plan" didn't included his giving up the socialist good life in cosmopolitan San Francisco and Los Angeles, until his political joy ride was pulled out from under him, due to the charge of homosexual solicitation which was being secretly held over his head. He was forced into exile, which is why he became so unpleasant and life changed so drastically for the worse for the pioneering residents in Guyana after he arrived.]
Stoen and Steve Katsaris, a Ukiah private school principal who had a daughter in Jonestown, led a parents' group that demanded the U.S. government investigate reports of abuse at Jonestown.
[A most important fact is that none of the family members of the parents' group accompanying Rep. Ryan choose to leave with his "fact-finding" junket, which was only an exercise in pissing into the wind. Instead, it was families of ancient Jones supporters going back to Indianapolis days, and a couple of mismatched homosexuals to act as bullet sponges, who choose to leave. And why would Jim Cobb, of all people, who led the first major defection back in 1973, be allowed into Jonestown as one of only four "family representatives?]
Ryan's fatal visit
They were instrumental in arranging Rep. Leo Ryan's 1978 visit to check on the residents' welfare. [pun intended] The San Mateo County congressman's trip ended in tragedy when he tried to leave Jonestown with a handful of Temple defectors.
After Temple gunmen attacked Ryan's party, killing the congressman and four others, Jones told his flock that suicide was their only way out. Of 913 Temple members who were murdered or committed suicide in Jonestown, at least 150 were former Mendocino County residents, including Stoen's son and Katsaris' daughter.
[The perpetrators get all the press. Who were these other 150 indigenous county "ranchers, loggers and fishermen" who succumbed?]
At the time of the massacre, the Temple still operated a Redwood Valley care home for disabled adults, Happy Acres. State authorities later removed its clients.
[But didn't this article state earlier that "By 1974, the Temple had pulled up stakes in Mendocino County and moved to San Francisco..."?]
Tom MacMillan, a professor at Mendocino College, said Ukiahns struggled for years to deal with feelings about the neighbors they lost in Jonestown. There was no memorial for the victims, "so there was a lot of unprocessed grief," he said.
[It wasn't "unprocessed" grief, it was "unreal" grief. See 9/11.]
He said the Temple made Mendocino County more wary of unusual religious groups. Still, he said the county has been home to a diverse collection of believers, including Krishnas, Moonies and neo-pagans.
"If there's a religious belief practiced anywhere in the world, I'll bet there's a place in Mendocino County you can find it," he said.
Lifting the stigma
MacMillan said there was some closure last year when Jones' former church in Redwood Valley was rededicated by the Assembly of God. Ukiah religious leaders and ex-Temple members gathered when the new congregation installed a cross and fountain there.
[Did the property stand empty, unused and unsold for 19 years?]
"We wanted to be part of the healing process," said Assembly of God Pastor Kim Harvey. "Since that day we've had a really beautiful sense of community. The stigma seems to have been reduced."
He said visitors from as far away as France have visited the church to see a part of the Temple's history. But the church doesn't look much like the original Peoples Temple, Harvey said. "It's so different they don't recognize it," he said.
[Everybody's looking to get some of those dark-tourism dollars.]
Ganatos said the ghost of the Rev. Jim Jones may never be completely exorcised because Mendocino County swept his misdeeds under the rug. She said the county never truly investigated the deaths of Temple defectors or his misuse of the county's welfare system.
[Straight talk: The deaths of 150 youths from the county's welfare system.]
Boynton said Jones' influence in government is overstated. "The only people he controlled were members of Peoples Temple," Boynton said. "He attempted to manipulate and use other people but he didn't control Mendocino County government."
[It's not a matter of "control" in an evil, covert, hierarchical system of power, where participants self-grasp according to their positions of authority.]
Such debates may continue, but after 20 years the Temple is starting to fade from the county's consciousness. "I think the big impact has passed," MacMillan said. As old timers die and newcomers take their places, "it's becoming pretty much a forgotten deal."