The heretic feels the true believer’s wrath more than the heathen. Tim Stoen, chairman of the board of Peoples Temple when it resolved to acquire a massive tract of land in Guyana, knows this better than most.
Despised by Temple critics when he ran interference for Jim Jones as his personal lawyer, Stoen ultimately became despised by the reverend once he left the group and dared ask for his son back in the process. The peculiar preacher sermonized about slitting Stoen’s throat and blamed the group’s mass-murder/suicide on his friend-turned-foe in his final address to his flock. After he helped the devil at the Peoples Temple pulpit in California, Tim Stoen became the devil to the Peoples Temple parishioners in Guyana.
In Marked for Death: My War with Jim Jones the Devil of Jonestown, Stoen chronicles the long, strange trip from Porsche-driving “limousine liberal” lawyer to trusted lieutenant of a faith-healing socialist to a clarion blower warning a deaf world to the imminent killings of more than 900 people in the South American jungle. The fascinating book reads, like accounts of the demise of Jonestown itself, as unbelievable yet true. More than 35 years after Jonestown happened, we still wonder if what happened really happened. Marked for Death helps curious readers make sense of the senseless.
As Jones’s attorney, the author saw the Temple in a way few others did. But Stoen contends that, rather than allow him to see everything, his attorney-client relationship with Jones prevented him from seeing much. The raven-haired preacher shielded behind sunglasses shielded misdeeds such as punitive Temple boxing matches pitting weaklings against experienced street brawlers, a congregant dubbed prudish and racist commanded to perform oral sex on a menstruating black woman in front of a large audience of gawkers, and a four-year-old complaining about food forced to eat it in regurgitated form after he vomited.
But Stoen, perhaps deliberately kept away from lawbreaking because of his position in the legal system or his status as Jones’s attorney, witnessed a foreshadowing of the act synonymous with Peoples Temple.
“[M]ost likely in September 1975, there came a moment that would haunt me over and over in the years to come and would cause me to harangue myself with the words idiot…idiot…idiot!” he confesses in Marked for Death. “I showed up in San Francisco at a [planning commission] meeting, unexpectedly. When Jones saw me come in, he took me aside and said these exact words: ‘Whatever happens tonight, Tim, I want you to know that I do not believe in suicide’ Then, during the meeting, he passed out wine all around, and after everyone had drunk some, said that everyone would die in forty-five minutes. None did.”
Stoen took Jones at his word, believing the event some sort of psychological exercise. He deluded himself into seeing the hokey and histrionic miracles Jones performed on attendees of his services as the genuine article. Most incredibly, he signed a document attesting that his pastor sired a child with his wife Grace. This gullible decision proved an act of tremendous significance for Tim Stoen, Jim Jones, and every member of the Peoples Temple.
Stoen, admittedly more fond of the communitarian ethos of Peoples Temple in the abstract than in his personal life, ran afoul of his church’s pastor when he opened up a bank account, traveled without Temple authorization, and dared contradict Jim Jones in public when he accused him, like he did all other men, of sexual attraction to males. Stoen remained loyal but wondering through the indignities. Ultimately, when Jones denigrated Stoen’s child’s mother — who had declared her independence from Jim Jones on the bicentennial — to their son, Stoen decided to bolt. The very Bible that Jones literally stomped on provided an exit. “Everything kicked in from my earlier churchgoing life: honor thy mother,” Stoen tells The American Spectator of that moment in 1977. “And if that’s violated then any promise you made is superseded. That’s why I left.”
He spent much of the remaining year-and-a-half or so of the life of Peoples Temple suing its leader, making his case to the press, and trying to win over politicians he once helped win over for Jones to the idea of the dangerousness of the man so entrenched in the San Francisco power structure that the mayor made him chairman of the housing commission. A bitter custody battle ensued between the Stoens and Jim Jones. When Concerned Relatives, the vehicle that the Stoens and others used to rescue family members trapped in the group, persuaded several journalists to write shocking exposés about Peoples Temple in the summer of 1977, the group moved en masse to South America.
Tim Stoen maintains that the public figures — San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, actress Jane Fonda, journalist Herb Caen, activist Angela Davis — seduced by Jones merely got suckered by the same charlatan who fooled him. Like Jones’s followers, they had skin in the game. First Lady Rosalynn Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale met with Jones during the 1976 campaign, and San Francisco pols Willie Brown and Harvey Milk treated him as though a God. Marked for Death reserves special contempt for the State Department of the Carter Administration that turned its back on repeated warnings of impending mass suicide in Jonestown.
“The U.S. State Department was to remain willfully blind until it was way too late, and despite [Congressman] Leo Ryan and staff members meeting department officials — five times — in preparation for his trip,” he writes. “On November 13, 1978, Ryan went so far as to bring [defector] Deborah Blakey and Grace [Stoen] and [concerned relative] Steve Katsaris to the meeting with State Department officials,” Stoen notes. “Despite Debbie’s face-to-face account of mass-suicide there, the officials acted as if they had never heard the allegations before.”
The gifted lawyer, effective as a propagandist in the service of Jones, proved incapable of persuading the powerful to stop the paranoid, drug-addicted communist from achieving his grisly plan of “revolutionary suicide.” On November 18, 1978, Jones, with the aid of gun-toting henchmen, orchestrated the deaths of more than 900 people, including Congressman Leo Ryan, in Guyana. The author tells The American Spectator that the components of “the Molotov cocktail that led to Jonestown” included “the narcissism, the absolute power, and the talent for mind control.”
Stoen says that his mistakes include allowing his anger over injustice to guide him into a political movement, embracing an ideology that supplied a priori answers to everything, and submitting to authority. His correct path arrived when he so loudly denounced what he once defended. This effectively saved his own life even if it failed to save the lives of many others, including his six-year-old son.
“The reason that I am alive today is because I became so conspicuous in this humiliating fight,” Stoen tells The American Spectator. “[Jim Jones] was afraid to do me in for fear that it would create an international investigation down in Jonestown that would invade his fortress. There’s a moral there. If you screw up even bigtime, don’t run away and hide. Go after it and try to correct it.”
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