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Inside Man — From Redwood Valley to San Francisco

David Reuben — a short, scrappy investigator with the kind of commanding beak that looked like he enjoyed sticking it in people's business — leaned back in his chair in the San Francisco District Attorney's office, nursing a cup of jailhouse java. Reuben listened with growing intensity as a middle-aged couple named Al and Jeannie Mills unraveled a jaw-dropping story about their lives in Jim Jones's peculiar church. The Millses were the kind of homespun, American Gothic looking people you wouldn't glance at twice on the streets. But if 10% of what they were saying was true, Reuben figured, this case was going to rock the city — and the tremors would radiate far and wide.

Reuben had been recruited by Joe Frietas after he took over the DA's office in the 1975 liberal electoral sweep in San Francisco. Like Moscone, Frietas was a Kennedyesque Catholic politician with wavy haired, Mediterranean good looks. Raised in a Portuguese family in the Central Valley, Frietas had served in all the stations of the liberal cross, including the National Urban League and Common Cause, before running for San Francisco District Attorney at the age of 36. Brimming with youthful self-confidence and political ambition, the new District Attorney created a special prosecutions unit, filling it with young "red hots" — as Reuben described himself and his gung-ho colleagues. Frietas promised his mod squad a free hand in going after city corruption. "He told us there were no holds barred: dirty cops, dirty politicians, payoffs," recalled Reuben. "Joe said, 'I don't care who it is, you go after them'."

Frietas recruited crusading lawyers and investigators from all over the country for his new unit. Reuben and his crew came in with guns blazing, targeting the deep corruption in the San Francisco Police force, including payoffs to cops by the skin trade moguls in North Beach. But Reuben soon found that the San Francisco justice establishment was more impregnable than he had imagined.

Coming from Chicago, where he had broken in as an investigator for the State Attorney's office, pursuing corruption in Mayor Richard Daley's permanent regime, Reuben thought he had seen it all. But the San Francisco cop culture proved an even tougher nut to crack. "I thought that coming from Chicago, I knew old-boy's networks," he said, "but this was really something out here. It's a true old boy's network. All the cops and prosecutors know each other, they're all friends and family, they all went to the same parochial schools. And here we all come into the DA's office: we were all in our 20s and we're all ballbusters. I mean, I took on the Daley machine. We didn't care, we were going to investigate everybody. Well, it turns out that you don't do that in San Francisco — not unless you have the inside support. And I'm Jewish, from Chicago. So I was more outside than you can ever imagine."

By the time that Al and Jeannie Mills walked into his small office at the Hall of Justice in early 1977, Reuben and his team were beginning to feel demoralized. They had won some minor victories in their campaign against police corruption, but they were feeling increasingly isolated — not just within the Hall of Justice where police inspectors feared and hated them, but within the DA's office itself which was bitterly divided over Frietas's progressive reign. But the People's Temple investigation could make up for all the frustrations, Reuben realized. It was the kind of case that could make an investigator's career.

The Millses, who defected from the People's Temple in 1976, told Reuben and his team that Jim Jones was a violent, drug crazed despot. They accused him of ordering the murders of disaffected members and subjecting others to savage beatings, including their 16-year-old daughter who was whipped so severely, according to Al, "her butt looked like hamburger." The couple — who had changed their names from Elmer and Deanna Mertle to evade Temple enforcers — told the investigators that Jones forced members to turn over their property and possessions to the church and confiscated their welfare and Social Security checks. They said Jones had also built his organization into a potent political machine, manipulating elections and politicians and working his way into the inner circles of power in San Francisco.

Reuben and his colleagues immediately recognized how explosive the Millses' charges were. "At the time, Jim Jones was an acknowledged civic leader," recalled Reuben. "I mean, he was the second coming in this city, bringing together black and white, rich and poor. He had presidents and governors and congressmen kissing his ring. And Joe Frietas was one of those people."

Reuben and the chief of the special prosecutions unit, a former US prosecutor named Bob Graham, girded their loins and walked into their boss's office to present the accusations against the Peoples Temple. As Reuben and Graham itemized the charges to Frietas and his number two man, Danny Weinstein, the room grew tense. "We lay it all out, and you could have heard a pin drop," Reuben said. "And then Joe looks at us and says, 'What? Are you guys nuts?'"

Frietas heatedly pointed out to his special prosecutions team that people walked into the DA's office all the time with wild charges and personal grudges. "You guys can't just buy this stuff," Frietas admonished them.

Reuben and Graham were incensed. The hardcharging, windmill-tilting District Attorney who had hired them — and told them they had carte blanche — was now suggesting that they back off what could be the hottest case they'd ever worked. They immediately knew what was going down. They had read the newspapers and knew all about the various allegations from the Barbagelata camp: that Jim Jones and his zombie flock had stolen the election for Moscone and had worked hard for Frietas too.

"We were pissed," Reuben recalled later. "It was too dynamic for us not to dig into. All the names mentioned — Willie Brown, Dianne Feinstein, George Moscone — the whole gang was in there, I'm sure. And, of course, it was obvious to us — we're not idiots — Joe was in the middle of the thing. He knew that if we started doing this thing, his career might be affected."

Frietas was too politically savvy to simply shut down the People's Temple investigation. He knew that his angry investigators suspicions could wind up in the press. So he gave his special team just enough leash to quietly look into the Millses' accusations. And to make sure that Reuben and Graham did not dig too deeply, Frietas appointed a young deputy named Tim Stoen as his liaison on the case.

Reuben did not know much about Stoen. The Deputy DA who wore born rimmed glasses and three-piece suits was a straightlaced loner. "He was a nerdy kind of guy," Reuben recalled. "Very bright, well spoken. We thought he was one of us, a reformer. But we joked about it because he seemed too idealistic. He really wasn't friendly with anybody, just did his own thing."

As Reuben and his team dug deeper into the Millses' hair-raising stories about the People's Temple, the allegations were checking out. Interviewing other defectors and anxious relatives of Temple members, the investigators soon learned how fearful these people were of  reprisals from Jones's security guards — all of whom, Reuben discovered, had long rap sheets. Reuben promised his witnesses that he would protect their anonymity. But when he and his colleagues casually referred to their partner on the case, Deputy District Attorney Tim Stoen, the witnesses looked stunned. "Tim Stoen?" said one defector to Reuben with panic in his eyes. "He's Jim Jones's top legal adviser."

A chill ran up Reuben's spine when he heard this. Afterward he and Bob Graham stumbled in a daze over to a cop bar across the street from the Hall of Justice to compare notes. What the hell was going on? The question hung over them like a noose as they hunched over their drinks. "So now we're figuring, is Stoen a plant? Does Frietas know who he is or did this guy just weasel his way in? Does this all go back to Jones? Even before this, we didn't know who to trust in the office. But now we were really paranoid because we don't know who's calling the shots."

The two investigators marched into Frietas's office to confront their boss. "We blew up," recalled Reuben. "We said, 'What's going on here? Are we being made patsies in this whole thing?'"

Frietas acted surprised. "He said, 'Are you guys sure?' And this and that, like he didn't know anything about Stoen." But the investigators realized that Stoen was far too cozy with their boss for him not to have known.

Joe Frietas would later tell the press he had no idea that Tim Stoen was Jones's right-hand man when he hired him; that he had simply plucked his resume out of the slush pile. But in truth, the People's Temple, which had contributed money and campaigned for Frietas, engineered Stoen's insertion into the DA's office as a political reward for its efforts. And in a brazen move to cover up the voter fraud committed by the Temple during the 1975 election, Frietas put the Temple's lawyer in charge of the investigation. In doing so, he ensured that San Francisco would never find out who had really won the mayoral election. Stoen brought in People's Temple clerrical volunteers to help with his politically sensitive probe. The foxes had free run of the henhouse and they left only feathers.

Three years later, after the name Jim Jones had gone down in infamy, state and federal investigators finally began looking into the shady election. When they asked for all the rosters showing who voted, the city's Deputy Registrar of Voters went searching for the records in three locked vaults where they were kept. All the records were missing.

After they found out about Stoen, Reuben and Graham began taking their files home at night, no longer sure that they could protect the confidentiality of their Peoples Temple witnesses, some of whom feared for their lives. 

The investigators' suspicions were well-founded. Stoen, it turned out, was literally a sleeper in the DA's office. He often spent the night there, though he had a residence on Page Street, giving him free access to the office's most sensitive documents for almost a year. Stoen and his wife, Grace, whom he had brought into the Temple, enjoyed "a free romp through the place after hours," one source reported. Frietas later shrugged off his deputy's afterhours routine. "He was a hard worker," the DA explained, and after toiling late into the night he often needed to avail himself of his office couch.

Frietas accommodated Stoen in other ways as well. When citizen complaints about simple criminality came into the office, Frietas made sure that Jones's lieutenant was brought into the loop. Hannibal Williams, a charismatic Fillmore leader who fought a brave but losing battle against the razing of his neighborhood, was one of the few black pastors who dared to criticize Jones's operation. When Williams was threatened by Peoples Temple thugs, he went to the District Attorney only to be turned over to Tim Stoen.

If Tim Stoen confounded his colleagues in the District Attorney's Office, he was also a mystery to some members of Jones's inner circle. A deeply religious Republican attorney with political ambitions when he discovered People's Temple, Stoen soon became a true believer and a man so trusted by Jones that the Temple leader delegated much of the organization's legal and financial affairs to Stoen and his wife. Despite Stoen's middle-American upbringing and early anti-communism, he declared himself a disciple of Jones's oddball socialism. "Tim was so close to my dad; I think he was Dad's real true friend," said Jim Jones Jr., the cult leader's adopted son.

Nonetheless, Jones, easily threatened by accomplished men like the Stanford educated lawyer, put Stoen threw some bizarre loyalty tests and sexual humiliations to which he subjected other Temple members. Jones toyed perversely with the Stoens' marriage, wheedling Tim into having affairs with other women in the church and then planting doubts in Grace's head about her husband's loyalty and sexual orientation.

Jones — whose sexual appetites were imperial, establishing rapacious dominion over men and women alike — was of the eccentric opinion that he was the only true heterosexual male in the Temple. All the other men around them secretly harbored lusts for their fellow man, Jones insisted, and he was in the habit of offering to relieve various fellows of their illicit desires by buggering them. Jones once finagled Stoen into going out shopping for a bra and panties and then used the female frillies to convince Grace that her husband was a closet drag queen. The preacher also tried to get him to confess in front of the church assembly that he was gay, but the buttoned-down lawyer refused.

Other times Stoen seemed recklessly willing to prostrate himself before his master's will. In February 1972 — after Grace gave birth to a baby boy named John Stoen — Tim agreed to sign a document stating, "I entreated my beloved pastor, James W. Jones, to sire a child by my wife [because I] was unable after extensive attempts to sire one myself. My reason for requesting James W. Jones to do this is that I wanted my child to be fathered, if not by me, by the most compassionate, honest and courageous human being the world contains." 

This wanton act of self-abasement would come back to haunt the Stoens.

Despite the many mortifications of serving Jim Jones, Tim Stoen remained zealously steadfast. One member of the Temple's inner circle was amazed to see the lawyer go along with some of Jones's most violent fantasies without objection. "Jim started turning crazier by the day in San Francisco," said the temple insider. "I knew he was going over the edge when he ordered a woman named Maria Katsaris to start taking flying lessons. He wanted her to learn how to fly so they could fill a plane with Temple members and then crash it in an act of 'Revolutionary suicide,' as he called it. Maria went to flight school but she hated it. Stoen knew about Maria's flight training. He was in the room when it was discussed. It was talked about a number of times."

On another occasion, Stoen told a  Temple insider to get a gun, in case Jones was harmed by outside enemies and the organization needed to strike back. The lawyer also talked about putting plutonium in the Washington DC water supply. One of Stoen's ideas, according to the insider, apparently surprised even Jones. "He ordered a couple of us to set up a bomb factory in San Francisco. I went to Jim and told him. He said he knew nothing about it and he told me not to do anything."

The insider came to believe that Stoen was an agent provocateur. Later, after Jones began shipping his operation to Guyana, other members of the Temple's leadership circle including Jones himself also concluded that Stoen was a government agent. While rummaging through Stoen's briefcase in Guyana, Jones's lieutenants found a newspaper clipping about his arrest in East Berlin when he was an overseas college student, as well as a diary from this period, full of strong anti-Communist sentiments. They also discovered a second passport. In the febrile and suspicious atmosphere of the People's Temple, this seemed to prove that Stoen had some sort of intelligence background.

While Stoen was working in the San Francisco District Attorney's office, however, he did nothing to inflame Jones's paranoia. As far as Dave Reuben could tell, he was a Temple loyalist, Jim Jones's man inside the Hall of Justice. "I didn't talk to Stoen after we found out about it," said Reuben. "I probably wanted to shoot him. We may have even tailed him at some point."

Stoen always denied he was aware of the People's Temple voter fraud and its cover-up, despite the key positions he held within the church and the San Francisco DA's office. "Jim Jones kept a lot of things from me," he later told the New York Times. Years after the Peoples Temple saga, Stoen went full circle returning to the North California coast region where he had joined Jones's church and resuming his career as a respected prosecutor and Republican party politician in Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Stoen declined to comment for this book on his years with Jones.

Jim Jones proved a master at politically wiring San Francisco in the mid-70s. Planting Stoen in the District Attorney's Office was just one of his successful maneuvers. Considering the criminal underside of his operation, it was also one of the most useful. Sun Reporter publisher Dr. Carlton Goodlett, one of the pillars of the black community to be seduced by Jones, marveled at his ally's manipulation of the civic power structure. "You always got a man pretty close to a law enforcement agency in town, don't you?" Goodlett once observed.

"You're very perceptive," chuckled Jones.

Later, after Jonestown became an international symbol of mass lunacy, it was widely assumed to be one more outgrowth of "San Fransicko." But, in fact, Jim Jones was a God-fearing product of the American heartland. 

(Courtesy, David Talbot, author of the excellent history of San Francisco in the fraught years of the 1960s and 1970s: "Season Of The Witch."  This is part one of three passages having to do with Mendocino County.)

One Comment

  1. George Hollister June 14, 2019

    “But, in fact, Jim Jones was a God-fearing product of the American heartland.”

    He, and a number of other left wing activists of the day. They were in California, but not from California.

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