Jim Jones's most ardent supporter in San Francisco press circles was Steve Gavin, the San Francisco Chronicle's city editor. A Baltimore native, he joined the Chronicle in 1969. Life in San Francisco agreed with Gavin, a gay man in his 30s who loved theater, baseball, and a well-mixed Manhattan. The socially aware newspaperman was delighted when he discovered Peoples Temple and its racially mixed, politically energized congregation. His increasingly warm relationship with Jones made Gavin feel connected to the kind of constituency that newspapers usually overlooked: the black, poor and religious. Jones and his slick media strategist — a handsome, former local TV newsman named Michael Prokes — made sure that Gavin felt the Temple's love.
“Jones took Gavin under his wing and made a big fuss over him,” said Chronicle reporter Marshall Kilduff. “It was very flattering. And I think there was a degree of social usefulness in the relationship. Jones handed him a chunk of the city that wasn't a big Chronicle franchise. Gavin liked that.”
Gavin began exchanging heartfelt letters with Jones in 1976. In July the city editor wrote to the preacher, thanking him for serving him lunch and taking him on a tour of the temple. “I enjoyed our discussion,” Gavin wrote. “As I told you, I look for small victories in life. You have accomplished major ones. I know the feeling of getting discouraged. There is so much to do. It helps, periodically, I think, to count our blessings and to look back, to see how far we've come. To this outsider's eye, you have done a tremendous job … thank you for what you are contributing to my city.”
A few days later, Gavin sent the cult leader a wryly charming homily from Irish writer Brendan Behan. Jones, communicating through Prokes, responded that he was “delighted” by the quote and urged the newspaper editor to call on him for assistance if he ever needed it.
That fall, Gavin did call on Jones for help, asking him to support four Fresno Bee reporters who had been jailed for refusing to reveal the names of confidential sources. Jones dispatched busloads of Temple members to Fresno to demonstrate on their behalf.
Around the same time, the Temple deluged the Chronicle city editor, who was suffering from a persistent cold, with a pile of get-well letters. Gavin, touched by the congregation's generosity, responded with another fervent letter, telling Jones that he wished the press could be as compassionate as the Temple was toward “the multiplicity of people that make up our community — caring is all.”
Jones was a master at drawing liberals and idealists who yearned for a better world into his web. He could smell the feverish longing for deliverance that wafted off them, And he made them believe he was their salvation. Jones offered a vision of heaven on earth that made even the most secular suspend rational judgment and take a leap of faith. It was all for show, but people like Gavin longed to embrace the People's Temple pageant: Black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, all joining hands in blissful communion.
“I was always wary of being manipulated by Temple officials and conscious of the possibility, but I don't think I was,” Gavin later insisted. “I think all my decisions about Peoples Temple stories were made on a professional basis.” But the record shows a newsman who was utterly in thrall to Jones.
The People's Temple skillfully courted other journalists too, including Herb Caen, who enjoyed two long, chatty lunches with the cult leader. “I found him appealing — soft-spoken, modest, talking earnestly of helping people,” Caen wrote later. “If he was a con man, he was masterful at it.” Jones continued to get good play in Caen's column even after the bloom was fading from the Temple's rose.
But no one in the San Francisco media world proved more useful for Jones than Steve Gavin, who single-handedly made sure that the city's leading newspaper did not shine a harsh spotlight on the cult leader. When Chronicle reporter Julie Smith began working on a story about the Temple in the spring of 1976, Jones somehow learned the exact contents of the story draft while it still sat in her newsroom desk. Later Marshall Kilduff, who had a prickly experience with Jones while covering his strange performance on San Francisco's housing commission, decided to write a profile of him. Showing up at the Temple on a Sunday in January 1977 to interview church officials, the Chronicle reporter was taken on a long tour that ended in the main auditorium, where a service was in progress. As Kilduff was escorted to his seat near the front of the congregation, he was stunned to see his boss, Steve Gavin, sitting among the worshipers.
The next morning, Kilduff gingerly approached Gavin in the Chronicle newsroom. “Quite a show,” said the reporter. “Don't you think we should do a story about this guy? I hear he's powerful politically.”
But the city editor cut him off. “We've already done it,” said Gavin, referring to the bland, carefully managed article produced earlier by Julie Smith.
Blocked by his own newspaper, the dogged Kilduff continued to work the People's Temple story on his own time, while searching for a magazine to publish it. As he tracked down sources, Temple members kept close watch on him, digging through his garbage and reporting his every move to Gavin, their friend at the Chronicle. In March, Kilduff finally got a freelance assignment from New West, a regional magazine owned by Rupert Murdoch. But when a Temple delegation called on its editor, Kevin Starr, and explained that the article would harm its humanitarian work, he killed the piece. Only after Starr was replaced by a more enterprising editor, Rosalee Wright, did New West revive Kilduff's assignment.
When the story, “Inside Peoples Temple,” was finally published, it marked the beginning of the end for Jones's sinister reign in San Francisco. The article, written by Kilduff and New West reporter Phil Tracy, was based on the disturbing accounts of many of the same defectors who had taken their complaints to the San Francisco District Attorney's Office only to see them bottled up. They told of the beatings, the bizarre temple ceremonies, the confiscation of members' money and assets, and the political empire building throughout the state. Among the reporters' sources was Grace Stoen, who had been forced to leave behind her five-year-old son, John, when she fled the Temple. To his mother's anguish, the boy had been taken away to the Temple's Guyana retreat.
While reporters were still working on their exposé of People's Temple, Tim Stoen also defected, disappearing from the Temple's command post in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, in June 1977. The defection of Stoen, who joined his wife in an increasingly desperate custody battle for John, was a particularly grievous blow for Jones. Stoen knew all the organization's legal and financial secrets. His betrayal sent Jones spiraling downward into a whirlpool of panic. Battle-mode fever gripped the Temple.
Before the New West article hit the newsstands in late July, Jim Jones ran off to Guyana, leaving his stunned liberal supporters in San Francisco to make sense of it all. Mayor George Moscone was privately rattled by the magazine's charges, but he and the rest of the city's liberal elite publicly closed ranks behind the Temple leader. After Jones took flight, the Temple officials who were still in San Francisco organized a rally in their Geary Boulevard citadel to show support for their embattled leader. Willie Brown was still willing to shill for Jones, blaming his flight on his political enemies. “When somebody like Jim Jones comes on the scene,” Brown told the gathering, “that absolutely scares the hell out of most everybody occupying positions of power in the system.” The assembly then listened rapidly as Jones himself ranted over a long distance radio hookup, denouncing his tormentors as “bitches” and “bastards,” sounding more like a tantrum-throwing brat than an esteemed religious leader.
Assemblyman Art Agnos, another benefactor of Jones's support, was visiting the Temple for the first time, sitting next to Harvey Milk in the audience. Listening to the frantic, disembodied voice from Guyana, Agnos turned to Milk and said, “Harvey, that guy is really wild.”
Milk, who was still standing by Jones, replied weakly, “Yeah, he's different, all right.”
As the political fallout from the New West article grew, some San Francisco officials began running for cover. In late August DA Joe Freitas ordered his investigator Bob Graham to write a memo stating that the district attorney's office looked into the charges leveled by the magazine and found no basis for legal action. Graham's memo also gave Tim Stoen a pass, stating, “So far, no evidence has surfaced that would link Stoen with any criminal activity in San Francisco.” The memo was one more humiliation for Freitas's gung-ho investigators. They had tried hard to dig to the bottom of the Peoples Temple swamp, only to be roped in by their boss. Now Freitas was making them concoct a cover story for him.
“It was an ass-covering memo,” said David Rueben. “It gave Freitas the ability to talk to the press and say, “Yes, we looked into the charges and couldn't find anything.” But the truth is, we kept investigating after that memo. Bob Graham would not have taken a dive, and I certainly wouldn't. We were too invested in the case.”
The problem, however, was that Jim Jones, the chief target of their probe, was now in Guyana, far from the reach of San Francisco investigators. And no officials — federal, state or local — seemed interested in pursuing Jones into the jungle.
Reuben and his team were stunned by Jones's sudden flight. They thought the timing of his escape was suspicious, prompted not just by the imminent publication of the New West exposé but also by their own investigation. Somebody in the Hall of Justice had clearly tipped off the Temple. “We were ready for grand jury indictments; we were this close,” said Rueben. “And Freitas would have had to go along with it, because he had no other choice. The next thing I know, I get a phone call in the middle of the night. 'Guess what; he's gone.' Jones is gone, and the Temple is packing up and getting ready to join him. I remember we had a meeting in the office and we said, 'Somebody snitched us off'.”
In the fall of 1977 as Jim Jones hunkered down in Guyana's steaming tropical wilderness with his flock of more than a thousand souls, disturbing reports about the “utopian” community began filtering back to the Bay Area. But political supporters like Harvey Milk, newly elected to the board of supervisors, stuck by the increasingly fanatical leader, out of fear, expedience, or stubborn loyalty. In December 1977 Milk wrote to Joseph Califano, President Carter's Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, protesting HEW's decision to stop forwarding Social Security checks to elderly Temple members in Guyana — a key financial pipeline for Jones. “People's Temple,” Milk informed Califano, “has established a beautiful retirement community in Guyana, the type of which people of means would pay thousands of dollars to patronize.”
In February 1978 Milk intervened on Jones's behalf in the raging custody battle over young John Stoen, writing to President Carter himself in support of the cult leader. “Reverend Jones,” Milk told Carter, “is widely known in the minority communities here and elsewhere as a man of the highest character, who has undertaken constructive remedies for social problems which have been amazing in their scope and effectiveness.” Milk complained that Tim and Grace Stoen were trying to get the State Department to help win the return of their son — a move, he warned, that could create an international incident. “Not only is the life of a child at stake, who presently has loving protective parents in Reverend and Mrs. Jones,” Milk wrote, “but our official relations with Guyana could stand to be jeopardized.”
Jones was maniacally obsessive about hanging on to little John Stoen. Keeping custody of the boy was a way to continue control over Tim Stoen, ensuring that the high-level defector kept silent about Temple secrets. The long-running furor over the case was also a way for Jones to keep his followers in a constant state of fear and embattlement, always on the lookout for helicopters carrying US agents or Guyanese soldiers who might swoop down on them to seize the boy and destroy their last refuge.
As he whipped his followers into frenzies of fear, Jones called on fellow revolutionaries back home to demonstrate their support. Radical celebrity Angela Davis — a charismatic Marxist scholar who had been tried and acquitted of aiding Jonathan Jackson in his doomed attempt to free his brother George — was a diehard Temple defender. She sent heartfelt greetings by radio to the emotionally wrung out community, her voice booming out to a Temple assembly over loudspeakers. “I know you're in a very difficult situation right now, and there is a conspiracy,” Davis declared. “A very profound conspiracy designed to destroy the contributions which you have made to the struggle.” But Davis assured her “brothers and sisters” in the Temple that “we will do everything in our power to ensure your safety.”
The Temple assembly also heard Huey Newton via a crackling phone patch from Cuba, where the Black Panthers leader was in exile: “I want the Guyanese government to know that you are not to be messed around with. Keep strong and we are pulling for you.”
Longtime Black Panther attorney Charles Garry, a lion of the Bay Area left, agreed to represent Jones in his legal battles. Garry became an aggressive mouthpiece for the Temple back in the United States, telling the press, “there is a conspiracy by government agencies to destroy the People's Temple.” Garry began to question Jones's mental stability, but he kept his doubts to himself. After visiting Jonestown in October 1977, the radical lawyer announced, “I have seen paradise.”
In reality, the Jonestown “Paradise” was a nightmarish Third World police state. Everyone but the youngest and oldest were forced to work like mules from dawn to dusk in the sweltering fields, scratching out a living from the wild jungle terrain. Chronically short of food, residents struggled to keep their weight up with starchy meals like cassava bread drenched in brown syrup and rice soaked with gravy. Families and lovers were forced to live apart, relatives were pitted against one another, neighbors were ordered to inform on each other.
After dinner, the exhausted community was forced to assemble for interminable “emergency meetings” and listen to Jones's increasingly mad ravings late into the night. Punishment was swift for those who nodded off. One evening a 60-year-old father of five named Charlie, worn out from fieldwork, slumped to the ground. An incensed Jones commanded Charlie's son to wrap a boa constrictor around his father's neck, releasing him only after the poor man's face was turning red and he had humiliated himself by pissing his pants.
Jones and his heavily armed security team kept the community in the state of terrorized obedience. Minor infractions could send malefactors of all ages, even children, to the dreaded Box, a stuffy underground cubicle where they could be held for days. Those who dared to dissent were dispatched to the medical unit where they were forcibly drugged and kept in a zombified state indefinitely.
While his followers lived hungry, spartan lives, Emperor Jones resided in relative splendor in his cottage well stocked with electric appliances, delicacies like hard-boiled eggs, snacks and soft drinks, and a cache of medications that he had expropriated from his aging and feeble residents. His drug supplies were endless.
The Temple leader had been dependent on amphetamines, sedatives, and other drugs for years. Jim Jones Jr. remembered that as far back as the family days in Redwood Valley, his father kept a tray of white liquid in the refrigerator and would fix syringes with the fluid and inject himself. One time he overdosed, flailing around on the floor, and the worried kids were told that their father had suffered a heart attack. But years later, after working in a hospital, the younger Jones came to realize his father had displayed the symptoms of a speed addict.
In the glorious isolation of Jonestown, under his tropical canopy, Jones surrendered fully to his drug fueled manias. He created an Orwellian dystopia and forced his captive followers to live in it. The nights were the worst, as the jungle dark silence was broken by a ghastly soundtrack of howler monkeys screechings and Jones's sudden eruptions over the loudspeakers. Father's voice was everywhere: in the huts, townhouses, fields. There was no getting away from his sleepless rants.
“White Night!” Father would yell in the deepest black of night, jolting his followers from their exhausted slumber. “White Night!” Residents were rushed toward the glaring lights of the pavilion, the elderly shuffling along in a daze, the children crying. When they were all gathered there, Jones — spazzy and hotwired on speed — told them that the US government was about to pounce. They had to act quickly.
“Hear that sound?” Father told them. “The mercenaries are coming. The end has come. Time is up. Children — line up into two queues, one on either side of me.”
The guards stood solemn vigil over a large vat next to Jones.
“It tastes like fruit juice, children. It will not be hard to swallow.”
The White Night drill. It was terrifying but not real. Until the day it was.
Rapture In The Jungle
Back in the United States, relatives of Jim Jones's terrorized flock grew increasingly desperate as they tried to arouse the interest of public officials. Democratic Congressman Leo Ryan, who represented a suburban district south of San Francisco, was the only one who took their concerns seriously. The State Department shrugged off Ryan's inquiries, assuring him that all was well in Guyana. He held a hearing on Jonestown, inviting defectors and worried relatives to testify before a congressional panel, but his colleagues were distracted and uninformed, and the witnesses' testimony drew little media coverage.
Ryan was the kind of congressional lone ranger who tackled issues in dramatic ways. He once traveled to Prince Edward Island off Newfoundland to confront fur hunters who were killing baby harp seals. He decided to fly down to Guyana and inspect Jonestown firsthand. Ryan invited other members of the Bay Area congressional delegation to accompany him, but they all turned them down. The congressman knew the risk. David Rueben warned him not to go. Before he left Washington, Ryan gave his will to an aide for safekeeping.
“I think he was afraid,” said his daughter Pat Ryan. “But he also believed that, goddammit, somebody's got to do something.”
As Ryan walked out of the family's Bay Area home on the way to catch a plane to Guyana, his daughter hugged him for the last time. “Don't let anybody shoot you,” she joked anxiously.
“Don't worry,” her father assured her. “I'll be fine.”
Ryan and his entourage, which included two San Francisco newspaper reporters, a Washington Post reporter, and an NBC news team, hoped there would be safety in numbers. Everything seemed calm during the delegation's visit to Jonestown, as the cult leader managed to shake off the drug haze and keep his congregation in line. But when the visitors prepared to leave, one resident after the next came forward nervously begged to go with them. The defections, 16 in all, cracked the hellish community's carefully constructed façade, and the madness began sluicing out.
As Ryan was politely taking his leave, one of Jones's loyalists rushed forward and threw his arms around the congressman. “Congressman Ryan, you motherfucker!” he spat out, jabbing at Ryan's jugular with a homemade knife. Others lunged for the attacker, and after a frantic scuffle on the ground, he was disarmed. Ryan was not hurt, but as he jumped aboard the truck taking the delegation and the defectors to the nearby landing strip, a thick air of menace hung over the group. It was suddenly, terribly clear that nothing — not Ryan's congressional status, not the presence of a media pack — protected them here in the blazing, humid middle of nowhere, in Jim Jones's remote empire.
While the group was boarding two small planes, a People's Temple tractor-trailer rolled onto the runway carrying several armed men. They opened fire on Ryan's delegation with rifles and shotguns. When the explosion of gunfire stopped, five people were dead, including the congressman, and ten were wounded.
As word got back to Jonestown about the massacre at the airstrip, the congregation was gathered in the pavilion, in the midst of another White Night drill. But Jones knew this was no drill, it was his final stand. A congressman had been murdered. This time they really would be coming after him.
Always looking for a wider audience, the megalomaniacal preacher taped his last sermon — a rambling, self pitying, insidiously seductive performance that is deeply disturbing to hear. Jones addressed his distraught flock from his usual throne, a wooden garden chair on the stage. Assembled before him were over 900 men, women and children who had followed him into the wilderness and would soon be told to join him in oblivion. Many had been outcasts: welfare mothers, convicts, and addicts. But mostly they were solidly working class people. They were former factory workers, nurses, teachers, longshoremen, and field hands. Around 70% were black, and women outnumbered men nearly two to one. Later they would be portrayed as figures of pathos, but there was nothing pathetic about their dreams of a better world — dreams that Jones manipulated brilliantly.
Now he played on those deep aspirations one last time, in his lulling voice, trying to convince them that the promised land could not be found in this life, it awaited them in death.
“It's all over,” Jones told the assembly. “The congressman has been murdered.” Troops would soon overrun Jonestown, he said, and horribly torture them; even the children and old people would not be safe. They must avoid this terrible fate by taking control of their destinies and committing “revolutionary suicide.”
“My opinion is that we be kind to the children and be kind to the seniors and take the potion like they used to take in ancient Greece, and step over quietly,” he explained to them, with the patience of a schoolteacher. “Because we are not committing suicide. It's a revolutionary act.”
No one can stop Jim Jones now. The big aluminum vat is brought out. This time, the grape Flavor Ade is laced with potassium cyanide. In his eerie singsong voice, Jones urges his flock to take their final communion — babies and children first. Ghostly church music plays in the background.
It scars the soul to listen to the infants' screaming and crying. As the children begin their death throes — vomiting and bleeding through their noses and gasping for breath — Jones urges them to stay quiet. “Look children, it's just something to put you to rest.”
Many parents are now hysterical, watching their children die, and Jones scolds them. “We must die with some dignity.” But one mother can't stop wailing.
“Mother, mother, mother, mother, mother, please,” croons Jones, whose own hysteria seems held down only by sedatives. “Mother, please, please, please. Don't — don't do this. Lay down your life with your child. But don't do this.”
Jones seems offended that people are not dying according to his choreography. “Keep your emotions down,” he commands. “I don't care how many screams you here, I don't care how many anguished cries, death is a million times preferable to ten more days of this life.”
Many Jonestown residents did not agree with their raving leader that day. But there was no escape. The pavilion was surrounded by armed security guards, including some of the murderers who had returned from the airstrip. One survivor saw dozens of people being dragged to the tub of purple colored poison and estimated that about 60 adults were forcibly injected with the potion. By some accounts, one of those who went down resisting was Christine Miller.
Jonestown has become widely known as the biggest mass suicide in history. But with so many adult members of the community strong-armed to their doom, hundreds of children murdered, and many parents so anguished that they could not help but join their little ones in death, it is more appropriate to call Jonestown a slaughter. Even those who went to their deaths singing Jones's praises were victims of his con. Incarcerated in a jungle concentration camp and robbed of their free will, they were programmed to follow their leader to the gates of hell.
“Free at last,” moans Jim Jones near the end, before someone puts a bullet in his head, his preferred method of exit. The invocation of Martin Luther King was one last sacrilege by the man who had wrapped himself in the glorious rhetoric of suffering and resistance.
When Jones staged his grand escape, he did not simply destroy over 900 lives and plunge thousands more into bottomless grief. He poisoned a language of social justice. Everyone who had joined hands with his crusade, whether for opportunistic or idealistic reasons, was now contaminated by Jonestown. As the news images of bloated corpses sprawled in the dust were beamed back to San Francisco, the city shuddered. The same free air that had nurtured the beats, hippies, gays, and a growing garden of the imagination had given birth to a monster.
As the grisly spectacle in Guyana was revealed, the Fillmore neighborhood was filled with wailing and tears. Ravaged by redevelopment, poverty, drugs, and crime, San Francisco's black heartland reeled once more. Nearly every family in the neighborhood was touched by the loss of someone in Jonestown.
Shrieking relatives and frenzied reporters and TV crews besieged the Peoples Temple building on Geary. Family members, uncertain about the fates of their loved ones, demanded information. Inside the barricaded church, the remnants of Jones's holy army — the ones who had been left behind to take care of Temple business in San Francisco — wondered in a daze, trying to figure out what to do. A few spluttered with rage, frustrated that they had not been included in Jones's Rapture. Others railed against the enemy: the faceless government agents whom they were convinced had wiped out Jonestown.
Reverend Norman Leach, Jim Jones's outspoken defender in the local National Council of Churches chapter, slipped into the back of the Temple on a rainy night to console the survivors. As people wept and crowded around the shortwave radio for information from Guyana, Leach walked into another room, where Angela Davis and some coworkers were holding an intense strategy meeting. Davis was using the occasion to politically vent — “her usual anti-American schtick” — and Leach couldn't take it. “These people need to be comforted, not agitated,” he told her. When the Davis contingent reacted heatedly, Leach got up and left. “I was not there to argue politics,” he said.
Jonestown was a hideous stain on all those in the Bay Area left who had been taken in by Jim Jones, including attorney Charles Garry. The aging lawyer was forced to flee for his life during the Jonestown bloodbath, puffing and puffing through the Guyanese jungle alongside Mark Lane — another celebrity attorney who had shared Garry's rosy view of Jones's “paradise.” Garry forced Lane to carry his suitcase as they sweated their way through the thick, tropical greenery. Lane griped about his burden, but suspecting that the heavy case was stuffed with money, he kept carrying it. The suitcase was actually filled with the toiletries and grooming equipment that the notoriously vain Garry found indispensable, including the hair blower he used to perfect his comb-over. Back home in San Francisco, Garry struggled to make sense of the debacle. “Jim Jones created one of the most beautiful dreams in the world and then destroyed it,” said the still confused attorney.
Jonestown struck George Moscone in the gut. He vomited and broke down crying when he heard the news. The mayor spent much of the next few days — what turned out to be the last days of his life — consoling those who had lost loved ones in Guyana, including the family of Leo Ryan.
Moscone knew that Ryan, who had risen with him in local Democratic politics, was one of the few heroes in the grotesque Jim Jones drama: the only political leader who had the courage to investigate the demonic creature in his jungle lair. Ryan's death was particularly troubling to him. “I don't know how to cope with anyone being killed or assassinated,” the mayor said mournfully after he was told about Ryan. Moscone wrote a heartfelt letter to Ryan's ex-wife Margaret, the mother of his five children, adding in his own handwriting, “He was a very good friend of mine, and I am without words to express my grief.”
At Ryan's funeral ceremony in All Souls Church in South San Francisco, Moscone again broke down in tears. House Majority Leader Jim Wright's eulogy must have been particularly painful for Moscone, the progressive politician who prided himself on comforting the poor and afflicted. Ryan, Wright told the overflowing church, had a “readiness to go where suffering was. When relatives and friends came to him with a story of abounding horror, inhumanity, and bizarre brutalities, Leo Ryan went to see and serve. And it was while helping to free captives that he met his death. Greater love has no man than this.”
Moscone and San Francisco's liberal leadership had aided and abetted Jones's reign of “horror, inhumanity, and bizarre brutalities.” And the press immediately clamored for an explanation. The mayor was the only political ally of Jones to admit any error of judgment, conceding that he had been “taken in” by the powerful preacher. The Examiner gave Moscone credit for his admission: “At least Mayor George Moscone is willing to admit he made a mistake in sizing up the charismatic leader of the People's Temple. He had the decency to admit it. Not so with some of our other politicians in this city and in the state.”
Moscone was clearly deeply shaken by Jonestown, however, he couldn't bring himself to fully acknowledge his role in empowering the cult leader. “It's clear that if there was a sinister plan, then we were taken in,” he told reporters. “But I'm not taking any responsibility. It's not mine to shoulder.” When a reporter pressed him, asking the mayor if he felt “culpable” for helping to politically legitimize Jones, a distraught Moscone responded heatedly, “I deeply resent that. You're reaching far out.” Then he shuddered visibly and added, “TIt's all too bizarre for me.”
Willie Brown was even more defiant, proclaiming nervily that he had “no regrets” about his close political alliance with Jones and scorching the other politicians who were now running for cover. “They all like to say, 'forgive me, I was wrong,' but that's bullshit. It doesn't mean a thing now, it just isn't relevant.”
Some of Jones's useful acolytes never stopped justifying their promotion of Peoples Temple, even many years later. Norman Leach is now retired from the church and living in Nebraska, after again being convicted of pederasty, this time with a member of a Boy Scout troop he started. The judge at Leach's trial called him “dangerous” and said that he had “sexually assaulted juvenile males in every area of the country he has lived in during the last 40 years of his life.” Looking back at his days in San Francisco, the former Reverend denied sharing any guilt for Jim Jones's reign of horror. “I feel no remorse or responsibility,” said Leach, whom Jones continued to court even after fleeing to Guyana, bombarding him with dozens of obviously scripted letters from Temple children inviting him to visit Jonestown. “I turned them down — it made me uneasy,” he declared.
Leach concedes there were many “red flags” about the Peoples Temple. “But there's no way that I could have had insight into the depths of his evil,” he insisted. “I still think the goal of Peoples Temple was beautiful: black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, all coming together — Christianity right there — or Judaism, or whatever great faith you name.”
The San Francisco press was as reluctant as local political and religious leaders to take responsibility for Jones's ascension. The Chronicle, which had chastised John Barbegelata for his strident warnings about Jones and shut down its own enterprising reporter, never acknowledged its mistakes in covering the media savvy preacher. Herb Caen could not bring himself to do anything more than offer the city bland condolences in his daily column: “Gray skies dripped sadness and sorrow over San Francisco yesterday,” wrote Jones's former booster. “Headlines told of tragedy and madness in steaming jungles … how to judge the insanity surrounding the end of Reverend Jim Jones … who would have expected this?”
David Rueben, for one. The DA's investigators saw the nightmare coming, but, hobbled by city politics, could not stop it in time. After the news flashes from Guyana, a disgusted Rueben accosted his boss. “Now do you think we had something there, Joe?” he asked Freitas.
The district attorney, still in ass-covering mode, dodged any responsibility for bringing Peoples Temple agents into his office and impeding his own investigators' inquiry. “In the period I had contact,” Frietas lamely told the press, “it was an activist church, and Jim Jones seemed a pretty okay fellow.”
Rueben, one of the few people in San Francisco city government who tried to bring down Jones, still feels guilty that he failed. “Peoples Temple was the highlight and lowlight of my career. I kind of peaked and died with that investigation,” said Rueben, who left government service after Jonestown and is now a private eye.
Jonestown released a poison cloud over San Francisco. There was blood and terror in the air. Even those who loudly denied any guilt were running scared. City leaders were convinced that Jonestown hit squads were on the loose and were gunning for them. The District Attorney's office fielded panicky phone calls from politicians who had been entangled with Jones, even taking a call from the White House. One call came from a hysterical Willie Brown who tearfully pleaded, “What do I do?”
The Jonestown survivors who trickled back to the Bay Area had more reason to fear for their lives than the politicians did. The survivors had to confront the turbulent grief and rage of people who lost relatives in Guyana.
San Francisco crackled with a strange electricity, as if a massive thunderstorm was building offshore, out beyond the fog bank, and it was all about to burst. “Earthquake weather,” they called it in San Francisco. Political leaders were hunkering down, frantically heading off investigations. But there was a powerful feeling in the city that there would be a reckoning, a growing sense that there must be blood.
(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 three of three passages having to do with Mendocino County.)