The Legacy of Jonestown: a Year of Nightmares and Unanswered Questions
11/12/1979 at 01:00 AM EST
One year ago next week, in the mosquito-infested outpost known as Jonestown, Guyana, 913 men, women and children died at the behest of their megalomaniacal leader, the Rev. Jim Jones. The slaughter was precipitated by the visit of a U.S. congressman, Leo Ryan of California, to investigate reports of abuse and coercion. Apparently sensing that his tyrannical hold on the Peoples Temple was doomed, Jones, godlike to the end in his anger, ordered the murder of Ryan and his party, then brought death down upon himself. As the anniversary of those savage moments approached, survivors of the Jonestown tragedy were interviewed by the following PEOPLE correspondents: Clare Crawford-Mason and Dolly Langdon, Washington; Melba Beats, Nancy Faber and Diana Waggoner, San Francisco; Connie Singer, Chicago; Davis Bushnell, Boston; Karen Jackovich, Los Angeles; and Richard K. Rein, Princeton, N.J.
Mrs. Jim Jones' parents recall her torment
A month before her death, Marceline Jones returned to the modest white frame house in Richmond, Ind. where she had been born and raised. She came to take her elderly parents, Walter and Charlotte Baldwin, to see the brave new world that her husband, Jim, had carved out of the Guyana wilderness. On the night before they departed for Jonestown, Charlotte Baldwin turned to her daughter and blurted, "Marceline, I wish you had left Jim years ago." "Mother, don't say that after I have suffered so much," Marceline replied. "But I want you to know this. This has been my decision. Never blame yourself."
The words still echo in the Baldwins' memories. Two days after the couple returned home from Jonestown, their son-in-law's empire collapsed in an orgy of death, and Marceline, 51, was a victim. "I had no feeling—just shock," Mrs. Baldwin says. During their three weeks in Guyana, the Baldwins saw nothing to cast doubt on Madeline's cheerful reports of life in the Peoples Temple. In their 15-minute encounter with Jim Jones, they had no intimation of the carnage to come.
When their daughter married the young United Church of Christ minister in 1949, the Baldwins, who are devout Methodists, were delighted. "I loved Jim very dearly," says Mrs. Baldwin. "He suffered so much in Indianapolis for his stand for the Negro person." But by 1968 the Baldwins began to worry. "Our real sorrow started then, when Jim began showing he was not himself," Mrs. Baldwin says. Adds her husband: "From that time on, he was not a religious man. He deviated from Christian attitudes." According to family friends, it was then that Jim Jones told Marceline of his affairs with other women. When she tried to leave him, he threatened their children—and she stayed. Mrs. Baldwin says of Jones' church: "It was a beautiful thing in the beginning, but Jim lost his way. He became a dictator."
Last April Jim Jones' ashes (colored white and weighing 10 pounds) were enclosed in a water-soluble envelope and dropped from a light plane into the Atlantic. Funeral director Bill Torbert of Dover, Del. also shipped back to Indiana the bodies of Marceline and her two adopted children—Lew, 22, and Agnes, 36—who died with her. The surviving Jones children—their natural son, Stephan, 20, and Tim, 20, Jim, 19, and Suzanne, 27, all adopted—are living in San Francisco. The Baldwins' grandchildren—and prayer—are their consolations. "We found Christ when we were young and raised our girls that way," Charlotte Baldwin says. "Our faith has sustained us through our terrible grief."
Clark and Louie escaped—but not from the memories
With uncanny timing, Richard Clark launched his long-planned escape from Jonestown on the morning of the massacre. "I can't say I'm psychic, but I can always feel danger," says Clark, 43, now a presser for a San Francisco dry cleaner. Quietly he told his companion, Diane Louie, that "something definite is going to happen, and I want to be out of here when it does." Diane passed the word to seven others. Hacking through the jungle with a machete, the little group—including four children—found the path to the railroad. Then, by foot and train, they made their way to Matthew's Ridge some 30 miles away. That was where they learned of the tragedy they had so narrowly escaped.
Before they came to Guyana, Clark and Louie had envisioned Jonestown as a tropical paradise. Their disillusionment began during the 24-hour boat trip from Georgetown to the Peoples Temple community in May 1978. Hot and overcrowded, the fishing boat was crawling with "huge roaches with eyes as big as mine," Clark remembers. Adds Louie, 26: "It was the first time I had an idea of what a slave ship must have been like." Both were chilled to hear Jones' voice greeting them on the loudspeaker when they arrived. "It sounded like Boris Karloff welcoming us to his castle," Clark recalls. "There was no longer the love."
Even today Clark, who joined the Temple in San Francisco in 1972 and left his wife at the leader's order, believes Jones had supernatural healing and mind-reading powers. But the grim reality of Jonestown shook his faith. "You could see people starving, hungry, sick," he says. "But they couldn't face the fact that Jones was doing it." Soon after his arrival, Clark began to plan his departure. To shield himself from Jones' propaganda, he took a job on the pig farm, out of earshot of the maniacal broadcasts—then volunteered to clear the jungle so he could hunt for escape routes. And he prepared himself mentally. "I began to program myself to hate Jones," he says, "because this was the only way that you could fight him."
Still together, Clark and Louie are troubled by memories of lost friends. Clark also grieves for two stepchildren who refused to accompany him and died in Jonestown. Although the couple and other survivors entered group therapy back in the U.S., they soon gave it up. "The tape-recorded sessions reminded me of the Peoples Temple," Louie says. "I got more help and sympathy talking to my family and friends." She is once again working as a surgical technician, but failed in an attempt to study nursing. "I couldn't concentrate," she says. Clark is bothered by high blood pressure and bad dreams. "I feel like I'm getting better," he says. "But I don't think anyone who's been in a concentration camp will ever get over it."
Ryan's family and aides want a full investigation
"By and large, the kids have taken it magnificently," says Peg Ryan, the divorced wife of Rep. Leo Ryan and mother of his five grown children. "Some times have been hard, of course. For our daughter Pat, it was when everybody in her office tried to ignore the obvious—that her father had died. Eventually she just broke down and said, 'You don't care.' Of course they did. They just didn't know what to say." Mrs. Ryan pauses. "But time heals all things," she says quietly. "You think it won't, but it does."
The Ryans' three daughters and two sons agree—to a point. But all are angry about lawsuits against their father's estate, filed by survivors of the victims at Jonestown, charging him with negligently "causing 900 deaths." They and their father's former chief aide, Joe Holsinger, 57, also blame the U.S. government for failing to dig to the roots of the tragedy. "There wasn't a great public outcry, so Congress thought a real investigation would cost too much money," Holsinger says. Part of the reason, he believes, is public acceptance that the mass deaths were suicides. "Yet it came out later," he maintains, "that at least 70 of those people were injected from behind. It wasn't suicide; it was murder. It's important to know how it happened and why."
For another of Ryan's aides, Jacqueline Speier, 29, the nightmare was even more personal. She went with Ryan to Jonestown, then was shot at the airport and left for dead. Still recovering, she enumerates her wounds matter-of-factly. "I have an eight-by-eight-inch chunk gone from my right thigh, one hole in my right forearm and another in my upper arm," she says. "I also have a bullet in my pelvis they don't intend to take out, so I hold my breath going through metal detectors at airports." Only last month Speier found a lump under her right arm. Her doctor, fearing cancer, took X-rays. "I happened to see the results before he did," she says, "and I realized a bullet was in there. It was as if I had been dropped right back on that airstrip. I started to cry. It's like it's never going to end."
Yet Speier has fought stubbornly to put her life back together. Turning down a marriage proposal ("I had a lot to deal with, and I realized I probably wouldn't if I ran to the shelter of this man who wanted to protect me"), she returned to her home in Burlingame and ran unsuccessfully for Ryan's congressional seat (as did Holsinger). The defeat was disappointing, but not shattering. Next month she will open her own law office. "When I started to pack my things last July in Washington," she says, "I realized they belonged to a different person. I decided it was time to leave this chapter of my life alone and move on to other things."
Grace Stoen's fight for her son triggered the tragedy
Many of the men, women and children who made the name Jonestown a synonym for death left families to mourn them and question their fate. Reacting with rage, grief, bitterness or numbed resignation, the bereaved survivors of Jim Jones' victims have struggled to rebuild their lives. Perhaps none is as haunted as Grace Stoen, 29, mother of 6-year-old John Victor Stoen, an innocent catalyst of the disaster.
Today John is buried in a mass grave in an Oakland cemetery along with 200 other unidentified victims of Jonestown—most of them children like himself. When the boy was only 2 years old, his father, Tim Stoen, once an assistant district attorney in San Francisco and Jim Jones' legal adviser, stood up at a Peoples Temple Commission meeting. He announced that his son had been "acting up"—John was not fully toilet-trained—and proposed that he be removed from his home and turned over to another family. Intimidated, Grace reluctantly agreed. Eventually she, and later her husband, broke with the Peoples Temple, but Jones refused to surrender the child. When the Stoens sought custody through the Guyanese courts, Jones publicly threatened the mass suicides he later commanded. The Stoens flew to Guyana with Congressman Ryan, and were waiting in Georgetown when the final violence began.
Haggard with grief—she has lost 21 pounds in the past three years—Grace Stoen is living in San Francisco now, working as a secretary and undergoing psychotherapy. She vividly remembers the last time she saw her son, when Jones allowed her to visit the boy in L.A. in 1976. "He said, 'Mom, please take me with you,' but there were all these hostile people around me, and I said, 'John, I can't.' " Two months later he was sent to Guyana. It is a memory Grace can barely tolerate. "Sometimes I dream that John is alive," she says softly. "Then sometimes I dream I'm dying myself, because it's just too painful to live."
There were times, she admits, when death would have been welcome, but she resisted, knowing that her suicide would be Jim Jones' last triumph. Estranged from her husband, Grace lives with another Peoples Temple defector and plans to marry him as soon as she can. She is forcing herself to survive. "I jog three miles a day," she says. "It's good, but it hurts. I keep saying to myself, 'You're okay. You're a winner,' and I think I'm getting better. It's like I was frozen for 10 years."