Jonestown: Twenty Years Later, Cults Still Lethal

The horror lingers, yet the number of aberrant groups keeps growing as people seek community.

On November 18, 1978, Tim Stoen and his wife, Grace, sat anxiously in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown, waiting for the right time to return to the jungles of Jonestown to try to reclaim their only child, six-year-old John Victor. Then they heard the news: Jim Jones had led more than 900 of his Peoples Temple followers—including their son—in a mass murder-suicide.

Jonestown residents had been forced to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. "It was the most miserable night of my life," Tim Stoen, now 60, recalls.

A 1960 Wheaton College alumnus, Stoen had been an active member of First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California, when he met Jim Jones in 1967. Jones's concern for the poor and minorities impressed Stoen, an idealistic civil-rights lawyer. He joined the Peoples Temple in 1969 and became Jones's attorney.

In 1977, Stoen moved to Jonestown, the Peoples Temple commune that had migrated from the San Francisco area, to raise his son in the socialist utopia. Because of his high position in the commune, Stoen was allowed to leave on a trip to the United States. He thought his son would be well cared for at the commune during his absence. But through media accounts, he came to realize the warped nature of Jones's plans.

Jones suspected Stoen's defection and claimed Stoen's son as his own. "My intuition said if I went back I'd be a corpse in 30 days," Stoen says. "It was not an easy decision to make." He decided he could help his son more by lobbying the government. U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California went to Jonestown in part as an emissary in Stoen's custody case against Jones. Just before the mass suicides, Jones's guards shot and killed Ryan and four U.S. journalists. Jones videotaped a suicide message that blamed ...

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