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April 22, 2018

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20 Years Later, Jonestown Remains Enigma


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Twenty years ago this month, Tim Stoen was holed up in hell.

He and his wife had gone to Guyana with U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan in one last attempt to retrieve their son, who had been claimed by cult leader Jim Jones as his own.

Waiting in Georgetown, their hope died as they heard that Ryan and four others had been shot to death in an ambush at the Jonestown airstrip.

They knew it was only a matter of time before Jones followed through his long-threatened mass murder-suicide.

"It was really a horrific night ... knowing at any moment that our son was going to be dead. It was utterly hopeless. If anything could remind you of hell, it would be that moment, that feeling," Stoen says.

More than 900 people died after Jones ordered his followers to drink cyanide-poisoned punch. Nearly one-third were children. Among them -- John Victor Stoen, age 6.

"The lesson for me is that every group ... has to make sure that they hold their leader to a set of standards, constantly hold that leader accountable," Stoen says.

Stoen, a former San Francisco prosecutor, had represented Jones in California and became a trusted member of the Peoples Temple.

Now in private practice in Colorado, Stoen remembers letting his enthusiasm over the good things, like seeing hard-core heroin addicts go straight, overwhelm his misgivings about the bad -- corporal punishment and thought control.

"I said, 'Look how altruistic, how socialistic the people are becoming. Yes, Jones is heavy-handed and he's idiosyncratic, but it's working.' "


Jynona Norwood was hiding in a San Francisco suburb 20 years ago. She had gone there with her young son, Ed, afraid Jones would sweep him off to Jonestown.

Her lesson from Jonestown: Beware of false prophets.

"I never believed that Jim ... was a minister from his heart," Norwood says. She was one of the few in her family to resist Jones' charm. Twenty-seven of her relatives, including her mother, died in Jonestown.

She believes that Jones, son of a Klansman but adopted father of a rainbow family, used interracial tolerance as a powerful recruiting tool for the poor blacks and privileged whites who flocked to his services.

"He knew that was the door into black folks' hearts and idealistic, altruistic white people who wanted to see the end of racism."

Norwood, now a Los Angeles pastor, helps organize yearly memorial services at the mass grave in Oakland where about 400 Jonestown victims are buried.

She is trying to raise funds for a wall to memorialize the dead and warn the living.

"They deserve to be remembered," she says. "They were our neighbors. They were our loved ones. They were our friends."

Twenty years ago, Jackie Speier was lying on a Guyana airstrip with five bullet wounds. An aide to U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan, she had gone with him to investigate Jonestown.

She would go on to become a state assemblywoman. This month, she was elected to the state Senate.

If there is a lesson in Jonestown, it's that "the menace of cults still lingers; it's as real today as it was 20 years ago," Speier recently told the San Francisco Examiner. "No one should ever be so arrogant as to believe it couldn't happen again." Thursday, November 12, 1998

Death Cult Survivor Remembers Horror of Jonestown

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - They called it "the Promised Land," but 20 years later its real name, Jonestown, still sends an icy knife stabbing through the heart.

Deep in the tropical jungles of Guyana, more than 900 hopeful Americans followed their charismatic leader on a mission to build a utopian paradise. Instead, Jonestown became the site of the largest mass suicide in modern history.

Deborah Layton lived in Jonestown but did not die there. Among the few members of Jim Jones' Peoples Temple to leave Guyana alive, Layton was a defector who raised an alarm over what was brewing in the cult's armed jungle camp.

Now living in a cheerful house outside San Francisco, she ventured back into the darkness of the Peoples Temple in an attempt to pull meaning out of the abyss where, on Nov. 18, 1978, hundreds of men, women and children choked down the cyanide-laced punch that snuffed out their lives.

"I am doing this for the sake of my daughter," Layton said, sitting in a sunny living room adorned with photographs of a smiling 12-year-old girl. "I don't want her to grow up fearful. I want her to understand her mother's life."

Layton's effort to exhume memories of Jonestown has resulted in a book, "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple."

It also took her back to Jonestown, a trip riddled with shame and guilt. Her mother, who joined the cult in part to be closer to her, lies buried deep in the jungle after dying of cancer just 10 days before the cult's horrific final act.


Her brother Larry, who introduced his sister to the idealistic, multiethnic Peoples Temple, is serving a life sentence in prison, the only person ever charged in connection with the group's deadly attack on U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California at a Guyanese airstrip-- the bloody prelude to the cult's last night of terror and despair. To Top

Deborah Layton got out of Jonestown in May, 1978. Once one of Jones' trusted lieutenants, she had grown increasingly worried that the temple's adored "Father" was leading his flock in a dangerous direction. She says her escape was a simple matter of listening to a voice inside her soul-- a voice Jones had struggled to drown out with hysterical rantings and midnight suicide drills.

"They tell you that it is wrong, that the voice is you trying to be selfish, trying to shut out the group," Layton said. "It is what saved me."

Her "inner voice" had once ruled her life. A rebellious 17-year-old from Berkeley, she drifted to the Peoples Temple in 1970 because its progressive program of social action reminded her of the Peace Corps.

"These were good people, they weren't evil," she said. "I was young and I needed structure. The people who joined the Peoples Temple wanted to be part of something bigger, feeding the poor or helping the homeless or whatever. The organization did not start out bad, it was Jim Jones who was deceitful."

While Jones recruited new members with shows of religious devotion, those in the group soon found themselves working for what amounted to a rigid political cell devoted to advancing their leader.

By 1974, as Jones was establishing his headquarters in San Francisco, Layton had risen high in the hierarchy. Although she herself had been sexually abused by Jones, she steeled herself into rigid obedience to "Father," who was ratcheting up the level of paranoia and fear.


Little of this was visible on the outside. With his progressive credentials and photogenic, multiracial flock, Jones quickly became a San Francisco powerbroker, feted by the likes of then First Lady Rosalynn Carter and then State Assemblyman Willie Brown, now the city's mayor.

Sent reeling by a 1977 press expose and several defections, Jones told Temple members they were moving out of range of "the racists and the enemies" to Guyana-- "the Promised Land."

"It was like a dark, hot desert. There was nothing there," Layton said of Jonestown, where Peoples Temple agents had already set up a bare-bones "agricultural project" in the jungle. "When you saw it, you knew it was an evil place."

The exodus to Guyana began in the summer of 1977. Early arrivals radioed back to San Francisco that Jones' promises had come true and that it was indeed a paradise. Those left behind to wrap up the Temple's affairs, including Layton and her mother, were eager to join the main group.

They did so in December. After a lengthy flight, followed by a 30-hour boat trip up the Kaituma River and an agonizing trek by flatbed truck, they arrived at Jonestown. The moment she arrived and looked into the eyes of Jonestown veterans, Layton knew it had gone wrong.

"When I saw their faces ... they were so lost," she said of the frightened, subdued crowd that silently watched her group arrive at the makeshift camp of tents and cabins. "I could feel them watching me, that I came from that other world that they would never get back to. And they never did."

In the suffocating heat of Guyana, fed by alcohol and drugs, Jones' megalomania burst into evil flower. Jonestown, far from a happy commune, was a work camp where Temple members, who toiled dawn-to-dusk under armed guard, were subjected to nightly harangues from a leader obsessed with imaginary threats from "traitors" and "mercenaries."


Disobedience could bring punishment in "the Box," a stifling, underground cubicle no bigger than a coffin, and any night could suddenly become a "White Night"-- Jones' code for a mass suicide drill.

The exhaustion, and the fear, left most Temple members incapable of resisting, Layton said. "In insanity, there is no way to have clarity. You can't think. You don't know what to do. That's the real terror of it."

Layton believes she, too, would have perished at Jonestown if she had not been sent on a mission to the Guyanese capital of Georgetown in May, 1978. There, her "inner voice" now coming in loud and clear, she slipped away from the group and out of the country, leaving her cancer-stricken mother behind. "I felt I had to get out in order to go back and save her," Layton said. "I didn't know I would never see her again."

Largely thanks to Layton's testimony upon her return to the United States, Congressman Ryan launched a fact-finding trip to Jonestown in November, 1978. It cost him his life and set in motion the dreadful final act for the Peoples Temple.

Along with four others in his group, Ryan was gunned down on an airstrip by Temple guards including Layton's brother Larry, acting on orders from Jones.

Back at Jonestown, convinced that Ryan's arrival heralded an apocalyptic attack by his enemies, "Father" shepherded his frightened children through a final White Night. A total of 912 people died by cyanide. Jones was shot through the head.

Layton says there is little sense to make of the Peoples Temple tragedy. Cults, she said, will be around as long as there are people whose hopes get the better of their fears and who stop questioning.

She closed her own book on Jonestown this year when she revisited the overgrown site of the cult's jungle camp with a documentary crew.

"I went looking for something, some part of the people who had died," Layton said. "But if there is such as thing as essence of people or spirit they were not there. They had fled. And that is good."

In Association with


Spreading the word in South America

Scenes from Easter 2000

Memories of Jonestown

XCL Expeditions 2000

ZSSD Conservation Field Trip to Guyana

[*] Norm On Cricket

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