Young Jon­estown sur­vivors lost ev­ery­thing, built new lives

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Nation - BY TIM REIT­ER­MAN As­so­ci­ated Press


Jon­estown was the high­light of Mike Touchette’s life — for a time.

The 21-year-old In­di­ana na­tive felt pride pi­o­neer­ing in the dis­tant jun­gle of Guyana, South Amer­ica. As a self-taught bull­dozer op­er­a­tor, he worked along­side other Peo­ples Tem­ple mem­bers in the hu­mid heat, his blade carv­ing roads and sites for wooden build­ings with metal roofs. More than 900 peo­ple lived in the agri­cul­tural mis­sion, with its din­ing pav­il­ion, tidy cot­tages, school, med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties and rows of crops.

“We built a com­mu­nity out of noth­ing in four years,” re­called Touchette, now a 65-year-old grand­fa­ther who has worked for a Mi­ami hy­draulics com­pany for nearly 30 years. “Be­ing in Jon­estown be­fore Jim got there was the best thing in my life.”

Jim was the Rev. Jim

Jones — charis­matic, volatile and ul­ti­mately evil. It was he who dreamed up Jon­estown, he who willed it into be­ing, and he who brought it down: first, with the as­sas­si­na­tion of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan and four oth­ers by tem­ple mem­bers on a nearby airstrip on Nov. 18, 1978, then with the mass mur­ders and sui­cides of hun­dreds, a hor­ror that re­mains nearly unimag­in­able 40 years later.

But some lived. Dozens of mem­bers in Guyana slipped out of Jon­estown or hap­pened to be away that day. Plunged into a new world, those raised in the tem­ple or who joined as teens lost the only life they knew: church, jobs, hous­ing — and most of all, fam­ily and friends.

Over four decades, as they have built new lives, they have strug­gled with grief and the feel­ing that they were pari­ahs. Some have come to ac­knowl­edge that they helped en­able Jim Jones to seize con­trol over peo­ple drawn to his in­ter­ra­cial church, so­cial­ist preach­ing and re­li­gious huck­ster­ism.

With their lives, the story of Jon­estown con­tin­ues, even now.


Jor­dan Vilchez’s par­ents were Berke­ley pro­gres­sives in the 1960s – her fa­ther African-Amer­i­can, her mother Scotch-Ir­ish. They di­vorced when Jor­dan was 6.

When a friend in­vited her fam­ily to Peo­ples Tem­ple’s wine coun­try church, they were im­pressed by the in­te­grated com­mu­nity. And when her 23-year-old sis­ter joined, Jor­dan went to live with her at age 12.

“The tem­ple re­ally be­came my fam­ily,” she said.

De­vo­tion to its ideals bol­stered her self-worth. At 16, she was put on the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion where the meet­ings were a strange mix of church busi­ness, sex talk — and adu­la­tion for Jones. “What we were call­ing the cause re­ally was Jim,” she said.

In­stead of fin­ish­ing high school, Vilchez moved to San Fran­cisco, where she lived in the church. Then, af­ter a 1977 New West mag­a­zine ex­pose of tem­ple dis­ci­plinary beat­ings and other abuses, she was sent to Jon­estown.

Gru­el­ing field work was not to her lik­ing. Nei­ther were the White Nights where ev­ery­one stayed up, armed with ma­chetes to fight en­e­mies who never ar­rived.

Vilchez was dis­patched to the Guyanese cap­i­tal of Ge­orge­town to raise money. On Nov. 18 she was at the tem­ple house when a fa­nat­i­cal Jones aide re­ceived a dire ra­dio mes­sage from Jon­estown. The mur­ders and sui­cides were un­fold­ing, 150 miles away.

“She gives us the or­der that we were sup­posed to kill our­selves,” Vilchez re­called.

Within min­utes, the aide and her three chil­dren lay dead in a bloody bath­room, their throats slit.

For years, Vilchez was ashamed of the part she played in an ide­al­is­tic group that im­ploded so ter­ri­bly. “Ev­ery­one par­tic­i­pated in it and be­cause of that, it went as far as it did,” she said.

Vilchez worked as of­fice man­ager at a pri­vate crime lab for 20 years and now, at 61, sells her art­work.

This past year, she re­turned to long-over­grown Jon­estown. Where the ma­chine shop once stood, there was only rusty equip­ment. And she could only sense the site of the pav­il­ion, the once-vi­brant cen­ter of Jon­estown life where so many died — in­clud­ing her two sis­ters and two neph­ews.

“When I left at 21, I left a part of my­self there,” she said. “I was go­ing back to re­trieve that young per­son and also to say good­bye.”


Though he waved and smiled at Peo­ples Tem­ple ser­vices, seem­ingly en­rap­tured like the rest, Stephan Gandhi Jones says he al­ways had his doubts.

“This is re­ally crazy,” he re­calls think­ing.

But Stephan was the bi­o­log­i­cal son of Jim and Marce­line Jones. And the tem­ple was his life – first in In­di­ana, later in Cal­i­for­nia.

“So much was at­trac­tive and unique that we turned a blind eye on what was wrong,” he said, in­clud­ing his fa­ther’s sex­ual ex­cesses, drug abuse and rants.

As a San Fran­cisco high school stu­dent, he was dis­patched to help build Jon­estown. It would be­come a lit­tle town where peo­ple of all ages and col­ors raised food and chil­dren.

Stephan helped erect a bas­ket­ball court and form a team. In the days be­fore Ryan’s fact-find­ing mis­sion to the set­tle­ment, the play­ers were in Ge­orge­town for a tour­ney with the Guyana na­tional teams.

Re­belling, they re­fused Jones’ or­der to come back. Stephan be­lieved he was too cow­ardly to fol­low through with the oft-threat­ened “rev­o­lu­tion­ary sui­cide.”

But af­ter tem­ple gun­men killed the con­gress­man, three news­men and a church de­fec­tor on the Port Kai­tuma airstrip, Jones or­dered a poi­soned grape­fla­vored drink ad­min­is­tered to chil­dren first. That way no one else would want to live.

Stephan Jones and some other team mem­bers be­lieve they might have changed his­tory if they were there. “The re­al­ity was we were folks who could be counted on to stand up,” he said. “There is no way we would be shoot­ing at the airstrip. That’s what trig­gered it.”

He went through years of night­mares, mourn­ing and shame. To cope, he says he abused drugs and ex­er­cised ob­ses­sively. “I fo­cused my rage on Dad and his cir­cle, rather than deal with me,” he said.

More than 300 Jon­estown vic­tims were chil­dren. Now, Stephan Jones is fa­ther of three daugh­ters, ages 16, 25 and 29, and works in the of­fice fur­ni­ture in­stal­la­tion busi­ness.

He says his daugh­ters have seen him gnash his teeth when he talks about his fa­ther, but they also have heard him speak lov­ingly of the man who taught him com­pas­sion and other virtues.

“Peo­ple ask, ‘How can you ever be proud of your fa­ther?’ ” he said. “I just have to love him and for­give him.”


Eu­gene Smith re­calls how his mother, a church­go­ing African-Amer­i­can, bought into Jim Jones’ dream af­ter they at­tended a ser­vice in Fresno. She gave her house to the Peo­ples Tem­ple and they moved to San Fran­cisco.

He was 18 and run­ning a tem­ple con­struc­tion crew when the church sanc­tioned his mar­riage to a tal­ented 16-year-old singer, Ol­lie Wide­man. Af­ter Ol­lie be­came preg­nant, she was sent to Jon­estown; Eu­gene re­mained be­hind.

When Smith re­united with his mother and wife in Jon­estown, Ol­lie was 8 months preg­nant.

The re­union with Jones was not as joy­ous. Jones be­rated three other new ar­rivals for mis­be­hav­ior on the trip; they were beaten and forced to work 24 hours straight.

“He made a prom­ise — once we get to Jon­estown there is no cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment,” Smith said. “In an hour, that prom­ise was bro­ken.”

Life be­came more tol­er­a­ble af­ter the cou­ple’s baby, Martin Luther Smith, was born. Ol­lie worked in the nurs­ery, and Eu­gene felled trees. But he said his dis­con­tent fes­tered.

When he was or­dered to Ge­orge­town to help with sup­ply ship­ments, Smith said he con­cocted an es­cape plan: Ol­lie and other tem­ple singers and dancers, he be­lieved, would soon be sent to Ge­orge­town to per­form, and the fam­ily would flee to the U.S. Em­bassy.

But the en­ter­tain­ers stayed in Jon­estown to en­ter­tain Ryan. And Smith’s wife, son and mother died.

“All I could do is weep,” he said.

Af­ter more than 22 years at Cal­i­for­nia’s trans­porta­tion depart­ment, Smith re­tired in 2015. He’s 61 now. He’s never re­mar­ried, and Martin Luther Smith was his only child.


When John Cobb was born in 1960 in a black sec­tion of In­di­anapo­lis, his mother and older sib­lings al­ready were tem­ple mem­bers.

But in 1973, John’s old­est brother and a sis­ter, along with six other Cal­i­for­nia col­lege stu­dents, quit the church and be­came its en­e­mies. When the prodi­gals vis­ited, the Cobbs kept it se­cret from Jones.

John was at­tend­ing a San Fran­cisco high school when he was al­lowed to join his best friends in Jon­estown. There, as part of Jones’ per­sonal se­cu­rity de­tail, Cobb saw the once cap­ti­vat­ing min­is­ter strung out on drugs, afraid to ven­ture any­where for fear of his le­gal prob­lems.

“If any­thing, we felt pity for him,” he said, “and it grew into a dis­like, maybe hate.”

He too was a mem­ber of the bas­ket­ball team. His big­gest re­grets re­volve around the team’s re­fusal to re­turn to Jon­estown. “I be­lieve 100 per­cent that not ev­ery­one would have been dead,” he said.

Cobb lost 11 rel­a­tives that day, in­clud­ing his mother, youngest brother and four sis­ters.

Now 58, he owns a mod­u­lar of­fice fur­ni­ture busi­ness in the East Bay and is mar­ried with a daugh­ter. 29. One day, when she was in high school, she came home and told her par­ents that her re­li­gion class had dis­cussed Peo­ples Tem­ple; only then did her fa­ther share the story of how his fam­ily was nearly wiped out.

She wept.

AFP/Getty Im­ages File, 1978

‘Tem­ple of peo­ple’ mem­bers’ chil­dren in the nurs­ery of the sect in Ge­orge­town, Guyana, re­named Jon­estown. Overnight on Nov. 20, 1978, bod­ies of more than 400 mem­bers of the sect were dis­cov­ered af­ter they com­mit­ted mass sui­cide.

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