Stoen apologizes to reporter: 'You were right ... I was wrong'
After a near silence of almost 30 years, a former top aide to cult leader Jim Jones has asked for forgiveness for his role in events that led to the deaths of more than 900 people in a mass murder-suicide.
Tim Stoen, Jones' former chief legal adviser and now a Humboldt County deputy district attorney, sought redemption in the form of a handwritten apology to the first reporter who publicly exposed bizarre behavior at the Peoples Temple's Mendocino County headquarters in the early 1970s.
"You were right about the Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. I was totally wrong," he wrote.
Stoen concluded his Feb. 11 letter by asking former San Francisco Examiner religion reporter Les Kinsolving to "forgive me."
Stoen, whose Peoples Temple connections still haunt him three decades later, acknowledged writing the two-page letter but said he was reluctant to expand on its contents.
"It seems everything I say about that time is read one way or the other. I wasn't seeking any attention. I was just doing what I thought was right," he said.
Kinsolving, now a Baltimore radio talk show host, said he was stunned to receive Stoen's apology.
"After all these years, I was unprepared for his candid admissions," he said.
Kinsolving in 1972 wrote the first critical stories about odd events at the Peoples Temple in Mendocino County's Redwood Valley and San Francisco.
The stories recounted how Stoen insisted that Jones had brought more than 40 people back from near death during services at the Redwood Valley church. Kinsolving raised questions about the violent nature of the cult after witnessing Temple guards armed with .357 magnum revolvers escorting dozens of Bay Area followers inside the church .
Jones, Stoen and hundreds of Temple members reacted swiftly.
Stoen organized cult followers to picket the Examiner's San Francisco office and tried to silence Kinsolving by filing a libel lawsuit, which later was dropped. He and other temple representatives held news conferences to publicly castigate Kinsolving in front of the nation's media.
Then-San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and future Assembly Speaker Willie Brown rallied to Jones' side, offering their support to a man who had become entrenched in the city's political establishment.
As a result, temple activities received little further public scrutiny until five years later when Jones began to prepare for a mass suicide at Jonestown in the jungle of Guyana. On Nov. 18, 1978, Jones and 908 followers died in an orgy of violence at the cult's heavily armed compound. Bay Area Congressman Leo Ryan, who had traveled to Jonestown to investigate the cult, was killed by Jones' followers hours earlier while preparing to leave Guyana.
For Stoen, who publicly disassociated himself from the cult a year before Jonestown, the Kinsolving letter is his most public admission yet of wrongdoing on behalf of the Peoples Temple.
"I have asked God to forgive me for my wrongdoing in being a part of Peoples Temple. He has mercifully given me a second chance," Stoen wrote.
Stoen acknowledged he will likely forever be held accountable for his leadership role in the Jones cult. Stoen's 5-year-old son, John Victor Stoen, was among those who died in the South American jungle.
"The natural consequences of my wrongdoing - especially the death of John Victor and those temple members who trusted me - cannot be erased," Stoen wrote.
Stoen wrote the letter seeking forgiveness from Kinsolving after learning that his former adversary had recently suffered a heart attack.
Kinsolving faults the national media for ignoring his early reports about the Peoples Temple and failing to scrutinize the cult before the 1978 mass suicide. Kinsolving said before Jonestown was even settled, he personally contacted "40 of the leading dailies in the U.S., through my fellow religion editors, begging them to send a report to Ukiah."
"None of them would," he recalled.
In a letter to Stoen, Kinsolving said he would share the apology with The Press Democrat - "the only U.S. medium I recall as having constantly told the entire truth about the Peoples Temple."
Kinsolving said he decided to publicly release what he described as Stoen's heart-felt letter, largely because he has forgiven Stoen.
"I was deeply moved and very grateful that he wrote me," Kinsolving said.
He called Stoen's letter an "act of courage."
In his letter, Stoen said Kinsolving was willing to take on Jones and the temple "when other critics were too faint-hearted to do so."
"You were able to see beneath the surface of the glitter. You deserve an award for both insight and courage," Stoen wrote.
"From my heart, I apologize for my mistreatment of you, including the organizing the picketing, filing the lawsuit, and castigating your motives."
Stoen concluded by writing, "I also pray you can forgive me."
Kinsolving said he has.
"Heavens, I'm a Christian. We have no choice but to forgive," he said.
On Nov. 18, 1978, the Rev. Jim Jones and 908 of his followers died at Jonestown, a 300-acre compound in the Guyana jungle. Many drank cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid; others who tried to resist the mass suicide were shot.
Thirteen years earlier, Jones and his cult-like church, the Peoples Temple, was based in Mendocino County. Tim Stoen, then a county deputy district attorney, served as chief legal counsel to Jones.
In 1972, San Francisco Examiner religion writer Les Kinsolving wrote the first published stories in Northern California about a man he dubbed the "messiah from Ukiah."
Members of the Peoples Temple threw up a picket line around the Examiner building and threatened legal action. Four more Kinsolving articles were shelved.
Jones moved to San Francisco in the early 1970s but sought refuge in Guyana by 1977 as the Peoples Temple came under public scrutiny for alleged beatings, money laundering and sexual abuse.