The Rise and Fall of Jim Jones

November 16, 2002
By Rick Ross

On November 18, 1978, followers of Jim Jones shot and killed United States Congressman Leo J. Ryan and four others traveling with him on a fact finding trip to Guyana. Ryan was there to investigate complaints about the community called "Jonestown," which was largely inhabited by his former California constituents.

After murdering a United States congressman Jones knew the end of his rule was near. He ordered his entire following, some 914 people, to commit what he called "revolutionary suicide." This included more than 200 children.

The rise

Jones began his group in San Francisco and was once a respected community leader. He started programs to help the elderly and poor. His circle of friends once included leading politicians, who once defended him against allegations of abuse.

An ongoing scandal about such abuse is what prompted Jones to isolate himself and his followers in Guyana, where the media, former members and families could not influence his faithful remnant. However, Rep. Ryan ultimately came there to investigate the continuing abuse within the compound.

Once the Rev. Jim Jones was a popular figure and something of a religious celebrity in San Francisco. He participated in fashionable charity events and perhaps most importantly could turn out the vote or do whatever else was necessary through the well-oiled machine composed largely of his church members.

Jones was not some self-proclaimed "prophet" or fringe religious leader. He was an ordained minister of the Disciples of Christ, a respected mainline denomination. At one point his congregation numbered 8,000. It was composed largely of poor African Americans.

Jones cast himself as a politically progressive and was embraced by liberal politicians such as U.S. Representatives Phillip and John Burton, Assemblyman Willie Brown and Mayor George Moscone.

After the tragedy at Jonestown these politicians found it difficult to explain how Jim Jones so easily took them in.

One of Jones' long time followers Tim Stoen explained, "There wasn't anything magical about Jim's power. It was raw politics. He was able to deliver what politicians want, which is power. And how do you get power? By votes. And how do you get votes? With people. Jim Jones could produce 3,000 people at a political event.''

Agar Jaicks, Chairman of the county Democratic Central Committee seemed to agree with Stoen's assessment when he said, "What you had here was a ready-made volunteer workforce&he was very strong&here was a guy who could provide workers for causes.''

Jones first step on his path to political influence began in the Fall of 1970. He created a fund for the families of slain police officers. This was the beginning of a viable process he used to make valuable friends through charitable contributions.

The first bad press Jones received in the Bay area was a somewhat critical story run by the San Francisco Examiner in 1972. The paper exposed that Jones had claimed to be a "prophet" and said he could raise the dead.

Perhaps to preempt any further embarrassment Jones subsequently gave out grants to 12 newspapers. He even bussed his people to demonstrate in support of reporters who had been jailed for not revealing confidential sources. Ironically, the man who would later flee from the press and oppress dissent within his group once said in 1973 that he wanted "to defend the free speech clause of the First Amendment.''

In 1973 the San Francisco Examiner briefly ran articles critical of the Temple. However, Jones' political machine continues to garner him influence by helping to elect Mayor Moscone, District Attorney Joseph Freitas and Sheriff Richard Hongisto in 1975.

And Jones was still spreading money around to seemingly buy influence. A writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 1976, "Many a San Franciscan and many a project have received sizable checks from Peoples Temple, accompanied by only a short note from Jim Jones, saying, `We appreciate what you are doing,' ''

Jones gave money to the NAACP, the Ecumenical Peace Institute and a senior citizens escort service. Willie Brown and then-Governor Jerry Brown could be seen at his church services, apparently paying homage to their friend.

The Fall of 1976 seems to be the time Jones achieved his peak of power. The Burtons, Willie Brown, Williams, Moscone, radical Angela Davis, lawyer Vincent Hallinan, Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally and publisher Carlton Goodlett toasted him at a testimonial dinner. And later Moscone gave him a seat on the San Francisco Housing Authority Commission.

The fall

In late 1976 things began to go fall apart. Reporter Marshall Kilduff gathered information and eventually wrote a highly critical profile about Jones, which was published by New West magazine eventually in August of 1977. It detailed Jones' faked healings and extremely coercive fund raising that pushed members to liquidate their assets and hand over the money to the church.

Ultimately it was this article that prompted Jones to leave San Francisco and take a core group of devoted followers with him to live in isolation within Guyana.

More critical articles came out. In June of 1978, Jonestown defector Deborah Layton told her story to the San Francisco Chronicle and described the harsh conditions and control within the group's Guyana compound.

After the horrific events of November 1978 at Jonestown Willie Brown said, "If we knew then he was mad, clearly we wouldn't have appeared with him. But it's not fair to say what you would have done if you knew the kind of madness that would take place years later.''

Moscone was assassinated nine days after the Jonestown mass suicide-murders. Before his death the mayor said, "It's clear that if there was a sinister plan, then we were taken in. But I'm not taking any responsibility."

Review of key events

1953: Jim Jones opens his own independent church in Indianapolis.

1964: the Disciples of Christ ordain Jones.

1965-71: Jones supposedly believes a nuclear holocaust is coming and uses this as an excuse to move his congregation to Northern California. His church grows and becomes prominent. He is named foreman of the Mendocino County grand jury.

1971: Peoples Temple buys a building in downtown San Francisco and spins off another branch in Los Angeles. Headquarters is moved to San Francisco.

1971-73: The Temple membership grows very large and it offers social programs, jobs and health care.

1974: Peoples Temple leases land from the government of Guyana in a remote jungle area.

1975: The temple turns out its followers for rallies political campaigns and helps elect candidates in San Francisco.

1976: Mayor George Moscone appoints Jones to the city's Housing Authority Commission. Jones gets favorable media coverage and national politicians seek him out. However, his megalomania and paranoia is becoming more visible. He never travels without bodyguards and packs public appearances with followers who applaud him.

Summer 1977: New West magazine publishes a story that exposes Jones, his fakery, abuses and questionable finances.

August 1977: Jones moves to Guyana and creates Jonestown.

1977-78: About 1,000 Temple members move to Jonestown.

June 1978: Temple defector Deborah Layton is interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle and exposes the brutality and apparent plans for mass suicide at Jonestown.

Fall 1978: Relatives of Jonestown residents push for an official investigation.

November 7, 1978: Representative Leo Ryan says he will go to Jonestown and investigate.

November 17: Ryan arrives at Jonestown.

November 18: Some residents advise Ryan they want to leave Jonestown. Ryan tried to leave Guyana with the defectors, but is shot down at the airstrip by Jonestown gunmen. Ryan, NBC News staff Robert Brown and Don Harris, San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson and defector Patricia Parks are all murdered. Others hide in the jungle.

November 18: Jones orders his people to commit suicide by taking cyanide. Those who won't are killed. More than 200 children are murdered. 914 bodies are found at Jonestown, including Jim Jones.

Note: This article was largely based upon "Jones Captivated S.F.'s Liberal Elite San Francisco" Chronicle/November 12, 1998 By Michael Taylor

Copyright © 2002 Rick Ross.

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