Jonestown still haunts Hoosier couple who lost 20 family members in massacre

Indy Star/November 18, 2008

Before Jim Jones led more than 900 people to their deaths in a cult massacre 30 years ago today, he was just a young Indianapolis pastor who preached a Gospel that appealed to people such as Gene and June Cordell.

The Eastside Indianapolis couple, who broke with Jones long before he left Indiana, remember him initially as a man who was true to the Bible, fed the hungry and appeared to heal the sick. But as Jones evolved, the man they knew as "Jimmy" began to offer glimpses of the dangerous cult leader he would become: a man with a temper and a messiah complex.

Unfortunately, the Cordells couldn't pry 20 members of their extended family from Jones' grip. And on Nov. 18, 1978, they were among the members of Jones' Peoples Temple who perished in the forced suicide/mass murder in Jonestown, Guyana.

"To think we have had to have such a thing upset our family like this," said June Cordell, who recalls hearing Jones preach in a church on South Keystone Avenue, near where I-65 is now, on Easter Sunday 1953. Now 81, she says, "It has made it awful hard for us."

The 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre has a particular resonance in Indiana.

Jim Jones was born in Randolph County, along the Ohio border, in 1931. He attended Indiana University and graduated from Butler in 1962 with a degree in secondary education. He was the pastor at a succession of churches in Indianapolis that varied in their viewpoint and affiliation from Methodist to Pentecostal to Disciples of Christ.

For the Cordells, signs of trouble revealed themselves gradually.

June Cordell said there was nothing spectacular that first Sunday at South Keystone, just a church of 25 people in a chapel with cracked windows.

"You would have never known any reason to have thought there was anything out of the way," June said.

The Cordells soon came to appreciate Jones' devotion to the Bible, his food ministries for the poor, the music of his church choirs, congregations that became racially diverse and miracle healings that appeared genuine.

"The power of God was in those meetings," Gene Cordell, now 79, remembers. "We thought he was preaching the truth at that time as we knew the truth."

Soon they began to see something else.

In a Peoples Temple bathroom, June discovered a box of chicken livers that looked amazingly like the "cancers" that Jones would pull from the mouths of sick people cured at healing services.

"I kept saying to myself to keep quiet," she recalls. "I didn't want to be a doubting Thomas."

Then there were Jones' incessant morning phone calls to issue what June called his daily "orders." He wanted Gene to do things such as change light bulbs in the church, fix his car or tweak the choir practice to suit his needs. The calls became an irritant to June, who had three kids in diapers at the time. "I got disgusted with him," she said.

For the Cordells, the final straw came in 1957. Jones returned as a changed man after a visit to the Philadelphia offices of Father Divine, a cult leader. That Sunday, speaking to his 300-member congregation, Jones cast his book of Scriptures to the floor and said, "We don't need to use the Bible anymore."

"Some people got up and left right then," June recalls. "I stayed until the service was over with. That really did it for me."

The Cordells moved to a new church and began warning people about Jones. But they couldn't pry loose some beloved family members. Gene's aunt, Edith Cordell, who adopted him, and his adoptive sister, Carol Ann Cordell McCoy, both stayed with Jones, who promptly drove a wedge between his followers and the family.

The Cordells say they saw evidence that Jones was giving Edith mind-altering drugs -- marks on Edith's arm she said were "flu shots" from Jim that corresponded to a dramatic personality change. They reported the incident to police but say nothing came of it.

Eventually, Jones led his followers to Northern California, where he intended to develop a Utopian community. It proved to be just a stop on the way to Guyana.

"I told Edith," Gene Cordell recalls, "that if you follow Jimmy Jones to California, you are crazy."

Edith, a silver-haired grandma with horned-rimmed glasses, loaded up her car and went anyway. The Cordells never saw her again.

Carol Ann, a petite, pretty young brunette, went to California, too. She returned to Indianapolis before making a final break, driving a church bus back across the country to California. Both women, along with Carol Ann's four children, went to Guyana. They were joined there by more than a dozen other members of the Cordells' extended family.

When word of the Nov. 18, 1978, massacre made American newscasts, some families hoped their loved ones had been among the few to escape. The Cordells sensed the worst -- a fear that was born out.

Both Edith and Carol Ann died in the melange of cyanide-spiked Flavor Aid and gunfire. Their remains are buried in New Crown Cemetery on the Southside. Also dead were Carol Ann's four children and 14 other members of the extended family. Their remains are in California.

Thirty years later, hardly a day passes when Gene and June Cordell don't think about the Jonestown massacre. Today's anniversary will be like most days. From the pair of computers in their living room, the couple will review research and news on Jonestown and converse with others who saw their families ravaged by a tragedy strangely rooted in Indiana.

Their greatest fear is that others will be drawn into modern cults, which they say still exist in Indiana. They warn people to look for the signs, particularly any authority figure who wants to cut off individuals from their families.

"We just want people to be aware of cults," June said, "because there is going to be more of them."

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