Escape From Jonestown

Escape From Jonestown

Dedicated to Tim and Grace Stoen

By Paul Morantz
©January 2011

In the days following the Synanon murder attempt on my life by placing a rattlesnake in my mail box in October of l978 while I was recovering in the Los Angeles County hospital I was surprised by all the publicity. “Rattler Death Trap” was a headline banner. For several years now I had tried to alert the media as to the danger of destructive cults that believed both they were persecuted and on a holy mission. After a few days I was wheeled on a bed into a hospital room for a press conference where I was confronted by a flood of lights, cameras and journalists.

The message I gave was that there were may more dangerous cults out there and people needed to understand how ordinary people can be converted into terrorists by being convinced of a holy crusade. Two newsmen present got the message and took the opportunity to go travel to investigate another group outside United States borders the the next month. There they died.

It was only six weeks after my near death when at home watching TV a news anchor broke in and said, “900 dead in Guyana…news at 11.” I knew immediately it was Jonestown and that “White Night” had happened. I also sensed that but for my still recovering I might have been there, either dying or preventing it. Maybe due to the snake I had escaped Jonestown. Whatever, my hospital speech was proven. ABC interviewed me for a four nights series on how cults turn violent. It was a coup as they aired it the week following the mass suicide/murders.

It was not that I was involved fighting Jim Jones; that is not how I was up on Jonestown. My knowledge was from having been in contacted with San Francisco attorney Tim Stoen.

Stoen graduated from Stanford in 1964 and later became a Deputy District. But in l967 he did a liberal turn about and headed for Haight Ashbury to assist the flower children working for Legal Aid Society of Alameda County.

By the end of 1969, when Berkeley was a war zone over Peoples Park, students studying in the Cal Berkely library brought gas masks and the center of students’ right, Stoen, impressed by the good deeds of Jim Jones, began to integrate his personal life with the Temple. He provided legal aid for the Temple and wrote of his political conversion to the Temple’s socialism vision.

In 1970 Tim moved into the People’s Temple. The same year Stoen married the pretty Grace Lucy Grech, whom he had met on a march at the San Francisco Civic Center against overpopulation and pollution. Despite typical cult pressure, as would happen in Synanon in l976, to abort pregnancies to eliminate “selfish” purposeful distractions, she gave birth to John Stoen in l972.

Jones got Tim to sign a document saying Jones was the true sire of the child. At the same time Jones elevated Grace in the hierarchy but let her be called an “elitists” which Tim accepted and they were pulled apart. Jones wanted access to all women and to be more bonded to than any spouse.

Jones was very political and his followers supported SF mayor George Moscone, Joseph Freitas and Richard Hongisto in successful election bids. He established a relationship with President Carter’s wife and her sister Ruth Carter Stapelton, queen of the Aquarius era.

Amongst Jones biggest supporters were state senator Willie Brown, Vice President Walter Mondale and SF councilman Harvey Milk. Jones also helped Governor Jerry Brown, Jr. get elected in l975 and Jones was now the Chairman of the State Housing Commission. Brown also gave a staff appointment to Synanon’s Chuck Dederich’s wife Betty. Brown offered Dederich, too, but he declined.

Shortly thereafter, San Francisco District Attorney Freitas hired Tim Stoen as an Assistant District Attorney in the consumer frauds division. Stoen was assigned to investigate whether there was fraud in Moscone’s election involving the People’s Temple of which Stoen was now a member.

Gov. Brown in l976 appointed Stoen as advisory council on legal aid. By then Grace Stoen had grown to hate the Temple, having given up her son John to Jones per pressure that John be raised communally, being constantly berated and watching her son paddle punished,and listening to Jones portray Tim as a homosexual. Jones once pointed a gun at her and threatened to shoot her if she fell asleep in a meeting and witnessed the beating of a 40 year old woman who had claimed the Temple turned members into robots. In July 1976, she fled to Lake Tahoe.

Jim Jones vowed that he would never give her John and to assure little John was taken to Guyana. In February 1977 Grace threatened to legally divorce Tim and Jones sent Tim to Jonestown to avoid being served with legal papers. There Tim discovered that Jones had turned John against his mother. Tim disappeared in June of l977 then resurfaced shouting for someone to do something about People’s Temple abuses. Stoen had knowledge of the Temple’s transferring millions to foreign banks.

In July 1977, Jim Jones and several hundred Temple members moved from Georgetown to Jonestown the same night an editor at New West magazine read Jones an article to be published by Marshall Kilduff detailing allegations by former Temple members. Most politicians broke ties with Jones but a rally against “Jones’ enemies” was held at the Temple attended by Willie Brown, Harvey Milk and Art Agnos.

Tim and Grace Stoen began a custody battle for John and in September 1977 a Georgetown court ordered the return of John to Grace Stoen. A few days later, that same court issued a second order for the arrest of John by authorities. Guyana officials would not invade Jonestown for the child and the Stoens pressed on, Tim and I both now consulting with each other.

Stoen, heard about me fighting Synanon, and would call to exchange notes and ideas. That Synanon and Jonestown, and their founders, were identical twins, both urging o child birth and giving children to the community, both obsessed with enemies, both imploding at the same time, bound us together in a pledge to help each other. When I was hospitalized by the snake in October of l978 Tim actually offered to fly down and help cover my cases.

Meanwhile Jones started preparing to run again, inquiring about immigration to North Korea and Stalinist Albania. The Stoens then could never find five year old John.

But it never got that far.

The Stoens with others related to Jonestown residents began calling themselves the “Concerned Relatives.” They shared details of their encounters, interviewed defectors and went over short wave radio transcripts containing communications between Jonestown and the Temple’s San Francisco headquarters. Meanwhile, Temple surveillance teams checked license plates in front of the meeting houses to determine the identity of their “enemies,” something Synanon did in Badger, Calif when local dissidents met at a tavern. Tim started writing Campaigns to the Secretary of State and the government of Guyana. He went to Washington to try to get an investigation.

In November 1977 a San Francisco court granted Grace Stoen custody of John. In January of 1978, Tim Stoen traveled to Georgetown, Guyana, get the Guyanese to help him take custody of the child, but he was unsuccessful. The judge recused himself from the case because his life had been threatened over it, and stated that a new judge would have to restart the process from the beginning. A Guyanese official then approached Stoen and told him he had to leave within one day, one week before his visa expired. While at the airport, three Temple members surrounded Stoen and threatened his life unless he dropped his legal action. Although Stoen wanted to travel to Jonestown to retrieve John himself, he thought “if I went back, I thought I would probably be a corpse within 30 days.”

After Stoen returned to Washington D.C. from Georgetown in January 1978, he visited with nine Congressman, including Leo Ryan. Stoen also told Congress of Jones’ illegal taking of John, warning action by the Guyanese Army could result in harm to John or others.

Congressman Leo Ryan’s interest was aroused by the Stoen custody fight and he wrote a letter on Stoen’s behalf. Several Congressmen wrote the Guyana Prime Minister about concerns raised by Stoen.

In June 1978 Stoen assisted Peoples Temple defector Deborah Layton in drafting an affidavit alleging crimes by the Peoples Temple and poor living conditions. Layton, however, had previously signed affidavits, when she was a member under Jone’s influence, accusing Stoen of “capitalist selfishness and who was not the father of John Stoen.”

In later affidavits and lawsuits Stoen filed in 1978, he cited communications the group had intercepted through their radio monitoring. Stoen in three different actions sought over $56 million in damages.

On July 10, 1978, as Synanon would do to me, the Temple sued Stoen charging he violated his attorney-client relationship with the Temple by using privileged information in his suits against the Temple. The cases would never be tried.

After Novermber 19, 1978 I would be in phone contact with Tim who was going to search the Guyana jungle for his son.

John was found dead.


James (Jim) Warren Jones, born in 1931, started his own church, The Wings of Deliverance in l955 in Indianapolis, later changing the name to the more descriptive People’s Temple. There he preached a combination of theology, socialism and communism. In l965, convinced a thermonuclear war was inevitable, Jones brought his racially mixed flock of the poor and working class by bus to Ukiah, California, thinking it to be safe from fallout. Once on the west coast, where new religions flourished, he was able to recruit more affluent professionals as followers. Rich and poor alike, they all called him “Father.”

A master manipulator, he raised an average of $250,000 a month, including $60,000 from social security checks and members’ cashed-in estates, using a variety of means to tap people’s emotions and their pocketbooks. After being robbed and assaulted, a blind woman was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where her “alleged” broken arm was set. When she came to the Temple for the first time later that night, Jones amazingly recounted these events from a “vision” he had, then removed her cast and healed her arm as parishioners shouted praise and the woman sobbed in gratitude. None of these people knew that Jones had rigged the entire thing, from the robbery, to the attendants, to the makeshift clinic.

Under the above described weight of press and IRS investigations accusing him of bilking followers and a court-order to remove John, Jones led his followers to a remote, 27,000-acre commune in Guyana, where outsiders were barred. While they worked non-stop from early morning to late night to build a self-supporting community, former member Debbie Blakely was testifying in a court case that Jones had a rehearsed Doomsday plan wherein they would all die, children included, for the “Cause.”

In Jonestown, the thought-reform process was relentless. Subsisting on rice and beans, commune members, many over the age of 50, slaved away in the fields while Jones harangued them with lectures and sermons over a public address system. Public beatings and humiliations were standard punishments for any breach of loyalty, as they had become also in Synanon.

In November of l978 Congressman Leo Ryan, 53, and a 12-member entourage, including journalists, flew into a small airfield near the Commune to investigate. Ryan was not new to cults having led the effort to free Patty Hearst. After a night at the commune they set out to return after 16 followers asked to leave with them. Ryan made the mistake of telling Jones of the defections. If I had been there for advice I would have told him to keep it quiet. Further, I would have told him that while they had been smart enough to leave Tim Stoen behind in Georgetown, and I understood a politicians desire for publicity, it would be a great mistake to bring members of the media into Jonestown which would obviously threaten Jim Jones paranoia of exposure and destruction of his great place in history.

Fearful of the tales they would tell the journalists, Jones mounted an assault on the departing plane, killing Ryan and three newsmen and wounding six others. Two that died, as stated, had been at my hospital press conference the prior month. I ended up representing the parents of the third, a photographer.

That night, Jones urged his flock to die with dignity, as they had practiced, rather than be herded into prison camps by the government forces that would surely follow. He said fascists “were going to invade Jonestown and take all to prison but rather (as the poisoned cool-aid was distributed).” He knew he had ordered a mass murder away from the compound and that he had decided to die rather than face consequences.

He taped the grisly mass suicide that followed, convinced, as are all totalistic leaders, that history would look back on him favorably. On a tape, a father says “no” to end his daughter’s life. But when it is illustrated the terrible things the enemy would do to her, the man acquiesces, as the flock applauds. Jones asked a black woman to sing that song he like so much, and she begins to solo “No no one has ever spoken like this man before… And all of my life no one has spoken like this man before…” Jones join in a singing and soon everyone was singing, eerily singing a song to their death compounded with speaking in tongues. “”Mothers, you must keep your children under control,” Jones later shouts, amid a tumult of shrieks and gun shots, as the unwilling died with the willing, all while Jones declared they must die with dignity.”

Thirty-three people escaped. Eleven people, four small children, trekked almost 30 miles through jungle to another town. Fourteen departing church members survived the airport ambush, including five kids who were lost for three days hiding in the jungle to hide. Some made it into the jungle and escaped.

On Jones recording he can be heard saying “What we’d like to get are the people that caused this stuff, and some — if some people here are p — are prepared and know how to do that, to go in town and get Timothy Stoen, but there’s no plane. There’s no plane. You can’t catch a plane in time. He’s responsible for it. He brought these people to us. He and Deanna Mertle (referring to Jeannie Mills). The people in San Francisco will not — not be idle over this. They’ll not take our death in vain, you know. . . .

“It’s suicide. Plenty have done it. Stoen has done it. But somebody ought to live. Somebody — Can they talk to — and I’ve talked to San Francisco — see that Stoen does not get by with this infamy — with this infamy. He has done the thing he wanted to do. Have us destroyed. . . .

“Tim Stoen has nobody else to hate. He has nobody else to hate. Then he’ll destroy himself…” ”

Jones also discussed whether the Temple should include John Stoen among those committing “revolutionary suicide.”[80] When the discussion of including children occurred, Jones stated:

“Do you think I’d put John’s life above others? If I put John’s life above others, I wouldn’t be standing with Ujara [a man who attempted to stab Congressman Ryan]. I’d send John out — out, and he could go out on the driveway tonight. . . .

“I know, but he’s no — he’s no different to me than any of these children here. He’s just one of my children. I don’t prefer one above another. I don’t prefer him above Ujara. I can’t do that. I can’t separate myself from your actions or his actions.

Jones often spoke of “translation,” the process by which he and his followers would die together and move to another planet for a life of bliss (a similar false line that would be used by Marshall Applewhite in Heaven’s Gates mass suicide many years later). The lie had to be given to make it work. The truth was simpler– Jones would rather die than face prison and humiliation, and like other totalistic leaders he wanted his followers to validate his choice by joining him –, but the truth would not have such success. All told, 9l4 died, including 276 children.

By phone Stoen told me the fate of his son. I met Grace in the aftermath at an anti cult related media function. She was an impressive and intelligent woman.


I remember once’s thinking that based upon all the powers I put into the nursing home kidnapping case my contingency fee equaled $.50 an hour. I joked if I lost the case I would end up on skid row with my clients (see escape from Golden State Manor). I spent so many hours on Synanon my office and me parted company. While there would be a $300,000 judgment, and several settlements, including my own case, my hourly rates versus Synanon probably worked out to be far less than the nursing home case.

Jonestown would be different. I was involved in the bankruptcy mop up where the more clients you had ultimately the bigger share of the pot you got. Surprisingly, given the publicity I had, I did not have the most of the family survivors, but had a significant group that made me a lead counsel in the San Francisco proceedings. Those attorneys with most clients ended up making the most money. While I earned my fee, it was new experience, representing people who’s kin were murdered.

It is not pleasant.

Judge Ira Brown, perhaps the most famous San Francisco Judge, presided over the bankruptcy proceedings. On the first day, all counsel came before the bench and stated their positions. In the hallway I met the King of Torts, attorney Melvin Belli who seemed more curious to meet me, the now infamous Synanon fighter, than I was the most legendary civil trial lawyer of all time.

Born in l907 Belli once convinced a jury to give a woman a lot of money under the claim that being in a bus accident caused her to become a nymphomaniac.

Belli represented pro bono Jack Ruby for shooting and killing Lee Harvey Oswald. Belli argued Ruby had a history of mental illness and had gone insane. In 1964, Ruby was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Belli was not a criminal lawyer and it was determined Ruby did not get a fair trial but Ruby died of cancer before the retrial could take place.

And Belli, knowing the funds would be limited in the Jonestown estate, made an immediate pitch for it all, stating those claims based on Jonestown members’ death should get nothing because those followers committed suicide. The money, he said, should all go to those shot at the airport and, with great theater, stated if he could not prove the People’s Temple responsibility he would surrender his bar card, which he then held high in the air before placing it on the table.

Impressively, he sat down and I was called up next to state the position of my clients. As to the wrongful death claims of the cult followers, I said while Mr. Belli’s suicide argument sounded good if I could not prove that Jim Jones, the alternate ego of the Peoples Temple, brainwashed his followers to kill themselves, i.e. therefore the estate was responsible for murdering them, I would turn in my bar card.

The trustee, doing a great job, rounded up from liquidation, foreign banks, insurance polices an estate fund of around 9 million.

The who-is- going- to- quit- law duel between Belli and I never took place. It all settled. It had to. The trustee and its attorneys did a great job of collecting the money from foreign banks, gathering the insurance available, resolving debt and in the end there was a fund of about 9 million but against a large multitude of personal injury claims. To litigate the circumstances of the death of 900 people, etc. would use up probably the fund itself. The only way for people to get any money was to find a basis for settlement of all claims. First, it was recognized that the claims arising out of the Ryan’s party had a better basis and more significant harm (relatives of families in Jonestown were generally not in contact with them) and individual settlements were made with those parties. Even those settlements, of which I represented one father, had to consider the vast amount of claims and limited funds.

The balance was then applied to a formula basis using a point rating system. You got more points for being a child than a parent, and more for a parent than being a brother of a victim. The younger the victim the greater the points because the longer the period over expected loss.

In trustee’s final report I was cited for efforts at bringing to a halt what would have been the largest (and most wasteful) mass trial of personal injury claims in the bankruptcy proceeding ever.


It is not unusual for alledged cult figures such as Scared Straight co-founder Betty Sembler and Scientology® founder L. Ron Hubbard to have a day named in their honor. March 13 has been declared L. Ron Hubbard Day in 150 American cities by mayors impressed with Hubbard’s alleged work in areas like drug rehabilitation, education and reform of criminals. The Los Angeles city council was so impressed with Hubbard’s life work that they named a street after him: L. Ron Hubbard Way. It doesn’t matter that for actions in late 70’s members of the Scientology’s Guardian Office and Hubbard’s wife, Mary Sue Hubbard, were convicted of criminal conspiracies arising out of efforts to thwart perceived Scientology enemies. L. Ron Hubbard was in an unindicted co-conspirator who could not be located. One Judge after a civil trial called him a psyhological liar.

In May of 1977 Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley declared Betty Dederich Day in honor of her humanitarian work at Synanon. At the time of her death she was Queen to “Her Majesty’s Imperial Marines” a hit squad (see True Story of Synanon violence).

After the news broke on Synanon the state did institute a Syanon task force, the health department did sue….but the only action for fleecing the charity was brought by Arizona.

Behind Senator Nick Petris, California passed a law keeping the state from taking actions against religions for diverting funds or misdeeds despite the actions of Synanon and the Peoples Temple. Petris was a long-time Synanon supporter.

After Charles Dederich was arrested for conspiring to murder me, Synanon held a press conference to argue his case and suggest I set it all up for publicity against cults. United Farm Worker’s Ceaser Chavez attended and spoke on behalf of Dederich.


Melvin Belli had many celebrity clients, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Errol Flynn, Chuck Berry, Muhammad Ali, Sirhan Sirhan, the Rolling Stones, Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker, Martha Mitchell, Lana Turner, Tony Curtis, and Mae West. He won over $600,000,000 in judgments during his legal career.

Belli was also a founder in consumer rights law, arguing several landmark cases in the 1940s and 1950s that formed the legal field for later lawsuits by advocate Ralph Nader. He was one of the first major attorneys to prominently use demonstrative evidence and courtroom exhibits (such as graphics, charts, photographs, and films). Belli became very critical of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; and the agency compiled at least 367 pages of evidence about Belli’s activities.

In 1969, the Oakland police department received a phone call from a man claiming to be the Zodiac killer who said he wanted Melvin Belli to be his attorney if they could not get F. Lee Bailey. Hours later, Belli was the guest on a KGO television station several times, and, during conversation with Belli, a man phoned in and claimed he was the Zodiac and that his name was “Sam.” Belli asked him to surrender. The Zodiac was never caught.

KGO ended up in litigation with Synanon (See Fall of Synanon 2).

Belli appeared in a 1968 Star Trek episode, “And the Children Shall Lead.” In it he appeared as Gorgan, an evil being who corrupted a group of children.

Despite all the success, Belli’s firm filed for bankruptcy protection in December, 1995. Belli was representing 800 women in a class action lawsuit against breast implant manufacturer Dow Corning. Belli won the lawsuit, but when Dow Corning declared bankruptcy, Belli had no way to recover the $5,000,000 his firm had advanced to doctors and expert witnesses. A year later he died.

Belli was married six times and divorced five and was ultimately compelled to pay one ex an estimated $15 million.

I am honored for a short time I was his friend.


On February 19, 1978, San Francisco Board of Supervisor member Harvey Milk wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter supporting Jones and making statements about the Stoens. After the Temple assisted in Milk’s 1976 election race to become a California State assembly member, Milk had visited and spoke at rallies at the Temple, though he claimed privately to have told friends he saw them as strange. All this was left out of the movie “Milk.”


My association ended with Tim Stoen. His war was over and mine with Synanon would go on another decade. It is hard to be around sadness and John’s death was the saddest thing I knew and no father could ever fight harder for his son.

From 1980 to 1984, Stoen was Corporate Counsel for Pacific Energy & Minerals, Ltd. Then he went into private practice. In 1998, Stoen ran for California State Senate but lost in the Democratic Party primary. Later, Stoen became a district attorney in Humboldt and Mendocino counties.

Finally he lost the liberalism that led him to the Temple. He is a Republican now who opposes abortion.

However, he remains an environmentalist.

Grace Stoen has appeared in two documentaries on Jonestown made in 2006 and 2008.

Larry Layton, who posed as a defector, and opened fire at the airport was convicted in l986. He was paroled in 2002.

In 2010, 25 years later, Jerry Brown ran again for governor. His opponent Meg Whitman, of e-bay fame, office contacted me and wanted to know if I would do a TV spot on Brown’s past relationship with Jones and Dederich when he was governor before.

I said Brown, Jr. was worse than that. Many of his appointments lacked credentials and got into trouble. His selection for Chief Justice, Rose Bird, of the California Supreme Court, was even recalled. They should have, I said, wrote a book called All The Governor’s Men. I said I would give them the information but would not appear on television. I was never called again for detailed information and I don’t know if this was thrown at Brown in the campaign or not.

All I know is that Brown won and unhappy days are here again. Where have you gone Arnold Schwarzenegger?

fn1This is the same Moscone who apologized to Synanon for the SF police helping enforce a custody order and blamed it on me, leading to the attempt on my life (see Escape from Synanon 3).

fn2 Gov. Brown was infamous for refusing to live in the mansion and for dating Linda Rodstandt who was then called “First Chick.”

fn3 At the same time of “Concerned Relatives” former Synanon members and family formed the “Network of Friends.”

fn 4 Synanon had similar short radio system called “The Wire.” If you got close enough it could be picked up and listened to on a radio.

fn 5 Synanon used the “outerview” tape recording those leaving saying they saw nothing wrong. Other groups have given money to people leaving in turn for promises to never testify.

fn6 On the Jones death tape an 11 year old boy says he is ready to die. Jones says he is of age to pick up a saber and fight if necessary.

fn7 A cult apologist Mary McCormick Maaga wrote Hearing the voices of Jonestown
By Mary McCormick Maaga defending the choice and attacking claims it was a cult, Jones was insane and no one was brainwashed. This idiotic book was cited in another idiotic book Rise and Fall of Synanon by Rod Janzen