Jonestown 40 years later: Young survivors lost everything, built new lives
OAKLAND, Calif. — 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.
CHILD OF BERKELEY
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.”
THE JONESES’ FIRSTBORN
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 grape-flavored 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.”
NINTH-GRADER FROM FRESNO
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 8½ 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.
BORN INTO TEMPLE FAMILY
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.
JONESES’ ADOPTED SON
The Joneses adopted a black baby in Indiana in 1960, and Jim gave the 10-week-old infant his own name. “Little Jimmy” became part of their “Rainbow Family” of white, black, Korean-American and Native American children.
In California, he was steeped in temple life. Those who broke rules were disciplined. At first it was spanking of children. Then it was boxing matches for adults.
“To me, the ends justified the means,” he said. “We were trying to build a new world, a progressive socialist organization.”
The church provided free drug rehabilitation, medical care, food. It marched for four jailed Fresno newsmen. When Jim Sr., a local Democratic Party darling, met with future first lady Rosalynn Carter, Jim Jr. proudly went along.
After the temple exodus to Guyana, he was given a public relations post in Georgetown — and was part of the basketball team.
He was summoned to the temple radio room. In code, his father told him everyone was going to die in “revolutionary suicide.”
“I argued with my Dad,” he said. “I said there must be another way.”
Jim Jr. would lose 15 immediate relatives in Jonestown, including his pregnant wife, Yvette Muldrow.
In the aftermath, he built a new life. He remarried three decades ago, and he and his wife, Erin, raised three sons. He converted to Catholicism and registered Republican. He built a long career in health care, while weathering his own serious health problems.
Of course, even if he wanted to forget Jonestown, his name was an ever-present reminder.
He has taken a lead role in a 40th Jonestown anniversary memorial to be held Sunday at Oakland’s Evergreen Cemetery, where remains of unclaimed and unidentified victims are buried. Four granite slabs are etched with names of the 918 people who died in Guyana— including James Warren Jones, which deeply offends some whose relatives perished.
“Like everyone else, he died there,” his son said. “I’m not saying he didn’t cause it, create it. He did.”