By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Timothy Stoen would become the church’s most dangerous apostate; he was articulate, resourceful, well versed in media and a credible witness to the worst excesses of Jones’ conduct. For Jones, the issue was deeply symbolic; within Peoples Temple, John-Victor assumed the status of a God-child, and the battle about to take place over his status represented the movement’s ultimate, defiant renunciation of the world it had left behind.
With the population of Jonestown now at 1,200, and supplies failing to meet the demand, Gene Chaikin’s idealistic vision of agricultural self-sufficiency was in ruins. Two-thirds of the residents were elderly or minors, so an overworked group of physically capable adults had to bear all responsibility for subsistence farming. Jones’ obsession with the Stoens’ custody case created difficulties for Gene, who had to orchestrate a relentless legal counterattack while keeping his reservations to himself. The case had become a rallying point for the temple’s enemies in the U.S., including both the press and a newly formed protest group organized by Timothy and Grace Stoen, called the Concerned Relatives.
Meanwhile, the Jonestown community was stockpiling pharmaceuticals, and its leader’s mental health was becoming increasingly precarious, his behavior erratic. When the Stoens attempted to press their case through the courts in Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown, Guyanese bailiffs appearing at the compound with summonses were chased off by security personnel armed with rifles and machetes. Jones began to fear that his host, the socialist government of Guyana, was about to deliver him to the CIA, and that the entire community would be repatriated in shame.
One night in August 1977, Jones fired gunshots into the jungle and, claiming to have narrowly escaped a sniper’s bullet, roused from sleep the entire population. Ranting maniacally over the public address system, as was his habit, he gathered everybody in the pavilion to announce that the CIA, backed by Guyanese paramilitary forces, was on its way. Jones declared another “White Night,” but this time it was not an exercise in psychodrama restricted to a core group of devoted ideologues in Northern California. This time, Gene Chaikin watched his children stand quietly in a jungle clearing, lining up with their friends to drink fruit punch that Jones announced was spiked with a lethal dose of cyanide.
When Jones finally sent everyone back to their cabins, Gene had seen enough. As a trusted member of Jones’ inner circle, he was one of the few in the community who still possessed his passport and a dispensation from Jones to travel outside the compound. Once again, Gene needed to get away from Jones and his madness, to gather his thoughts and possibly seek help back home. He had become convinced that Jones was mentally deranged and that the lives of his children were in danger.
Gene Chaikin flew to San Francisco. There he may have unburdened himself to his brother Ray and to other family members, who, like the Alexanders in Los Angeles, were anxiously monitoring the situation, hesitant to lend their support to the Concerned Relatives in case it provoked Jones to more extreme measures. Gene spent time in the temple’s legal office in the Geary Street church and imprudently confided his suspicions about Jones’ deteriorating sanity to the staff. Panic-stricken messages were relayed by ham radio directly to Jones in Guyana, who reacted in fury to Gene’s allegations. Temple loyalists in America scrambled to distance themselves from Gene’s blasphemy.
Impolitic by nature, Gene now shared with Marceline Jones his misgivings about her husband’s mental state. Finally, he huddled with Charles Garry, the legendary left-wing attorney who had defended Huey Newton and who had now been retained by Jones to manage the temple’s increasingly paranoid retaliation against its enemies in the media. The two lawyers had become friends. Garry was receptive to Gene’s message, but once again, Gene had been indiscreet. Marceline, known as “Mother,” was furious, and Jim Jones sat at the radio in Jonestown raging over what had now become known as “the Chaikin crisis.”
Jones summoned Gene to return immediately to Jonestown, but Gene held out, diverting instead to Trinidad, where he made a last stand. He mailed Jones a long, principled letter of dissent, explaining his misgivings about the minister’s mental state and challenging his judgment. This letter, included in the FBI evidence files, is the boldest and most eloquent statement of dissent on record against Jones. “Jim,” he wrote:
I left because I am no longer willing to live in a situation of anxiety or bi-weekly crisis ... for several reasons: 1) my nerves just won’t take it any more, I’m too beat, 2) it is impossible to build anything in that sort of atmosphere because building requires lots of planning and continuity of effort and application — the continuity is destroyed by the crisis mentality, 3) because I feel that the crisis environment is to some extent created and maintained by your state of mind ... I think you suffer from a lack of balance, both of perspective and behavior. I detest being lied to and manipulated. You have, over the years, done a lot of both ...
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