Jonestown lawyer comes back to face his demons in Mendocino County, this time as a prosecutor

By Michelle Locke Associated Press Writer
Saturday September 30, 2000

UKIAH – It was 1967 and young prosecutor Tim Stoen was sitting in the Mendocino County Courthouse, being quizzed by a roomful of officials for a new job representing the poor. Afterward, one of the interviewers approached him with outstretched hand. 

“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the stranger, “I am Jim Jones.” 

Thirty-three years later, after becoming Jones’ trusted legal adviser turned chief accuser, after losing his 6-year-old son to the cyanide-soaked end of Jonestown, after the long, slow process of putting himself back together, Stoen is back at work as a Mendocino County prosecutor. 

“You can go home again,” he says. 


The first time Stoen laid eyes on Jones was Good Friday 1966. A year out of Stanford law school, Stoen was walking to his office as a deputy district attorney when he saw about 70 people standing on the courthouse steps protesting the Vietnam War. A staunch conservative, Stoen wasn’t in sympathy. But he was struck by the well-scrubbed, multiracial crowd and by one of its leaders, a heavyset white man. 

On Aug. 8, 1967, Stoen met Jones again, this time inside the courthouse. 

Much had changed. Infused with the spirit of the ’60s, Stoen was ready to quit prosecuting and seek social justice on a grass roots level as a volunteer in San Francisco’s happening Haight-Ashbury District. Friends offered him an alternative, a paying job as director of a federally funded office providing legal services to the poor. 

The job interview was a formality. Stoen met with several county officials he knew and a few he didn’t. On a whim, he answered the conventional, “Tell us about yourself,” with the slightly flip, “I am a theological conservative and a social radical.” 

Afterward, one of the strangers approached. 

“I want to thank you for your courage,” he said. 

The stranger was Jim Jones, the man from the anti-Vietnam march. 

Over the next year, Stoen got to know Jones, who was on the board of directors of the legal aid office, one of his many officials posts. Jones also was foreman of the Mendocino County grand jury and would later be appointed chair of San Francisco’s housing authority. 

“People of stature, people of affairs ... for some reason just gravitated to Jim Jones. There was just an unbelievable chemistry,” Stoen said. 


Stoen went back to work for Mendocino County from 1970-76 and then took a job with the DA in San Francisco, site of Jones’ new headquarters. 

By that time Stoen had met and married his first wife, Grace, and was the proud father of a son, John Victor. 

He’d also seen Grace leave the Peoples Temple and begin a long, wrenching battle for their son, whom Jones refused to give up, claiming he was the real father. 

In early 1977, Stoen decided to “give Utopia a second chance.” He went to Jonestown, the Guyana compound he had helped Jones plan some years before. 

“Then, I started to see the real Jim Jones,” Stoen says. 

In November 1977, Stoen left Jonestown. He went underground for three months, afraid that open defiance would bring harm to John Victor. Soon, though, he was convinced fighting was the only option — “How could I have lived with myself if I hadn’t?” 

It didn’t work. 

On Nov. 18, 1978, Jones ordered more than 900 of his followers to drink cyanide-poisoned punch. Among the victims, 6-year-old John Victor Stoen. 

A tape recording preserves some of Jones’ last words: “We win when we go down. Tim Stoen has nobody else to hate. Then he’ll destroy himself.” 


After Nov. 18, 1978, a lot of people had the same question: “How could somebody who was head of special prosecution for a major American city have been the lawyer for a guy who does a Jonestown?” 

Stoen was never charged with any wrongdoing. But in some ways, he still holds himself accountable. 

“People trusted Jim Jones because they trusted me. I have to bear that weight on my shoulder for the rest of my life,” he says. 

For years, Stoen worked in private practice. Then, he started thinking about getting his old job back. 

Most welcomed his return this summer to Ukiah, a small city about 120 miles north of San Francisco. 

A few weren’t so enthusiastic. 

“I don’t want to hound the man. I just don’t feel that he should be in the public employ,” says retired county employee Clif Shepard, who wrote to The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa to express his dismay. 

Assistant District Attorney Myron Sawicki also had reservations at first. 

“In all honesty, he came through with flying colors,” says Sawicki. “It’s time for the people to give it a rest. Yes, he may have used some bad judgment back then, but this was not a question of his basic honesty. He believed the wrong man.” 

“Most people in this community have been so good to me and so kind to me that it is really incredible,” says Stoen. “Those few that don’t, they figure that I knew more than I did. That I was some sort of planner.” 

In some ways, Stoen would rather they believe that than know the truth: “I was a true believer.” 


These days, Stoen rarely thinks about Jones. 

He has remarried and is keenly involved in his new career pursuing his old goal of social justice through the work-intensive, glamor-free field of fraud prosecutions. 

If there are ghosts in the Mendocino County courthouse, they are friendly ones. 

Stopping in a corridor, Stoen remembers bringing John Victor in his bassinet to night meetings and, later, watching the growing toddler amuse himself by throwing a ball along the polished floor. 

Dominating Stoen’s weathered wooden desk are two framed photographs. One, a black-and-white shot of a laughing blonde woman, is of his second wife. The other is a color shot capturing the brilliant, clear-eyed smile of John Victor, taken the day before his death. 

Against a wall stands a bookcase resplendent with leather-bound copies of the world’s classics. They include a slender volume of Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia.” 

“The question that still remains, to me, is how much of Jones was opportunistic and how much of him was real,” says Stoen. “I would like to say that he was a good man that went bad. I’m not so sure I could say that. I just always see in Jim Jones, from the day that I met him... an opportunist streak.” 

Looking back, Stoen sees himself as “ideologically blind on purpose. I wanted to create a just society and I was tired of all the delays. I was impatient. That was my fatal flaw.” 

“Utopianism is a gilded curse,” he says. “Once you accept the possibility of humankind being made better, of a perfect society coming into existence, then those who are leading it and finding impediments along the way make a very easy step to the point that they say, ’I’m going to force this through because I’m doing it for your own good.’ Utopianism in the long run breeds slavery.”