Young Jonestown survivors built new lives amid grief
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 – to struggle for decades with grief, guilt and the feeling that they were pariahs.
At 16, Jordan Vilchez 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. They must kill themselves.
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,” said Vilchez, an artist who worked 20 years in a private crime lab. This past year, she returned to long-overgrown Jonestown. 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.”
Though he waved and smiled at Peoples Temple services, seemingly enraptured like the rest, Stephan Gandhi Jones says he always had his doubts.
But Stephan was the biological son of Jim and Marceline Jones. And the temple was his life – first in Indiana, later in California.
As a San Francisco high school student, he was dispatched to help build Jonestown. 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, believing nothing would happen or he was too cowardly to follow through with the oft-threatened “revolutionary suicide.”
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.”
Jim Jones’ adopted black son, Jim Jr., also was with the basketball team at the time of the massacre. He says he tried to persuade his father not to go ahead with his murderous plan: “I said there must be another way.”
Jim Jr. would lose 15 immediate relatives in Jonestown, including his pregnant wife, Yvette Muldrow.
He would build 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.
He has taken a lead role in a Jonestown 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.”
Tim Reiterman, AP environment team editor, covered Jonestown for the San Francisco Examiner and was wounded when temple members fired on Rep. Leo Ryan’s party in 1978. He is the author with the late John Jacobs of “Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People.”