John Victor Stoen died in a South American jungle 10 years ago, the object of a struggle over which he had no control, a victim of an evil he would never understand.
The last taste in his mouth was grape drink poisoned with cyanide. The last words from his lips--that anyone lived to recount--were "I don't want to die. I don't want to die."
John Victor Stoen was 6 years old.
On Nov. 18, 1978, 912 members of the Peoples Temple committed suicide or were murdered at the urging of the Rev. Jim Jones, the madman whom children and seniors alike called "Father."
At least 276 of the dead were children, including three dozen babies born in the Guyanese jungle encampment known as Jonestown. A decade later, memories of innocents lost still evoke the most intense, enduring pain for many relatives and survivors of the cult called the Peoples Temple.
"After he died, he came to me in a dream," Grace Stoen said of her dead son. "He said, 'I just want you to know, I really, really love you. And it's OK.' I'm sure that was my subconscious saying to me, 'Hey, you tried to get him back.' "
The brief, bizarre life of John Victor Stoen--as told by his parents--offers a cautionary tale as strange as it is tragic.
The story began for Grace Stoen in 1970, when she attended her first Peoples Temple meeting at Redwood Valley near Ukiah with her future husband, Tim Stoen, a strait-laced, bespectacled Stanford University law school graduate 12 years her senior. She was a naive 19-year-old from San Francisco; he believed in the possibility of utopia and thought Jim Jones was the man who could create it.
"When I would come to the Temple, people would come to me and say, 'Before I came here, I had nothing in my life. Now I have a family, now I have people who care,' " recalled Tim Stoen, who eventually became the Temple's attorney and church board chairman at Ukiah. "That's what sustained me for seven years."
Born Into the Cult
John Victor Stoen was born into the cult, taken from his parents as a toddler to be raised communally, and revered by Jones' inner circle as the very reincarnation of Jones himself. The black-haired child was precocious, spouting cult slogans even while in diapers.
Ultimately, Jones claimed he was John Victor's biological father and defied court orders to relinquish him. The child soon became the object of a bitter custody battle no one would win.
In six years in the temple, Grace Stoen rose to the respected position of head counselor, worked grueling hours on little sleep, watched her marriage disintegrate and saw her child taken.
As Jones' public humiliations and beatings of Temple members increased, so did her resolve to leave, she recalled: "Jim said, 'If anybody ever leaves, they'll be killed.' I really believed that. But I thought, at least if I go I'll die, and I won't have to live like this anymore."
She left Ukiah in summer, 1976, with Walter Jones, another Temple member. John Victor stayed behind in San Francisco.
Didn't Feel Like His Mom
"I wanted to take John, but I didn't have him physically and I felt like I didn't have him psychologically," she said. "All the time John was alive, people were telling me I wasn't good enough for him, that he was more intelligent than I, that I wasn't a good mother.
"Later, my attorney (in the custody fight) said, 'No one is ever going to understand how you could leave that child.' I shouldn't have left him. But I didn't even feel like I was his mother."
Three years before his wife left, Tim Stoen helped Jones draft a plan for a Caribbean agricultural mission where Temple members could escape persecution by police or press. In 1974, the first settlers began beating back 300 acres of Guyanese jungle that would become Jonestown.
When Tim Stoen arrived in Guyana in early 1977, only 50 Temple pioneers lived there, his son among them. But soon, Jones' paranoia had escalated so much that he and his top aides began plotting a mass exodus to Guyana; by July, Jonestown's population was close to 600.
Changed His Mind
It was Grace who persuaded a confused, conflicted Tim that it was time to leave.
"She said, 'They're turning John against me. Jim Jones is telling John I never loved him.' Immediately when she said that, it was like the skies opened," said Tim Stoen, who left the Temple in November, 1977. "I decided that no matter how pure and wonderful this philosophy is, nothing can justify violating a child's love for his mother."
Together, they went to court to try to wrest their son from Jones. They formed Concerned Relatives, about 50 people worried about family members in Jonestown.
"The reason he kept John was not because of his love for John but because of his hatred for Grace and me," said Tim Stoen, who was reviled by other cult members for fighting Jones for his son. Stoen's obsessive commitment to the Temple and Jones had ended, replaced by a fanatic desire to save his child.
"I said to myself, 'John, you're going to be proud of me because of what I'm doing for you. I'll get you out of there,' " Stoen said. "I kind of expected to die, but I just wanted to die saving John."
Child Was Crying
He could not save his son. Stanley Clayton, a temple member who escaped Jonestown while people writhed in death throes around him, told journalists Tim Reiterman and John Jacobs that he saw John Victor crying and protesting as he was led to Jones' house, where he would die.
"Is that my son doing all that crying?" asked Jones, who had spotted John. "My son shouldn't be crying."
Some of Jones' last words, preserved on tape, were for Stoen: "We win when we go down. Tim Stoen has nobody else to hate. Then he'll destroy himself."
Tim Stoen did not self-destruct. For the 10 years since John's death, he has led a solitary life in California and Colorado. Grace married Walter Jones, her fellow defector, and began a new life.
The Stoens never got John back. They later learned that the lettering on an ID tag was obliterated by rain and his body was buried in a mass grave for the unidentified at Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland.
Other relatives know less about their lost kin. Many bodies were never identified or recovered. George Brady, who buried his former wife, Michaeleen, and daughter, Michelle, never received the body of a second daughter, Georgiann, 12. He does not know what happened to her.
"I realize it's very remote that she might still be alive, but every time I go to the cemetery, I realize she's not there. So where is she?" Brady recently wrote to a reporter, asking for help in locating his namesake.
When the end came in Jonestown, the children died first. Parents held squirming babies while a nurse squirted poisoned punch into their mouths with a syringe. When the screams of pain had ceased, the smallest bodies formed the bottom layer of corpses piled three-high.
"The sequence of death would be children, young adults, adults, the elderly," Reiterman and Jacobs wrote in their definitive book, "Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People." "Such a clever way to make sure all died: What would the adults have to live for after they watched the next generations die?"
A New Family
Grace Stoen, now 38, has other children now, a daughter, 4, and a son, 2. She has saved the newspaper clippings and someday will tell her children about her lost son.
She has spoken to some high school classes about her cult experience, reminding them that her experience ought not to be dismissed somehow as freakish, impossible: "I . . . feel people can relate to me. They say, 'Hey, she looks normal, she looks like someone I could know.' "
Tim Stoen looks at framed photos of John every day. For the San Francisco lawyer, a youthful 50, there has been no new marriage, no child to ease the pain, to create new memories.
"I feel responsible for the fact an innocent 6-year-old boy died, and that's the heaviest burden in my life," he said, and the tears flowed. "I would go through all the misery of this experience again just to hold John in my arms for an hour."