18 Nov 2008

Jonestown and 'confirmation bias'

Los Angeles Times - November 18, 2008

by Michael Shermer

On this day 30 years ago in the jungles of Guyana, Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple cult, ordered the mass suicide or murder of more than 900 of his own followers by inducing them to imbibe cyanide-laced punch or by lethal injection. He had controlled nearly all information coming into the group and warned them daily that "they" (the government, imperialists, greedy capitalists, etc.) were the enemy. So when Rep. Leo Ryan and his investigative team showed up in Guyana, Jones' followers were primed to believe that "they" were coming to destroy them and had to be stopped. After the congressman and others in his party were killed, Jones told cult members that "they" would now really come down on them, and their only choice was to move on to the next stage of life.

Although some members tried to escape (and were shot), and some members were forced to drink the poison, most got caught up in the contagion of the moment and voluntarily took their own lives and those of their children. You can hear it in the screams and voices of their final moments, captured on tape, as Jones eggs them on:

"Please. For God's sake, let's get on with it. . . . We've had as much of this world as you're gonna get. . . . This is a revolutionary suicide. This is not a self-destructive suicide. So they'll pay for this. They brought this upon us. And they'll pay for that. I leave that destiny to them. . . . If everybody will relax. The best thing you do to relax, and you will have no problem. . . . Lay down your life with dignity. Don't lay down with tears and agony. There's nothing to death. . . . Stop this hysterics. This is not the way for people who are socialists or communists to die. We must die with some dignity. . . . Death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you -- you'd be glad to be stepping over tonight. . . . Hurry, hurry my children. Hurry."

Lamentably, Jonestown was not a one-time event. On March 26, 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult drank a deadly concoction (and for good measure wrapped plastic bags around their heads for asphyxiation) in order to join the mother ship they believed was on its way to Earth. How can such tragedies happen?

In general, these types of belief systems are coherent and logically consistent when you are inside them. It is not until you step outside the group and gain a different reference point that the coherence and logic vanishes. This is why cults control the movements of their members, and especially their access to outside information and contact with friends and loved ones in the real world. (Jones moved his group to Guyana from San Francisco.) There also are well-known social psychological effects at work in these groups -- such as the loss of individuality and the compliance of behavior and conformity of thought under group pressure, along with the diffusion of individual responsibility and group think.

But there is something deeper going on here that I think touches on cognitive processes in all of us as members of non-cult groups, such as political parties: confirmation bias. This is when we look for and find evidence to support what we already believe, and ignore or rationalize away evidence that does not. And because we are so tribal by nature, we employ confirmation bias with extra vigor when it comes to defending the groups we belong to. Republicans tend to listen to conservative talk radio, watch Fox News and read the Wall Street Journal, gathering data and noting arguments that support their political beliefs. Democrats are more likely to listen to progressive talk radio and NPR, surf liberal blogs and read the New York Times. Everyone does it.

Confirmation bias explains why so many rumors about candidates were eagerly embraced recently. On the left, commentators glommed onto false gossip about Sarah Palin's ignorance (she doesn't know that Africa is a continent) and bigotry (she tried to ban books from the public library) because liberals think that conservatives are dumb and dogmatic, and after eight years of George W. Bush's malapropisms and Palin's interview fumbles, such rumors merely confirmed what liberals already believed.

On the right, conservatives were primed to process hearsay about Barack Obama being a Muslim or Arab as true, or that his tax plan -- indistinguishable from that of most Democratic candidates in recent decades -- confirmed that he's a socialist, even while Republicans were nationalizing the financial industry and running up record debts.

Research on confirmation bias has found that when subjects are presented with evidence that contradicts their deeply held beliefs, they dismiss it as invalid, while other subjects treat the same information as valuable when it confirms what they believe. In one study, for example, subjects were shown a video of a child taking a test. One group was told that the child was from a high socioeconomic class; the other group was told that the child was from a low socioeconomic class. The subjects were asked to evaluate the academic abilities of the child based on the results of the test. The child believed to be from the high socioeconomic group was rated as above grade level, but the child believed to be from the low socioeconomic group wasrated as below grade level. Same data. Same kid. Different interpretations.

The confirmation bias sways us all, especially when it reinforces our inner tribalism. Most of us will never join a cult, but all of us are subject to the pull of believing that the evidence supports our most cherished beliefs. Inside Jonestown, Jim Jones' daily barrages confirmed to members that their cause was right and that ultimately death would bring about peace and justice.

It is for this reason that we need to look for disconfirmatory evidence, to listen to the arguments of those with whom we disagree, to ask for constructive criticism of our beliefs, and to remember Oliver Cromwell's words to the Church of Scotland in 1650: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, is an adjunct professor in economics at Claremont Graduate University and the author of "The Mind of the Market."

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  1. The Cult of Two

    Understanding Jonestown

    by Loren-Paul Caplin - Screenwriter, Playwright, Narrative Teacher & Consultant

    Huffington Post October 22, 2015

    It's easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled -- Mark Twain

    My cousin died in November 1978 in the Jonestown Massacre, the largest mass murder/suicide in American history. Gene Chaikin was a lawyer for Jim Jones and Peoples Temple. His wife Phyllis and their two children David and Gail were also members of Peoples Temple and ardent followers, at least for a while, of Jones.

    I am currently writing an eleven-part scripted TV series inspired by Gene's and his family's life and death in Peoples Temple. What drew me to this project was this question: How could someone like you and me - an educated, mindful, middle-class person - end up dead, deep within the belly of a cult, in the remote jungles of Guyana?

    I was a Religious Studies Major and had the good fortune to have studied under Mircea Eliade, the author of The Sacred and Profane and From Primitive to Zen, and one of the preeminent professors of Religious Studies. I was not raised religious per se. My gravitation toward Religious Studies had everything to do with my personal quest for meaning. I arrogantly believed that politics, philosophy and psychology were, each in their own manner, at best precursors and/or obfuscators of some deeperraison d'etre. I was convinced that Religious Studies was the most direct route toward uncovering the apparently secret truths and answers to the gigantic questions that young students are prone to ask (and that some not-so-young students of life continue to ask): What's it all about? Why are we here? What is our purpose?

    Certainly, each religion that I studied provided plenty of answers to the big questions. But for those answers to be believable, for them to make sense - not in an academic way but to land with the resonance of a nuclear life-changing blast - I learned that one had to fully immerse themselves into the total belief system that that religion offered. Joseph Campbell said there are as many gods as there are people who believe in god. I believed in something unseen; something eternal, something without a name or face, something that held all answers to all questions, but without the commitment of accepting another's prescribed system of belief. Along the way I played California Spiritual Musical Chairs, sampling various practices and religious systems. But this was California in the late 60's and 70's - and I had the luxury to consider such matters.

    Although Jim Jones and Peoples Temple reflected the traditions of the Black Church, by the time the nearly one thousand members migrated to Guyana in the mid-seventies, the gospel they worshipped had become an expurgated version of the New Testament as cherry picked by Jones. It was very light on Jesus and big on communal sharing, the absence of pride and the subsuming of self to the ideals of an idealized version of communism. To me Jones, the leader, was far less interesting than his followers. Jim Jones was commonly similar to many of history's failed and troubled leaders: Charismatic, empathetic, egomaniacal, prophetic, offering a grand carrot of hope and the means to achieving a better life, and a big, stern stick if you even considered an alternative.

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  2. But if Jim Jones was a cliche each of his followers were unique. Each followed a very personal and specific calculus of life experience that led them, in their own way, toward giving up themselves to what they sincerely believed was a cause that was bigger and more worthy than their own lives. I'm mostly referring to the honeymoon period of their involvement before coercion, fear and possible retribution served to even further inexorably bind them to the group.

    In my quest to understand how someone like my cousin and his family could end up where they did, I felt I had to understand how I might conceivably make similar decisions. I began to look into other groups that had similar qualities and held a similar pall of nearly blind devotion over their members. Not surprisingly, I began to see similarities everywhere: from corporate ethos to all kinds of devout adherents of both organized religions and boldly unorganized anti-religion mindsets (atheist fundamentalists). Surprisingly, however, I began to notice similarities of equal magnitude in small groups, groups of tight friends, and colleagues. This I found to be especially true in the basic relationship of romantic couples: the cult of two.

    The word cult originally did not have a negative connotation. It was loosely defined as a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object. It was not used to describe a group as much as for the act of worship and/or religious ceremony. It was first used in the early 17th century, taken from the French culte, from Latin cultus (worship). But increasingly, into the Twentieth Century, the term cult grew synonymous with socially deviant and/or unique practices.

    Today, when we speak of cults or cult mentality, we think of near zombie-esque adherents following the intentions and commands of a central authority, people whose behavior changed from the way we knew them before they entered their group. We think of people whose words and even vocal intonations, more often than not, resemble those of their leader and/or of their fellow group members. Members of cults - we are absolutely certain - are those who are absolutely certain about things that in the light of fact checking just aren't so. When we confront a person like this about how they've changed or even challenge the accuracy of what they believe, they either become defensive, or they simply begin to pull away from you, from anyone or any area that might question their relationship to their authority; their belief system; to each other.

    This sounds familiar. There are clear similarities between this behavior or tendency with many, if not most intimate relationships, including my own. Aren't we fiercely defensive of any criticism of our significant other, whether the criticism has any validity or not? Don't we take on mannerisms and shared perceptions of each other? Don't we pull away from anyone or any group that we feel might threaten our union? Don't we find ourselves entertaining new experiences gained from our partners that we might not have otherwise encountered? Sometimes these might include adopting a new philosophy or even a new religion, all in order to maintain our relationship. And none of these traits are particularly considered negative. On the contrary, these are among the singular aspects we desire in a family, in a relationship: Security, constancy, love, loyalty, and devotion. In short our own private cult of two with its attendant system of adoration, ritual and personalized practices. So what's wrong with this?

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  3. I have a former student who had been in military intelligence in South Korea. His job was to debrief North Koreans who defected to the South. He interviewed hundreds of defectors who told him that they all left because of starvation, that they all quickly saw that they had been lied to about how worse off South Korea was. Within months, according to my student, all of the defectors craved the community closeness that their previous us against the world lives provided them.
    The intense bonding between soldiers that takes place during life-threatening battles is notoriously fervent, even irrational, as some have been known to sacrifice themselves for one another. Like the blind bond between parents and their young children, it's beyond logic.

    No one will ever know for certain the precise whys and hows of the life decisions and choices that each Jonestown resident made which led them to that final horrific moment. Clearly, extreme, long-term fatigue, malnutrition, chronic fear (of a world against them and of recrimination from their possible disloyalty) were among the factors. But long before November 1978, years earlier when they decided to move en masse from Northern California to Guyana, they had already made life-defining decisions that could easily have included such human cult of two aspects: They did not want to disappoint their spouses or friends or Jim (who they had accepted as their political and spiritual leader). They did not want to lose the closeness they felt within their us against the world family/community. They did not want to give up on a shared idealistic dream. This is the simple emotional mortar that binds couples to one another, the exact stuff that comprises any serious relationship.

    When the relationship becomes abusive, when one or both people are abused and suppressed, then the power of the cult of two becomes more glaring. It's common in an abusive relationship for people not to admit or even see that they are being abused or abusing the other. The inexorable power that binds in the cult of two is the exact amorphous substance of any community. As people search for deeper psychological reasons behind cult mentality and how to understand what happened in Jonestown, I suggest that one starts by examining their own relationships and how easy it is to not rock the boat.

    I started out wanting to understand how someone like myself or my cousin could end up among the dead in Jonestown. I found some answers, very basic, very human answers. My cult of two will be different than another's. The cult of two: I, Thou, that relationship between one and another be it loved-one, friend, leader, God, is constant. Each victim's version is unique.

    This article will also be available at the Jonestown report.


    Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple


  4. Congresswoman Left for Dead at Jonestown Recalls the Massacre, 37 Years Later

    By Rebecca Gale, Roll Call November 18, 2015

    Rep. Jackie Speier knows exactly how it feels to be left for dead.

    On Nov. 18, 1978, she was shot five times on a remote airstrip in Guyana, South America. Her boss, Rep. Leo J. Ryan and four others lay dead nearby, killed by gunfire as they tried to escape Jonestown, the commune built by cult leader Jim Jones.

    Nearly 40 years later, Speier still remembers why she decided to get on a plane to go down on the ill-fated congressional trip.

    “Back in 1978, there were not many women in high-ranking positions in Congress,” said Speier, who was legislative counsel for Ryan at the time. “I felt if I didn’t go, it would be a step back for women holding these high positions. I thought, ‘I can’t not go.’”

    So she went, accompanying Ryan and 23 other people to Guyana, on the northeastern coast of South America, attempting to visit Jim Jones and nearly 1,000 followers he’d amassed.

    By the end of the trip, Ryan was dead — the first and only congressman to be assassinated in office — along with three journalists and one cult defector. Speier and nine others had been shot and left for dead at a remote airstrip; they waited 22 hours for help to arrive.

    Immediately following the shootings, Jones and more than 900 of his followers died from self-inflicted cyanide poisoning in what was seen as a mass suicide at the time, but is now widely considered a mass murder.

    The Ryan congressional delegation had no military escort. The State Department had given neither a warning nor protection.

    Speier has occupied Ryan’s former seat in Congress since 2008. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, she noted that while much has changed, some fundamental questions about Jonestown remain unanswered.

    The Consummate Staffer

    Speier believes to this day that nothing would have deterred Ryan from going to Jonestown.

    “He was a congressman accustomed to going into battle,” she said. Ryan believed in living the experience. Early in his political career, he taught school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles and later spent a week living on death row at the maximum security Folsom State Prison to learn more about inmates’ lives.

    “He really felt there was nothing to worry about,” Speier said. “He was a congressman — as if he had some kind of a protective shield.”

    Ryan was a member of the International Relations Committee, and had initially recruited a congressional colleague to make the trip alongside him. But the member backed out as the date approached.

    Ryan’s travel plan was known by the committee’s chairman, Clement J. Zablocki, D-Wis. But according to the Dec. 7, 1978, edition of Roll Call, it was not considered an official inquiry because, under congressional guidelines, at least two congressmen must be involved in an investigation.

    The trip was rooted in constituent service for Ryan. Jones’ Peoples Temple was based in San Francisco and had recruited people from Ryan’s nearby district, based in San Mateo.

    As a staffer, Speier spent time listening to stories from constituents worried about their loved ones who had gone to Guyana and not been heard from again. She also heard from people who had left Jonestown, and told stories about Jones’ violent side and the arms and ammunition he was amassing.

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  5. Working with the State Department ahead of the trip, however, no one advised Speier of the potential danger.

    “The State Department was really flat-footed,” Speier said. “They were more interested in making sure the prime minister, [Forbes Burnham], who was Marxist, was kept happy.”

    Still, Speier had an inkling of the risks involved based on the stories she’d heard.

    She was in the process of buying her first home, a condo in Arlington, Va., and she included language in her signing papers saying if she did not return from Guyana alive, the contract would be void.

    “I didn’t want my parents to be saddled with this piece of real estate across the country,” the Californian said.

    When the group arrived in Georgetown, Guyana, Speier said they waited two days for permission from Jim Jones to visit. She recalled Jones’ wife taking them on a tour.

    “As the evening went on and they had entertainment, we were in the corner interviewing people. There was a long list of family members who wanted us to check on their children,” she said.

    And then a note was passed to Don Harris, one of the reporters from NBC News who was on the trip. People wanted to leave.

    “Don comes over, hands us the note. My heart sank,” Speier said. “Everything those defectors said is true. Then more people wanted to leave and the whole thing exploded. It was such a tinderbox of emotions and tension. It became clear that one plane wasn’t going to be enough. The congressman decided he was going to stay behind, [and take] the next airlift out. It was so emotionally raw.”

    Speier described Jones as “agitated.” Larry Layton — one of Jones’ top operatives, whose sister Debbie, had defected — claimed he wanted to leave too, but Speier found him untrustworthy.

    “He had a yellow poncho on, it had just rained. I just knew there was something wrong,” she said. “We get to the airstrip, I started loading passengers on both planes. I turned to Ryan and said, ‘I don’t want Layton on our plane.'”

    Ryan suggested Layton fly on the other plane. As Speier started to board passengers, a young Guyanese child ran on the plane. She recalled trying to coax him off.

    That was what she was doing when a tractor trailer drove on to the airstrip and people started shooting.

    “People ran into the bush,” she said. “I followed Ryan under the plane and hid under one of the wheels.”

    Speier and others were shot at point-blank range. Ryan and four others, including Harris, were dead. The survivors waited, supporting one another through the night.


    Speier had a long recovery ahead. Shot five times, she spent two months in the hospital and had 10 surgeries, all with 24 hour protection from the U.S. Marshals Service — because of threats to her life.

    “It was the most incredible welcome,” when she returned home to San Francisco. “I thought to myself, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life a victim of Guyana. I want to be a survivor.”

    Candidates, including a co-worker of Speier’s, were lining up for the special election to replace Ryan.

    “On that Monday, the very last day, I decided to run to carry out his legacy,” Speier said. She didn’t win, coming in fourth.

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  6. The following year, she ran for the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, beating a 20-year incumbent, then later served in the California Assembly. “I never had any intention of returning to Washington,” she said.

    But Congress called to her again after the death of Rep. Tom Lantos, who held Ryan’s San Mateo-based seat for 27 years. She was elected to fill Lantos’ seat in a special election in April 2008.

    Jonestown had ceased to define her. “I had spent 24 years in elected office; I had moved beyond being a survivor. It’s part of my life story, but it’s a small part of my life story,” she said.

    Holding the Government Accountable

    Today, members of Congress travel with military attaches on congressional delegations. But Speier thinks more can be done to ensure nothing like Jonestown ever happens again.

    “The State Department had a black eye at the end of that tragedy. Nine hundred American citizens lost their lives. They were not suicides, they were murder,” Speier said. “It wasn’t that they weren’t tipped off that there were problems; they were.”

    Speier cited the case of Debbie Layton, who had sneaked away from Jonestown and went to the embassy before going back to the United States. “But they never followed up with the allegations, which she had made public about what was going on,” she said.

    Speier is now a member of the Intelligence Committee and has asked to see secret government files related to Jonestown. “There was some that had suggested that the CIA was somehow involved and they didn’t want that to be exposed. Now that I’m on the Intelligence Committee, I actually recently asked to see the documentation. It does not appear that that was the case. And I don’t know. But it does seem like it was mishandled on a number of levels.”

    Speier feels more can be done to scrutinize organizations, particularly religious ones, that are engaged in illegal activities. She came back to D.C. in 1979 to give her account of Jonestown in an unofficial congressional hearing organized by Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan.

    The State Department, including Ambassador James Burke, who had been in Guyana at the time of the massacre, had been scheduled to appear in front of the renamed House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Latin American Subcommittee in November 1981 as part of an inquiry into the performance of State Department officials in connection with the Jonestown events.

    Hours before the hearing was to begin, it was abruptly canceled.

    “I heard later that the chairman of the full committee, Zablocki, had decided he didn’t want to pursue this matter,” Burke said, describing the situation for the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project in a 1989 interview. No further action was taken on the matter and Zablocki died in 1983.

    For Speier, this part of history still has lessons left to teach.

    “I do think the State Department could benefit from doing a case study, much like Harvard does in the business school, on what should be different. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you’re compelled to repeat them. This should never ever happen again.”


  7. Peoples Temple Hit Squads and Jonestown's Last Victims

    by Bob Calhoun, Yesterday's Crimes, SF Weekly November 12, 2015

    It’s November 18, 1978.

    The tape is running. Reverend Jim Jones is rambling into a microphone, dictating a suicide note on behalf of nearly a thousand people. Death is all around him, in the air and on the ground; death that he commanded. People are drinking grape Flavor Aid from a vat. It’s laced with potassium cyanide.

    Before Jones, standing on a pavilion in front of his wailing congregation, shoots himself in the head, he issues a warning to a “Deanna Mertle.”

    “The people in San Francisco will not be idle,” he says. “Now, would they? They’ll not take our death in vain.”

    The following day, 913 people — many of them children — are found dead in the cleared-out patch of Guyana jungle called Jonestown.


    In 1974, Deana Mertle and her husband Elmer left Peoples Temple, the paranoid church that Rev. Jones controlled like his personal banana republic in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. The couple had been forced to watch their 16-year-old daughter Linda get whacked 75 times with a 2-foot-long “spanking board” after hugging a friend that Jones branded a “traitor” to the church. It was the last straw; the Mertles abandoned their flock and changed their names to Jeannie and Al Mills, hoping to make a fresh start.

    In the months after they left the Temple, the Mills family was subjected to scare tactics from Jones and his followers. Threatening notes were left on their doorstep. Jones’ personal bodyguards stalked them. Peoples Temple members even set off a bomb in the Bank of America branch where the Mills kept a safe deposit box — or at least the Temple took credit for the bombing in another note left on the Mills’ front porch.

    "We saw you two near the bank last night," the note read. "We know where you keep your belongings."

    Jeannie and Al fought back. They established the Human Freedom Center to help other ex-Peoples Temple members readjust to society and put political pressure on Jones through the Concerned Relatives organization. They also went on record in New West magazine’s exposé of the abuses happening inside their former church.

    Their efforts led San Mateo Congressman Leo Ryan to make his ill-fated “fact-finding” mission to Guyana in 1978, which ultimately unleashed the Jonestown apocalypse after Ryan was killed by Peoples Temple members. Jones blamed Mertle/Mills for Ryan’s visit in what is now referred to as the “Death Tape.”

    Although Jones died in the jungle 4,500 miles away, the Mills didn’t feel safe. The couple grew nervous as the one-year anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre approached. “The people in San Francisco” that Jones spoke of were just across the Bay from the Mills’ Berkeley home. Were any of them still loyal to Jones? Would they still kill for him? There was every reason to believe they would, considering the fanaticism that played out in Guyana.

    In the citywide chaos following the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978, rumors swirled that a Peoples Temple hit squad was responsible. Jonestown had happened just nine days earlier. It seemed plausible that Temple mercenaries were behind the City Hall shootings before aggrieved ex-supervisor Dan White emerged as the culprit. Peoples Temple hit squads were a haunting Bay Area urban legend throughout the late 1970s.

    November 18, 1979, Jonestown's tragic one-year anniversary, came and went without incident. The Mills family breathed a sigh of relief. They finally appeared to be safe from the horrors of their past.

    But their respite was short-lived.

    To be continued next week...


  8. Jonestown Was Just the Beginning for One Peoples Temple Family

    By Bob Calhoun,Yesterday's Crimes, SF Weekly November 19, 2015

    continued from last week...

    Jeannie and Al Mills and their children left Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in 1974. Jones and most of his followers died in the biggest murder/suicide of all time in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978. But even with Jones dead in the jungle, Jeannie Mills never felt safe. Jones still had followers in California who hadn't "drank the Kool-Aid."

    On Feb. 27, 1980, Jeannie’s worst fears came true. She and her husband were found murdered in their suburban Berkeley home. Their 15-year-old daughter, Daphne, was rushed to Alta Bates Hospital, only to die two days later. All of them had been shot execution-style in the head with a .22-caliber pistol.

    Rumors of a Peoples Temple Hit Squad seized the public imagination, but police focused their investigation on Eddie Mills, Jeannie’s 17-year-old son from a previous marriage.

    Eddie was eight when his parents joined Peoples Temple in 1969. Shortly after the Mills family moved from Hayward to Ukiah to be closer to their new church, Jeannie convinced herself that Eddie had developed an irregular heartbeat. Although doctors never diagnosed or treated the condition, Jeannie believed that Rev. Jones had miraculously cured it through telepathy.

    "From that day forward, Eddie was able to play as hard as any boy," Jeannie Mills wrote in Six Years with God: Life Inside Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, the memoir she published shortly before her death.

    But Eddie’s savior soon became his tormentor, as the boy was subjected to the beatings and sleep deprivation that were a routine part of life in Peoples Temple. The trauma didn’t stop for Eddie when his family severed ties with Jones’ organization in 1974. Most of his childhood friends were among the more than 200 children who lost their lives at Jonestown.

    On the night of Feb. 27, 1980, Eddie was at home watching TV while the rest of his family were slain in other rooms of their modest cottage. Eddie told police he didn’t hear any gunshots, and neither did the Mills’neighbors, thus lending credence to the teenager’s innocence. One neighbor did report seeing a van leave the neighborhood around the time of the murders, stoking speculation that Jones loyalists had stealthily executed the Mills family.

    There was one wrinkle in Eddie's story: the boy had gunpowder residue on his hands. Nonetheless, police didn't press the issue, and Eddie Mills remained a free man for 25 years.

    In December 2005, he was detained by customs officials while reentering the U.S. from his home in Japan. Berkeley cold case investigator Russ Lopes believed he had put together an airtight case against Mills over the years. However, with just 48 hours to charge Mills with murder, Alameda County prosecutor Chris Carpenter didn’t feel his office had time to review the evidence, so he cut Eddie loose.

    "Eddie Mills gets away with murder, and it's outrageous," Lopes raged at the Oakland Tribune.

    "Even if you're not absolutely, 100 percent sure you'll win at trial, you take it to trial and let a jury decide," Lopes later told the San Francisco Chronicle. "Weaker cases have gone to trial."

    Linda Mertle, Eddie’s sister whose harsh punishment in 1974 urged her family to leave Peoples Temple, championed her brother’s innocence.

    "I'm just glad (Eddie’s) home," she told the Oakland Tribune. "My personal opinion is it's an easy way out. They don't want to do the footwork to find out who really did this."

    And who really did it?

    Without the closure of a trial and a conviction, nobody really knows. The Berkeley Police closed the case, but the murder of Al, Jeannie, and Daphne Mills remains a mystery.

    Eddie Mills returned to Japan where he now lives with his wife and two children.


  9. The Strange Death of the Crooked PI Who Took on Jim Jones

    By Bob Calhoun, Yesterday's Crimes, SF Weekly, December 10, 2015

    Editor's Note: This is the third installment in a multi-part series exploring post-Jonestown life for former Peoples Temple members in the Bay Area.

    Joseph Mazor was like a character out of film noir. He was a con man who’d served time for passing bad checks before somehow getting a private investigator's license and opening his own San Francisco detective agency. He sometimes wore an eye patch and was prone to fits of violence.

    However, this grizzled anti-hero spent nearly two years working to free children from Reverend Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple Agricultural Project in Guyana before the mass murder/suicide there on Nov. 18, 1978.

    Although he failed to rescue many children before the deadly Kool-Aid knockoff was served, Mazor’s life took an even more tragic turn after Guyana.

    Mazor first locked horns with Jim Jones in August 1977. That’s when he reached out to Jeannie Mills, an early Peoples Temple whistleblower and the subject of two previous installments of "Yesterday's Crimes." Mills had left Peoples Temple in 1974, but she was still concerned for the well-being of Candy and Carl, two children being held at foster homes run by Temple members. Mazor promised that he could deliver Candy and Carl to Mills, and only charged a $1 retainer for the service.

    When Mills asked why he would do this for her, Mazor replied that "getting children back to their rightful guardians” was his specialty.

    Although Mills later wrote that "a warning bell should have rung" in her head after that initial meeting, the private dick made good on his promise and brought the children to Mills only days later. Mazor even had the kids’ biological mother on hand to sign temporary custody over to Jeannie and Al Mills.

    "We had to admit that he was fast," Mills wrote in Six Years With God: Life Inside Rev. Jim Jones's Peoples Temple, a memoir she published just months before being murdered in her Berkeley home.

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  10. While Mazor was effective, his criminal background was used to discredit Mills and the Concerned Relatives organization she had founded to expose abuses going on at the Peoples Temple. A now barf-inducing Sept. 23-29, 1977, Berkeley Barb piece by Art Silverman pilloried Mazor for "at least eight arrests in three states," as well as his having hired "one of San Francisco's largest public relations firms" to "coordinate a publicity campaign against the (Peoples) Temple and its minister (Jones)." (That bastard!)

    The Barb piece was so favorable to Jones that Peoples Temple included it in a Peoples Temple flyer accusing Mazor of being "a special agent for Interpol — the Nazi-infested international criminal police organization begun in Hitler's Germany."

    While some sources speculate that Mazor may have double-crossed his own clients by passing sensitive information about them to Jones, it appears that the detective spent the months before the Guyana tragedy working to get children out of the jungle compound.

    "For a year, I wrote letters to the district attorney and probation office, but I was basically told to drop dead," Mazor told the Associated Press just days after the Jonestown massacre. "It wasn't a big enough issue."

    On Nov. 15, 1985, nearly seven years to the day after the Jonestown tragedy, Mazor was shot to death by his wife, Nancy Lou Mazor, in the couple’s apartment near Ocean Beach. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Nancy Lou Mazor called the Taraval Police Station at 3:30 a.m.

    "I just shot my husband," she said. "If you you don't get here in a hurry, I'll do it again."

    By the time officers arrived at their apartment on La Playa Street, Nancy Lou met them at the door with a pistol in her hand. Joseph Mazor was found dead on the bed with a bullet in his chest. Nancy Mazor insisted on being booked under birth name, Nancy Lou Thompson, and claimed she shot her husband in self-defense. The Mazors had been married for just over a year at the time of the murder.

    According to the Chronicle, Mazor née Thompson had retained Charles Garry, the former attorney of Rev. Jim Jones, to defend her in court.

    Special thanks to the “Alternative Considerations of Jonestown and Peoples Temple” website maintained by the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University for making so much information on the Peoples Temple freely available.


  11. International Cultic Studies Association statement on the 40th Anniversary of the Jonestown Tragedy – November 18, 2018

    In November 1978 California Congressman Leo J. Ryan visited Jonestown, a commune in the jungle of Guyana, along with journalists and relatives concerned about family members in the group. The leader of the group, Rev. Jim Jones, had become prominent in San Francisco because his church, the Peoples Temple, had championed progressive causes, most notably racial equality. He moved nearly 1000 of his followers to an agricultural commune in Guyana to avoid the IRS and bad publicity emanating from the actions of a group that called itself “The Concerned Relatives.” The commune was called “Jonestown.”

    Ryan said he was on a fact-finding mission. As Ryan and his companions interviewed more people, their skepticism about the Peoples Temple grew. Jones, who felt his “mission” crumbling around him, ordered the murder of Ryan and his entourage and a mass suicide of his commune, something that had been practiced many times before.

    On November 18, 1978, Congressman Ryan, three journalists, and a Peoples Temple member were shot and killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip, six miles from Jonestown. Soon after, more than 900 of Jones’s followers ingested poison in Kool-Aid as an act of “revolutionary suicide.” Nearly 300 of the victims were children, a calamity depicted in icy detail in Ken Wooden’s book, Children of Jonestown. Thus, “murder-suicide” is the adjective often associated with Jonestown.

    As the bloated bodies of the deceased were discovered and photographed, horror gripped the world. Weeks of newspaper and television coverage followed. In the United States Jonestown became the biggest media story since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

    Political committees investigated the tragedy. Groups of parents concerned about loved ones in cults were able to connect and work together. In 1979 the American Family Foundation (ICSA’s original name) was founded, as was the Citizens Freedom Foundation (later renamed the Cult Awareness Network), which was driven into bankruptcy in 1996.

    In 1978 ICSA director Dr. Michael Langone had become interested in the cult phenomenon because of his association with Dr. John Clark, one of the first mental health professionals to speak out on behalf of parents concerned about children in cults. Langone recalls attending a seminar Dr. Clark held with psychology interns at Massachusetts General Hospital about a month or two before the Jonestown suicides. Dr. Clark had no special knowledge of what was going on in the jungle of Guyana, but he had come to witness the striking level of control some cults wielded over their followers. He said to the interns something like, “There is going to be a bloodbath someday.” Langone remembers the cynical snickering of the skeptical interns. Soon thereafter television and news magazines shocked the world with photos of hundreds of bodies in Jonestown. Public perceptions about cults changed quickly after Jonestown.

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  12. The tragedy of Jonestown should not be viewed as typical of cults. It is without doubt the extreme. Jonestown, however, shows, as did Nazi Germany, what might happen when immense power becomes concentrated in one person.

    Human beings by nature tend to conform; they want to relate harmoniously within their social groups. The deceptive and manipulative techniques of influence and control illuminated in the cultic studies field serve as an accelerant to this natural tendency, as some chemicals accelerate the growth of a fire. Thus, human beings, who want to belong and do good, are led down destructive pathways that they would not have chosen had they known the outcome in advance.

    In memory of the victims of Jonestown, the directors of ICSA ask you to reaffirm your commitment to help victims of cultic manipulation and educate the public so that fewer people follow pied pipers down pathways of subservience and pain.

    More information on Jonestown and the Peoples Temple:

    Images from Jonestown: https://www.gettyimages.com/photos/jonestown?sort=mostpopular&mediatype=photography&phrase=jonestown

    Podcast in which Rachel Bernstein, MS, LMFT, interviews Patricia Ryan, daughter of the slain congressman and former president of the Cult Awareness Network:

    ICSA (International Cultic Studies Association)

    Web site: www.icsahome.com