In the weeks and months after the Jonestown tragedy, hundreds of individuals and institutions filed legal claims against the estate of the soon-defunct People Temple corporation. As detailed in Chapter 13, “Closing the Books” in A Sympathetic History of Jonestown by Rebecca Moore (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985) – located here on this website – the claimants included the U.S. government, which sought to recover its costs for removing the bodies from Jonestown and transferring them to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware; the people who were wounded at the Port Kaituma airstrip, for recovery of medical expenses; and the families of those killed at the airstrip, including relatives of Rep. Leo Ryan.
As one of the letters below points out, within 18 months of the deaths, there were 765 claims against the Peoples Temple. The face amount of these claims totals over 1.8 billion dollars. At the present time, but total assets that have been recovered by the Receiver for the Temple amount to 6.2 million dollars,” an figure less than three percent of the total amount of the claims.
The largest number of claimants were former Temple members and non-Temple relatives of the Jonestown dead, who filed wrongful death actions. Other members of the church tried to recover the proceeds from sales of property they had donated to the church (if not the property itself); still others claimed they had turned over their assets to the church in exchange for lifetime care contracts, and they wanted the courts to recognize those claims. Some former church members had multiple claims, for each of their relatives who died and/or for each of their properties donated and/or for each lifetime care contract negotiated.
One such family was that of Don and Bonnie Beck, who sought to collect wrongful death damages for their adopted son Daniel James Beck and to ask that the courts recognize their lifetime care contracts. The four-year correspondence below shows how their attorneys at the San Francisco law firm of Hill & Hansen – which eventually became known at Hill, Schwartz, Stenson & Boutin, and which represented countless other claimants as well – negotiated on behalf of the Becks, how the claims were whittled down to a single wrongful death claim, and how even the original estimates of recovered amounts dwindled as time went on.
The managers of the website are deeply grateful to the Becks for providing this correspondence.