San Francisco Laid Low by Jungle Fungus

by Bart Lee

It’s thirty years.

I never met Jim Jones. He will be remembered for only his evil, like the man who burned the Temple at Ephesus. Jim Jones was a mass murderer with a fungus in his brain. Before Jones fled to Guyana, the law office in which I worked as an attorney represented him. It was political. The political whores of the Democratic Party in San Francisco loved Jim Jones because he was the biggest political pimp: he turned out the vote on command.

I participated in analysis and discussion of his legal issues, which I cannot disclose in terms of any attorney and client communications. I’m happy to say, I had none with Jim Jones or anyone associated with him or Peoples Temple. The San Francisco newspapers were running stories about how he abused members of the Temple. Jim Jones never did sue for libel, not through us or anyone else as far as I know. Perhaps some lawyer (not me) explained to him that truth was a defense. This was well before his exposure to jungle fungus. Maybe these newspapers ran him out of town. That would have been fine but for all the innocents he took with him.

We had a very nice young man in the copyroom of my office by the name of Vern Gosney. I think our representation of Jones, and the political ambitions of the owner of the law firm, played some part in Vern’s falling into the hands of Jones. Jones sold the dream of “Free at Last!” like a street drug to blacks and gays in San Francisco, and the disaffected and the idealists. Jones had sucked up enough respectability from his associations with all the little midget powers-that-be that were in San Francisco in the mid-1970s to do that.

Jim Jones murdered Vern’s son, a four-year-old boy named Mark, who died with 313 other children in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. By a miracle, Vern survived the bullets pumped into him at the Port Kaituma airstrip as he tried to leave with the congressman. I will leave it to Vern to say how and why all that happened, which he shared with me on his return. He was a brave and courageous young man in Guyana, and his story – one of tragedy, challenge and redemption –­ is worth reading.

When we – in San Francisco, in November 1978 – heard the first reports on the radio about Jonestown massacre, I knew it had to be true. It was all the more sickening because of our involvement with Jones. (I wondered then and I wonder now if better lawyers could have made it possible for him, and his victims, to stay in San Francisco, and alive). A good friend, a sophisticated lawyer, simply did not believe the bad news. That was true for many, at least for a while. She declared that 900 people simply did not kill themselves that way. She was wrong about the deaths, but right about people not killing themselves. Jim Jones and his evil crew (without fungus in their brains) simply murdered 900 people one way or another. This was no Masada, it was mass murder.

Nine days later, former City Supervisor Dan White assassinated the Mayor, George Moscone, whom Jones had served so well, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, another gay martyr of courage and talent. My friend Carol Ruth Silver was next on White’s list. This City reeled. This Demented Disneyland that we had created and loved turned out to be actually demented and homicidal at that.

A year later the incompetence of the District Attorney’s office in getting only a manslaughter conviction against White (they picked a death-qualified jury but from White’s western constituency neighborhoods) led to the “White Night” riots. And then the “Gay Plague” hit. That’s what we called it then, first thrush, then cancer blotches, then wasting, then death.

“Game over” and no “do-overs” and no “new-life” to live. When Jim Jones kills you, you stay dead.

I don’t know that the City he wounded ever really recovered.

May the souls he robbed of life rest in peace.

(Bart Lee is an attorney in San Francisco. He may be reached at KV6LEE@att.net.)

Last modified on December 13th, 2013.
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