The Custody Battle for John Victor Stoen and Its Fallout
On February 6, 1972, Peoples Temple attorney Timothy O. Stoen signed an affidavit in which he stated that the child that his wife – Grace Grech Stoen – had just borne was sired by the Temple’s leader, Rev. Jim Jones. The single-page document eventually became the most important piece of paper in the Temple’s history.
John Victor Stoen was born on January 25, 1972. His birth certificate lists Grace as the mother and Tim as the father. In signing the affidavit, however, Tim not only seemed to contradict his putative paternity, but as Tim Reiterman writes in Raven, he also “bound the child to Jones and the church for life.” In the years to follow, Jones would cite the affidavit countless times to demonstrate his paternity of the child, to denigrate Grace’s worthiness to be a mother, and to dismiss Tim’s claims of custody rights.
Grace left the church in July 1976, but did not take her son with her. Part of the reason is that she believed Jim Jones when he’d told her that her life would be in danger if she ever left, and she did not want to put John’s life in jeopardy along with hers. Another reason is that the child had been separated from her to be raised communally, so she didn’t have physical access to him at the moment of her departure.
Nevertheless, she began to fight for custody almost immediately after her defection. She was later joined in the battle by her estranged husband, who left the church about a year after Grace. They prevailed in the California courts – a judge awarded Grace physical custody of the child in November 1977 – but by that time, the young boy was already in Jonestown, far away from the state court jurisdiction. In essence, the court order insured that Jim Jones would not be able to return to the United States without facing contempt proceedings for failing to turn over the child. It also meant John Victor Stoen could never leave Jonestown.
In one sense, John Victor Stoen represented the most visible symbol in the battle between Jim Jones and the Concerned Relatives organization, with which both Tim and Grace were both allied by then. Everyone – Jim Jones, the Temple leaders and members, and the entire Jonestown community on one side; and the Stoens, the Concerned Relatives organization, and the Temple’s growing number of critics on the other – knew that if Jones were forced to surrender John Victor, the precedent would have been set, and every relative seeking child custody or adult conservatorship of their family members in Jonestown would be emboldened. Jones would have lost more than just the boy he claimed as his own. He would have lost his claims of absolute power of protection for his followers. After all, if he couldn’t hold on to his own flesh and blood, how could he defend anyone in the community against the other dangerous forces – real, imagined and exaggerated – which were aligned against them?
Stoen's defection also had repercussions beyond this custody case. Once Jim
Jones' closest aide, Stoen became his chief antagonist, and many of the
fantasies which Jonestown residents were encouraged, if not required, to write
involved humiliation, mutilation and finally the death of Tim Stoen. The former
Temple lawyer became the primary legal representative for the Concerned
Relatives organization, and in so doing, help to give the oppositional group
both credibility and effectiveness. There were four court actions pending
against the Temple and its leadership on November 18, 1978, and Tim Stoen was
the attorney for each of the plaintiffs.