The meeting of September 5, 1978

In early September 1978, four people with very different agendas meet in an unknown location to discuss issues surrounding Peoples Temple. In fact, the only thing the four – attorney Mark Lane, film producer Donald Freed, private investigator joseph Mazor, and Pat Richartz, the assistant to another Temple attorney Charles Garry – have in common is that none themselves are members of the Temple.

There is already some history among the meeting’s participants. In his former role representing the Concerned Relatives, Joe Mazor had exchanged some harsh words with Charles Garry, and still alleges that Garry’s office office (as in, the person of Richartz) censors mail coming out of Jonestown; Garry would also soon withdraw as the Temple’s lead outside lawyer, once he learned that Mark Lane had become as involved as he was; Donald Freed and Mark Lane had only recently returned from a trip to Jonestown, where they had absorbed and offered different conspiracy theories to the increasingly-paranoid Jim Jones, theories that sometimes echoed, sometimes clashed with Mazor’s claims of what he had seen and heard.

The purpose of the meeting – the reason it was convened in the first place – is somewhat unclear. Freed wants to make a film about the Temple and initially seems interested in learning what role Mazor would like in it. Mazor claims that he had only one overriding concern in working with the Temple – that of the children of Jonestown, making sure they are safe, that they are there legally, and that they are getting the education and medical care they need – although he quickly segues into allegations of the perfidy of Tim Stoen.

It’s a sexy sidebar. Did the Temple’s in-house lawyer engage in fraud in falsifying affidavits filed by Temple members? Did he embezzle Temple funds when he left the group? Did he use his knowledge of – and his previous advice to – the organization to try to bring it down? All of that, according to Mazor, is verifiable.

Even sexier is what may underlie Stoen’s motives. His past with right-wing organizations is well-documented – at least by Mark Lane’s criteria – and according to all three men in attendance, it’s certainly possible that Stoen has been acting as a government agent, both during his Temple tenure and now. The fact that he seems to be resisting a government offer for immunity from prosecution for whatever he did in the Temple, in exchange for testimony against Jim Jones, certainly seems to bear all of this out.

The Tim Stoen story is all intriguing for Donald Freed, especially looking at it through a film camera lens. Here is a man who goes to Guyana representing Peoples Temple, disappears for a while in London, and returns to San Francisco representing himself. Here is a man who could have retrieved his child on more than one occasion without involving the courts in California, and yet he chose the route that was guaranteed to fail. Here is a man who files lawsuits against his former organization, ensuring that the alienation from Jim Jones will be complete and irreversible.  As Freed sums it up late in the conversation, Stoen “wanted the lawsuit, not the child.”

The problem for everyone is that Joe Mazor, the principle yarn-spinner, is inconsistent both within the meeting and in the context of past (and future) characterizations of the Temple. Did Stoen embezzle money from the Temple, or did he get it from sinister forces in Venezuela? Yes and yes, says Mazor. Did the Temple murder some of its opponents? Yes, says Mazor, based on information he got from Concerned Relatives, even as he concurrently repudiates everything else they told him. Was there barbed wire around Jonestown? Yes, says Mazor here; no, he tells Lane a month later. Was the attack on Jonestown in 1977 led by American intelligence interests, Concerned Relatives, or mercenaries? Depending on when he’s speaking on the tape, yes to all three (although he offers no proof on any assertion and goes coy on the mercenary option).

Mazor’s supposed efforts to spring the kids sent him on strange — if not unlikely — paths. “I asked Idi Amin to intercede with the President of Guyana in order to get this mess squared away,” he says at one point, referring to the dictator known as the “Butcher of Uganda,” purportedly responsible for the deaths of between 100,000 and 500,000 of his subjects. Mark Lane is incredulous: “You appealed to one of the leading humanitarians of the world on behalf of the children.”

The investigator also has inflated – but unprovable – assertions about other issues unrelated to his ostensible goal to ensure the safety of Jonestown’s kids. He has some secret knowledge about Watergate, and wishes Nixon counsel John Dean had taken his advice about the White House tapes. He knows how close the government of Guyana is to collapse (and how Jim Jones secretly yearns to take over the country). His ego, his self-promotion, and his embellishments on everything he has been involved in characterize practically every known conversation he has with the Temple, with the Concerned Relatives, and – now – here with people outside the two camps.

The result is – and always has been – when should they believe Joe Mazor, and when shouldn’t they? And now, more than 40 years after this conversation, when should we?