John Victor Stoen: The Unfortunate Son

(Bonnie Yates is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous articles may be found here. She may be reached here.)

Yeah, some folks inherit star-spangled eyes
They send you down to war
And when you ask ’em, “How much should we give?”
They only answer, “More, more, more!”

It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no military son, son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no fortunate one, one

“Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival

The events that played out in the jungle of Guyana on November 18, 1978, shocked the world – the staggering loss of life on that day horrified all who heard about it. As the initial shock started to ease, people began to question what had happened. The most obvious and simple question was why? What precipitating factors were so terrible, so momentous, that more than 900 people died as a result? This article will argue that many of the answers lay in the custody battle over a six-year-old boy named John Victor Stoen.

John Victor Stoen: The Ultimate “Unfortunate Son,” and the Custody Battle Over Him

John Victor Stoen was born on January 25, 1972, in Santa Rosa, California. His mother and father – Grace Grech Stoen and Timothy Oliver Stoen – had joined the Peoples Temple congregation in late 1969. At least, Tim Stoen was considered the putative father: under California law, when a child is born to a married couple, the husband is considered to be the father. In the case of John Victor, however, his actual paternity would be called into question less than two weeks later. On February 6, 1972, Tim Stoen signed an affidavit stating that the true biological father was not himself, but Jim Jones, the pastor of the church they attended. In the affidavit, Tim would attest that he had asked Jones to sire a child with Grace, as he himself “was unable, after extensive attempts” to impregnate his wife. Over the following years – up to November 1978 and even beyond – Tim’s statement was used as a weapon in the battle over the boy’s paternity. As Tim Reiterman would later say of John’s birth in his book Raven, “This squirming little being would, through no fault of his own, become a critical factor in determining the fate of a thousand people” (130).

From the very beginning, members of Peoples Temple treated John Victor as the “second coming” of Jim Jones. John was raised communally with other Temple children, but he got away with more misbehavior than the others. John Victor was reportedly a sweet child, but he was also quite capable of being precocious, and if he caused a bit of “trouble” – for example, when he used bad language – the adults would merely laugh it off. His caretakers dressed him just like Jim, and even styled John Victor’s hair in the same manner that Jones wore his. “John Victor was systematically trained in the image of Jones, so even adult Temple members were reluctant to reprimand him… To some, John Stoen was a ruined, spoiled, confused little boy” (Reiterman, 288). Even Tim Stoen was aware that the boy was “treated by everyone as a child prince” (Stoen 87).

More important than the Temple members’ treatment of the child was Jim’s. John Victor was his son, he said, pointing approvingly at both their physical similarities and John’s “intellectual” prowess. In her book Seductive Poison, Debbie Layton stated that, “John-John resembled Jim, and Father was terribly proud of him” (Layton 101). Although he was still quite young, John would sometimes use the same rhetoric that Jones was known for in his speeches and sermons. Indeed, before he could have possibly even known what the words meant, John Victor was condemning fascists and other such “enemies of the people.”

At the same time that John Victor was raised communally in the Temple – with Temple member Maria Katsaris as his surrogate mother – Jones made moves within the Temple structure to secure his personal relationships with Grace and Tim. Jones “had [Tim] Stoen sign the paternity statement. Then, almost immediately, he elevated Grace to the planning commission” (Reiterman 174). Beyond that, the relationship between Jones and Tim Stoen, who was one of the Temple’s lawyers, grew into a genuine friendship. By 1970, when Tim became a Deputy DA and the head of the Civil Division of Mendocino County, he was providing legal aid to Peoples Temple and its membership.

Jim Jones hoped that making Grace a counselor would give her a new impetus to make a full commitment to the church, but the reality was that she had quickly become disillusioned and had joined only because her husband was so interested in it. Her unhappiness increased with her inability to see her son. By mid-1976, every day felt like mental torture. Her marriage to Tim was on the rocks. Other members of the Planning Commission harangued her for not publicly acknowledging that Jones was the true father of her son. Over the Fourth of July weekend that year, Grace and another Temple member, Walter Jones, made their escape.

John Victor Stoen and Tim Stoen

But she didn’t take John with her, and her reasons have never been fully explained. Did she believe that she wasn’t a good mother because she had allowed him to be raised apart from her? Did she think that John Victor’s proximity to Jones would make his removal virtually impossible? Whatever the reason, Grace’s defection triggered events that she could not have foreseen. She tried to stay in touch with her son through phone calls and even a short visit at the Temple, but she realized that she was fighting a futile battle. Aggravated by all of the obstacles in her way in order to maintain contact with her son, Grace let it slip to Tim that, “There are other ways to deal with you” (Reiterman 292). There was no other way for Tim to interpret her statement other than Grace intended to file for custody of John Victor. If necessary, she would remove the boy from Tim, Jones, and the Peoples Temple community at large. Both Tim and Jim were furious with her statement, and they immediately began to consider how to thwart her plan.

The most obvious step was to send John Victor somewhere that Grace would have no access to: the Temple’s agricultural project in Guyana, South America. Begun in 1974, enough work had been done on the site by late 1976, that the area was habitable for people other than the pioneers who were building it. Peoples like John Victor Stoen. Tim’s acquiescence to Jones’ proposal to send the boy to Jonestown ahead of themselves was the decision that sealed his fate.

The decision reinforced Jones’ own claims to paternity, even as it was also presented as a way to preclude Grace’s access. John had to be kept away from her, Jones said. She was an unfit mother who had done psychological harm to the boy because of her selfish, capitalist ways. Grace was vilified in everyone’s eyes, including John Victor’s. Tim did nothing to stop it.

When Grace called the Temple in November 1976, she was both saddened and shocked to find that John was no longer in the United States. For the time being, Jones had won the battle, but she wasn’t about to concede defeat. On February 1, 1977, Grace told Tim that she was filing for divorce and that she would seek custody of John Victor. Tim wasn’t happy with either of these developments. He couldn’t fight her decision to divorce him, but he would have something to say about John Victor’s status.

Almost immediately, Tim Stoen made plans to go to Guyana. Prior to his departure from the U.S., Tim contacted his father in Colorado to set up private bank accounts for him, separate from his dealings with Peoples Temple. Jones learned about the accounts, however, and became suspicious of Tim and his behavior. Was Tim setting things up so that he could escape Jonestown, possibly with John in tow, if he wanted to? Jones and a few aides went to Guyana to confront his longtime friend, and even searched through Tim’s belongings. Tim was able to explain his actions to Jim’s satisfaction, but at the same time, people in Jonestown were told that under no circumstances could Tim take John Victor out of the settlement.

The confrontation served to sour Tim on Jonestown, the leadership of the group, and even Jim Jones himself. Now considered as a possible defector, Tim soon decided that he did in fact want out of Jonestown and out of Peoples Temple. In mid-March, merely a month after his arrival, Tim made a move to leave.

His opportunity came during a trip to Barbados and Trinidad. The Temple had sent him to research what he would need to do to join the Caribbean Legal Bar. His last known whereabouts was at the Port of Spain Holiday Inn in Trinidad, from which he completely vanished from the Temple radar. When he heard about Tim’s disappearance during a public meeting of the San Francisco Housing Authority, Jones “suddenly crumpled to the floor” (Reiterman 318). Clearly, the loss was a great blow. Not only had Tim been his friend, he knew all of the intimate – and sometimes dirty – secrets of the organization and its leader.

Tim was also the legal father of John Victor in the state of California. Jones knew that if Grace Stoen moved for legal custody of John, the state courts would undoubtedly award the boy to her, and Jones couldn’t allow that.

For years, Jim Jones had made a point of “proving” to the membership both that John Victor was his son, and that Grace was a poor mother. Those assertions, coupled with his vow never to let John Victor be taken from him, are far more critical to the events of November 18, 1978 than anything else.

This is more readily seen in context. Throughout the Temple’s history, Jones had told his followers that he would protect each and every one of them from any and all harm from the outside. Anyone who came to the Temple and tried to take one of his congregants away would have to “go through me,” he said. In short, Jones had sworn that he would give his own life before anyone could be removed from his presence. This promise of protection extended to all, but no one more so than to John Victor, his “own son.” If Grace were to prevail, the vow would be revealed as nothing but empty rhetoric: If he couldn’t protect his son, how could he claim to protect any of them?

Tim Stoen’s defection was indeed a source of great concern, but it certainly wasn’t the only thing that put pressure on him. In July 1977, New West magazine published an explosive article on physical abuses of members and other malfeasance within Peoples Temple. Jones’ response was to order a mass exodus of Peoples Temple members to Jonestown – collapsing years of organized emigration into a few short weeks – and among the community’s first new permanent residents was Jones himself. In his very first days, he did not know whether he would ever leave the confines of Jonestown again. The encampment struggled to handle its sudden increase in population, to feed and house all those who had filled the community beyond its capacity within a matter of weeks. It was difficult enough for the leadership to properly provide for all of the residents, but “nothing would shake the fragile community like the custody battle for John Victor” (Reiterman 362).

Back in the United States, Grace petitioned the courts for the custody of her son, and on August 26, 1977, the California Superior Court issued an order that gave Grace exactly that. Having the order executed promised to be another matter entirely. Jones flatly refused to abide by it, and as long as he – and John Victor – remained in Jonestown, they would be out of the court’s jurisdiction. Grace’s lawyer, Jeffrey Haas, went down to Guyana to plead her case before the courts, and even though he wasn’t able to convince the Guyanese judge to enforce the order, his personal appeal did result in the court issuing a writ of habeas corpus for the boy: Jim Jones would have to produce John Victor to the Guyanese court. Jones refused to accept any court decision – American or Guyanese – so the judge ordered the Guyanese Defense Force (GDF) to post the order at Jonestown on September 6, 1977. A GDF officer had to nail the summons to the front gate, whereupon Jonestown residents – who had refused the military’s entry – tore it down. The court responded by issuing an arrest warrant for Jones. Again, the effect was to drive Jones further into self-isolation in his jungle prison.

The same day that the summons was delivered to Jonestown – September 6, 1977 – most of Guyana’s political leaders, including those Jones considered as his allies, were out of the country. Jones frantically tried to reach them, wanting assurance from them that they wouldn’t allow anyone to take John Victor from him. Unable to make contact with any of them, he panicked. During the “Six Day Siege” – as it would soon be referred to – Jones and his closest advisors told the residents of Jonestown that an attack from the GDF and/or a group of mercenaries was imminent. At Jones’ order, the people armed themselves with any weapon they could find – including farming implements – and stood along the Jonestown’s perimeter, prepared to fight anyone who approached.

Throughout the crisis, Jones was on the HAM radio with Temple headquarters in San Francisco. At one point, according to Debbie Blakey, who was in the San Francisco radio room, “[Jones] instructed me to call a high-ranking Guyanese official, who was visiting the United States, and deliver a threat: unless the government of Guyana took immediate steps to stall the Guyanese court action regarding John-John’s custody, the entire population of Jonestown would extinguish itself in a mass suicide by 5:30 pm that day” (Layton 131). The threat was transmitted to the Guyanese government, but there was no response. Finally, on September 10, Deputy Prime Minister of Guyana, Ptolemy Reid, returned from his international trip and put an immediate stop to the habeas corpus proceedings. The crisis was over. Jonestown had not acted on its threat.

But the battle lines over John Victor were drawn. Once Tim Stoen heard how Jones had reacted to the habeas corpus order, he “knew the battle [between him and Jones] involved more than ego, even more than the life of John Victor. And he must have realized that Jones would not back down after this opening skirmish” (Reiterman 379).

The net development the following month was more measured. In October 1977, Temple attorney Charles Garry, who had represented and supported Jones and his group for years, flew to Guyana in order to personally give him a hand-written critique of what had occurred and how the leadership of Jonestown had handled the situation. In his writing, Garry stated, quite plainly, “The willingness to sacrifice everything for one person – John Victor – conflicted with his [Garry’s] collectivist principles.” The attorney stressed the point that sacrificing more than 900 lives in order to “protect” one life was completely illogical. He failed to understand what John Victor symbolized to both Jim Jones and his people. Nevertheless, with the affirmation of Guyana’s political leadership and the demonstrated support of an attorney he could count on, Jones was, for the moment, mollified.

Then in November 1977, there were two critical developments in the battle over John Victor. First, Grace and Tim Stoen put aside their differences and united in the fight to get Grace physical custody of John. Tim even appeared at Grace’s side in California Superior Court. Following the court’s ruling that Jones was in violation of its original order – which itself was also ignored – the San Francisco District Attorney, Joe Freitas, wrote to numerous government officials to ask for their help in returning John Victor to Grace.

Among others who received the Freitas letter was Congressman Leo Ryan.

The U.S. State Department responded by saying that it was unable to provide any help. It was a matter for Guyana’s courts, the agency said, and the case would be decided based upon Guyanese law.

Secondly, Tim Stoen joined the Concerned Relatives, an organization of former Temple members and relatives of Jonestown residents who worried that their kin were being held against their will. The group had been in existence for several months prior to Stoen’s arrival – they had organized some protests and spoken with the media – but hadn’t been very successful in gaining much attention for their cause. Eventually, as the de facto leader for the group, Stoen would use his legal knowledge to file lawsuits against Jones and other Temple leaders on behalf of several members of the Concerned Relatives. The lawsuits sought a combined total of $56 million in damages, but the real effect – the intended effect – was to add to the stress and pressure that Jones and his leadership were under down in Jonestown.

In early January 1978, the Stoens appeared at a court hearing in Georgetown regarding the writ of habeas corpus for John Victor. Jones was represented in the court room by counsel – there was no way that he could appear on his own behalf, or allow John Victor to be present, as he was far too afraid that the boy would be taken from him and/or he would be arrested – and he remained in Jonestown. Three days after the January 7 hearing, the court took the writ “under submission,” and the Stoens, their attorney, and the U.S. Embassy expected a decision within a few days. By January 17, however, the mood had changed. The Stoens learned that the decision might take weeks, and decided to leave Guyana until a ruling seemed imminent. At the airport on their way out of the country, however, the Stoens were confronted by three members of Peoples Temple, demanding that they drop the custody lawsuit and allow John Victor to stay with Jones. They threatened Tim’s life when he gave no sign of acquiescing. Neither side in the dispute would be willing to give up the battle for John Victor.

In February 1978, shortly after returning to the U.S., “for the first time, [Tim] Stoen turned to the press” in an effort to draw public attention to the custody fight. “[Jim Jones is] holding my son because he needs an excuse not to come back to America,” Reiterman quoted Stoen as saying (380). Stoen had already asked the State Department for help in enforcing the California court’s custody order, but once he returned from Guyana, he ratcheted up the pressure on the federal agency, by making numerous requests for what are known as “whereabouts and welfare” (w/w) checks on John Victor, which the American Embassy was obliged to carry out. The requests were aggravating enough for both Jonestown and embassy officials, but the level of agitation was raised even further when more requests were made by relatives of other Jonestown residents. A State Department cable of February 4, 1978, outlines how the dilemma that the Embassy faced: it was obligated to serve and protect the interests of Americans overseas, but since the dispute was between two sets of Americans, they could not be biased – or even appear to be biased – towards either Jim Jones or the Stoens. It was an impossible position. They could do little without seeming to favor one side or the other. Further hampering the outcome was the Guyanese court, which believed, for all intents and purposes, that the situation was a stalemate.

Tim Stoen made eight w/w check requests between January and November of 1978, roughly one per month, to keep the pressure on both State and Jim Jones. His patience finally ran out. On October 6, 1978, he declared, “I will retrieve my son John Victor by any means necessary.” The Jonestown leadership was already worried about the possibility of Temple members families hiring mercenaries to retrieve their relatives. Stoen’s brazen threat could have only added to the fear and stress present in Jonestown.

And then came the announcement from Representative Leo Ryan that he was proposing a trip to the settlement. The Temple already considered the California congressman as an antagonist – they knew he had received communications from the San Francisco district attorney, the Stoens, and from Debbie Blakey, who herself had defected in May 1978 – and it likely felt blindsided when Ryan announced his trip less than two weeks before his arrival in Guyana, thereby giving Jonestown precious little time to prepare for the visit.

The Temple leadership and a newly-hired attorney named Mark Lane made several demands and requests of Ryan – they asked for a delay until Lane would be available to represent Jones interests, they absolutely did not want any representatives of the press or members of the Concerned Relatives to accompany him – all of which Ryan ignored, When the congressional entourage arrived in Georgetown the second week of November, 14 Concerned Relatives and nine members of the press were on the same plane. Not all of the Concerned Relatives accompanied Ryan to Jonestown on November 17 – most notably, both Grace and Tim Stoen stayed behind in Georgetown – but Jones was aware of everyone in the country.

The matter of John Victor Stoen’s custody, the escalating efforts of the Stoens to reclaim him, and the personification of their cause in the presence of Leo Ryan were all foremost in Jones’ mind throughout the congressman’s visit. That was no more evident than it was during the reception held for the visitors in Jonestown’s pavilion on the evening of November 17. Following Ryan’s speech to the crowd – during which he told the assembly that, “From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of people here who think this [living in Jonestown] is the best thing that happened in their whole life” (Reiterman 494) – the members of the press spoke with Jim Jones at one of the tables. “The child John Victor and Tim and Grace Stoen were obsessions [of Jones] that surfaced sporadically throughout a few hours of conversation that night. When asked why he did not honor the California court order or fight through legal channels for custody of the boy, Jones said helplessly, ‘What can I do? Could I kill a child?… He [John Victor] said he’d commit suicide if he was given back to his mother’” (Reiterman 493).

The events of November 18 as they unfolded magnified Jones’ fears as well. None of the people who were on the list provided to Ryan by the Concerned Relatives – including John Victor – joined the congressman as he left for the Port Kaituma airstrip for the return to Georgetown. But those who did included two of Peoples Temple’s most faithful families, especially the Bogue family, which had been with Jones since the very beginnings of the movement in Indiana. The visitors accompanying Ryan felt the tension in the situation, but they had no idea how greatly the “betrayal” of these families affected Jim Jones, who felt as if his entire world was slipping through his fingers. He knew that the people who left would speak about their experiences in Jonestown once they returned to the United States, which in turn would lead to more investigations by the press and government agencies, which in turn might force the State Department to intervene on behalf of the Concerned Relatives, and especially Tim and Grace Stoen. There was only one alternative to a slow and drawn-out collapse of his movement that he could offer: the immediate and total end of it all.

The events in the sixteen months leading up to November 18 had become a metaphorical powder keg. Ryan’s visit only lit a match and placed it on the fuse of that powder keg. All that remained was the explosion.

The Importance of John Victor to Jim Jones and the Lives of Jonestown

In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether Jim Jones was the biological father of John Victor Stoen, or how much he claimed to love the child. On its face, the idea that he would sacrifice the well-being and safety of the entire group merely to keep the boy away from his mother, Grace doesn’t make sense. No, the issue was much deeper than that.

Throughout Peoples Temple’s history, Jones had promised all of those in his presence that he would protect his followers – be they related to him by blood or not – from any trouble that came their way. He was their father, and they were his children, and he would do anything to take care of them. Over and again, he had sworn that anyone who came after a member of his group would have to go through him. This affirmation of protection had become a major feature of what Jones offered.

His congregants responded in kind. Everyone was encouraged to refer to Jones as “Father” or “Dad.” Even the seniors who were 40 or 50 years older than he called Jones “Dad.” This was not “Father Jim,” as one might call a Catholic priest, but rather a recognition or acknowledgement that the group was an immense extended family. Similarly, Jim’s wife, Marceline Jones, was “Mother” to them, and Jim often referred to her as such. And as the father in the family, one of his most important roles was to protect all his “children” in the family.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between a church family and a biological family. If Jones couldn’t keep his own son protected and away from harm, he would lose his authority and claims to allegiance from absolutely everybody else. Whether it was true or not – whether John Victor was in fact his biological son – Jim Jones had said he was. For all intents and purposes, the members of Peoples Temple believed that John Victor was Jim’s son. For any number of reasons, then, John Victor could not be removed from Jones’ protection.

If anything, the move to Jonestown only elevated John Victor’s status. The combination of paranoia and feelings of betrayal in Tim Stoen’s defection turned Jones’ former confidante into one of the community’s biggest enemies and even a larger threat. The custody battle for John Victor became the focus of the battle for Jonestown’s survival.

There are other students of Peoples Temple who believe that the prospect of losing John Victor was the catalyst that led to Jonestown’s final day. In a 2018 article published for the jonestown report, James de Planta argued that the arrival of Grace Stoen’s lawyer, Jeffrey Haas, in the company of the GDF at the gates of Jonestown in September 1977 triggered a critical response. Following the nailing of the warrants to the gate “was the first practice run of mass suicide, and therefore seeded the idea into the followers’ heads, making them more susceptible during the Jonestown massacre. Jones’ panicked response was triggered by the increased pressure from Guyanese courts that Haas had brought.” In other words, the fear of losing custody of John Victor – a single person – was such a terrifying thought for Jones that his immediate reaction was to turn to the concept of ordering mass suicide for 900 others. The child was far more symbolic to Jim Jones than to anyone else, with the possible exception of Tim Stoen.

In a 2020 article for Rolling Stone Magazine, author David Chiu wrote about the tragic deaths at Jonestown on November 18, 1978, in which he focused on “13 Things You Should Know” about November 18 and Jonestown. One was “A 6 Year Old Boy was the Catalyst that Led to the Tragedy”:

The dispute over John’s paternity symbolized the bitter conflict between the Temple and its opponents: if the Stoens prevailed in getting John back, it would signal the loss of Jones’ far-reaching power over his people and galvanize other relatives of Temple members seeking the return of their loved ones from Jonestown (Chiu).

An article published in the December 6, 1978 edition of The New York Times, also touched upon the belief that John Victor was the key to the tragic deaths in Jonestown.

Conflict over the custody of the child has been cited as a major factor in creating the tensions that snapped the Rev. Jim Jones’ judgment and caused him to order the mass deaths that wiped out almost all the Temple’s members, including Mr. Jones himself and the little boy that he had fought desperately to keep” (Turner).

John R. Hall, author of Apocalypse Observed, fixes upon a statement that Jones made to the individuals in Jonestown about John Victor.

Reaffirming his biological paternity of John Victor, he [Jones] threatened death: ‘I related to Grace, and out of that came a son. That’s part of the deal. The way to get to Jim Jones is through his son. They think that will suck me back [to the United States] or cause me to die before I’ll give him up. And that’s what we’ll do, we’ll die’” (Hall 32).

Note that Jones began his statement with the concept that the Stoens wanted Jones alone to die, and that his language quickly turned to the idea of the entire collective perishing in order to protect one child. Like Hall, this author finds this statement to be quite illustrative of how Jones saw John Victor – he was not simply a child that Jones had to protect, he was a child that all of Jonestown had to protect, even if it meant that they all had to give their lives in order to do so.

Hall also points out that the vast majority of people who learn about the Jonestown tragedy have never heard about the custody battle for John Victor. Removal of this critical factor from consideration on Jones’ decision to die allows everyone involved to be cast in terms that are black and white: Jim Jones is seen as purely evil, the people of Jonestown who perished are seen as sacrificial lambs – or mindless robots or brainwashed cultists – who perished at the whim of a madman, and the Concerned Relatives are seen as tragic heroes who lost everything (including their loved ones) in their altruistic attempt to pre-empt the outcome. We still do not know if Jim Jones truly was the biological father of John Victor, Hall says, then notes: “To date, the evidence is not conclusive, but the weight of it leans to the paternity of Jim Jones” (41). Hall rightly asserts that the resolution of this question might change the way that the tragedy, and the blame for its occurrence, is viewed. Indeed, if it were shown that Jones was the biological father of John Victor, it would undercut the “moral high ground” that both Grace and Tim Stoen have taken through all of these years. Proof of Jones’ paternity might also explain his behavior towards the child. Perhaps, when Jones looked at John Victor, he saw himself at that age, and remembering his own childhood, may have wanted to give the boy something better. Even if it were indeed proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that John Victor was Jones’ biological child, however, “it probably would not have altered the commitments of the true believers at Jonestown to extreme violence, should their opponents prevail in subordinating them to external social and legal authority” (Hall 41).

We also have the words of Jim Jones himself to tell us how crucial the custody of John Victor was to both himself and the people of Jonestown. Tape Q635, one of the audiotapes which the FBI recovered from Jonestown by the FBI in the aftermath of the tragedy, was recorded during a White Night on April 12, 1978, roughly seven months before the mass deaths. In it, Jones talks about a plan he has that will allow him to protect John Victor from having to live with either of the Stoens.

My decision is that, I will personally see that John does not suffer or be made a pawn to go back, as we have information that he [will] be deprogrammed and that his mind be taken and… used by their evil means and whatever chemicals to drain his mind, and that Dana [a second child in Jonestown who was the subject of a custody dispute] be taken over by a prostitute and a drug pusher. I will take care of those two, and I will go out through the jungle, if the rest of you decide to stay, and I will go and take care of some of these enemies (Tape Q635).

In this and every recording in which Jones discusses the issue, there is vitriol in his tone and his words as he speaks about Grace or Tim, as he recounts the way that the custody battle is being waged in an effort to destroy Peoples Temple, and as he swears that he will not allow John Victor to be taken from him.

His expectations extend to to the residents of Jonestown, to prime the way that they themselves view their own children:

Even if you believe in nothing more than maintaining, saving your own children, if you’re not prepared to die for your children, you will not stand up for your children. At some point, you will sacrifice your children. You have to make that commitment… I’m saying, I will die for all the children of the world. I will die for this communist collective, and I will die for principle.

While the idea of sacrificing an entire community to protect one child may seem illogical and ludicrous, the idea of parents sacrificing their lives for their children is not quite so strange. Indeed, there is an innate and extremely strong instinct to protect ones’ child at any and all costs. Jones merely expanded the concept to make John Victor the child of each of them.

The final piece of evidence on the importance of John Victor appears – aptly enough – on Q 042, which is often referred to as the “death tape.” Made on the final day as people are dying around him, Jones tells everyone that Congressman Ryan has been shot dead at the Point Kaituma airstrip, and that the GDF – and, eventually American – troops will be entering Jonestown shortly. The best thing that they can do as a group is commit mass “revolutionary suicide.” There is no alternative, and they need to do it quickly, unless they want themselves, their seniors and their children to be tortured by authorities.

But there is a dissenter. Christine Miller, a 60-year-old African American woman from Los Angeles, argues passionately against death, raising several objections to what is going on before her, only to be shouted down time and again. Finally, Christine touches upon what she thinks is most important to Jones.

Christine: You wanna see John die?

Jones: What’s that?

Christine: You mean you wanna see John, the little one, who’s keep–

Jones: I want to keep–

Crowd: (Loud background noises, inaudible)

Jones: …Peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace.

Marceline Jones: Christine, are you saying that you think he thinks more of them than other children here?

Jones: John, John…

Marceline Jones: That’s what you’re saying–

Jones: Do you actually, do you think I would put John’s life above others? If I put John’s life above others, I wouldn’t be standing with Ujara [Don Sly, who had attacked Leo Ryan with a knife earlier in the day]. I’d send John out, he could go out on the driveway tonight.

Christine: He’s young … they’re young.

Jones: I know, but he’s no different to me than any of these children here. He’s just one of my children. I don’t prefer one above another. I don’t prefer him above Ujara. I can’t do that. I can’t separate myself from your actions or his actions.

This author believes that this final exchange between Jones and Christine Miller, which effectively ends her protest of the mass suicide, is the greatest evidence of all that the custody and life of John Victor was held paramount by Jim Jones and the entire collective of Jonestown. If that were not the case, she wouldn’t have bothered to bring it up. Miller was a strong-willed woman who had tangled with Jones before, and she also knew just how important John Victor was to him. She hoped that mentioning the boy would get Jones to back down. Unfortunately – as Jones himself states elsewhere in the tape – he knew that Ryan’s trip to Jonestown would only be the first of many such visits by government officials, and that the custody issue would never die.

Kimo Prokes and John Victor Stoen, May 1978

Jim Jones’ death that day was different from most others, in that he was one of only two to die of a gunshot wound to the head. John Victor also died, but – as befitting his status as someone special – he was not among the hundreds of bodies in and around the pavilion. Instead, his body was found a quarter mile away, in Jones’ cabin among the 13 found there. There were two other children – Kimo Prokes, a three-year-old boy known to have been fathered by Jones, and an unidentified infant – and ten adults. Most of the adults were in Jonestown’s leadership group (Moore, 335).


The story of the Jonestown tragedy cannot be grasped without an understanding of the life of John Victor Stoen, the intense custody battle over him, and the value that Jim Jones placed on him.

Jones built his entire ministry, his entire persona, around being a protector of everyone around him. The vast majority of individuals in Peoples Temple were not his blood kin, but that didn’t matter. He had sworn over and over, throughout the groups’ entire existence, that he would protect each and every person in his church from all physical, mental or emotional harm. Those who were in Peoples Temple knew of these promises before John Victor was even born.

Unbeknownst to him, John Victor was “born with a job.” From his very first days, no one truly knew what that job was, nor the immense importance that the child would come to have within Peoples Temple. Neither Grace, nor Tim, nor Jim Jones could foresee what the boy would come to symbolize. What started out as a way for Jones to claim John Victor as his own – Tim Stoen’s affidavit – would become a weapon in a custody battle that began more than four years after the child’s birth, when Grace left the Temple.

The membership of Peoples Temple believed that John Victor was Jim Jones’ son, Jones and his closest lieutenants took every opportunity to emphasize their claim. Once Jones made his permanent move to Jonestown – with John Victor already there – the custody battle over the boy became the linchpin to the community’s survival. The court orders, the leadership of the Concerned Relatives, the embassy’s w/w visits, the Six-Day Siege, Leo Ryan’s arrival in Guyana, all of these must be viewed through this lens.

For Jim Jones, retaining custody of John Victor was a matter of life or death. Not just for him, not just for John Victor, but for 918 people.

John Victor Stoen never had any say in his life, in who he was believed to be, or as the symbol that he would become. He was merely a child, only six years old when he died. He certainly couldn’t have even begun to understand what was going on around him, or why the adults who claimed to love him were unable to truly put him before themselves.

John Victor Stoen was the ultimate son of Jonestown.

Works Cited

Chiu, David. “Jonestown: 13 Things You Should Know about the Cult Massacre.” Rolling Stone Magazine. May 29, 2020.

de Planta, James. Which group or individual outside Peoples Temple had the most significant impact on Jim Jones’ decision to order the Jonestown Massacre? the jonestown report, 2018.

Hall, John R. “The Apocalypse at Jonestown.” In Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America, Europe, and Japan. London: Routledge. 2000.

Layton, Debbie. Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor’s Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.

Moore, Rebecca. A Sympathetic History of Jonestown: The Moore Family Involvement in the Peoples Temple. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985.

Reiterman, Tim with John Jacobs. Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. New York: Dutton, 1982.

Stoen, Timothy Oliver. Marked For Death: My War With Jim Jones the Devil of Jonestown. North Charleston, South Carolina: CreativeSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

State Department Cables on Leo Ryan Trip. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple.

Q 042. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple.

Tape Q635. Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple.

Turner, Wallace. “Conflict Over Custody of Child Linked to Guyana Deaths.” The New York Times. December 6, 1978.