Shortly after his departure from Peoples Temple in mid-1977, Tim Stoen joined with his former wife Grace to regain legal custody of John Victor. It was not the only case that placed Tim Stoen in opposition to Peoples Temple, though. Within a year, he had become the Concerned Relatives’ attorney in three lawsuits which he filed on behalf of former members and family members of Jonestown residents against Jim Jones and others in the Temple leadership.
The three cases were:
Katsaris v. Jim Jones et al. was a defamation case which sought damages of $15 million from the Temple.
Steven Katsaris’ daughter Maria had joined the Temple and eventually emigrated to Jonestown, where, according to the lawsuit, she and all other residents of the settlement were required “to terminate all meaningful family ties (except those likely to yield inheritance monies for … Peoples Temple).” The effort to isolate Maria began even before she left, though, when Temple leaders coached her to accuse her father of child molestation, should he ever try to meet with her alone. The plan did not go into effect until the following September when – against Maria’s wishes as she expressed them over the Jonestown radio – Steven went to Georgetown. Maria refused to see him. Instead, according to an affidavit Steven filed in conjunction with the case, an Embassy official passed along “background information” from the Temple that “I was a child molester and had sexually abused my daughter and offered that as a reason that Maria did not want to see me.”
The Temple later repeated the defamatory remarks in an open statement it issued in response to the Concerned Relatives’ Accusation of Human Rights Violations. “Included in the [Concerned Relatives] group,” the lawsuit quotes the release as saying, “are people … who have molested children, including their own, such as Maria Katsaris just publicly exposed her father.”
Charging that the statement disseminated by the Temple was “false [and] libelous on its face,” the Katsaris lawsuit was filed on May 18, 1978 – about a week after the press release was issued – and lists Tim Stoen as the only attorney for the plaintiff.
Medlock v. Jim Jones et al. was a property dispute case, although it also charged that the Temple threatened Wade and Mabel Medlock when they refused to go to Guyana. Filed on June 6, 1978 – and listing Tim Stoen as the only attorney for the plaintiffs – it sought compensatory damages for the sale of extorted property, general damages for pain and suffering for more than $2 million, and punitive damages of $16 million.
The Medlocks had joined Peoples Temple in 1971. Residents of Los Angeles, the Medlocks owned a maintenance company and had used some of their company’s profits to buy two parcels of real estate, a house in Baldwin Hills and rental property in Los Angeles. Four years later, according to the allegations in their lawsuit, Jones exhorted the Medlocks to sell their properties and turn over the proceeds to the Temple, which – among other purposes – it intended to use to develop Jonestown. When they resisted, Jones “gradually increased … the pressure,” and eventually called the two seniors into the Los Angeles Temple and – in the presence of several members, including one who was a realtor – forced them to sign documents authorizing the sale of the two properties. “You will either sign these papers or you will die,” the lawsuit quotes Jones as telling them during that February 1977 meeting. Recalling that Jones had once bragged that he had killed someone who reneged on a real estate deal, they took the threat seriously and signed a number of papers, most of them without having read their contents.
The suit charged that “by fraud and deceit and by threats of death and bodily harm,” Jones and the other defendants extorted the Medlocks’ property. The “apparent consent” in turning over these properties “was obtained … through duress and menace of unlawful and violent injury.”
Similar threats were made when the Medlocks refused to go to Guyana, according to the lawsuit, especially after Wade Medlock said, “I don’t believe in Jim anymore.”
James Cobb v. Peoples Temple et al., filed by Tim Stoen on June 19, 1978, sought damages of almost $22 million following almost five years of harassment and threats from the Temple.
Jim Cobb was one of the Eight Revolutionaries, a group of young adults who defected from the Temple in September 1973, and who left behind a letter criticizing the church for straying too far from its socialist principles and instead concentrating too much on sex. Since that time, Cobb alleged in his suit, he had been subjected to late night phone calls and harassing letters which labeled him as a radical terrorist who had plotted to blow up bridges and engaging in other acts of mayhem. Other calls and letters accused him of having “committed acts of sexual perversion with young people.”
As inflammatory and damaging to him and his career as these were, he charged, the threats and against him and members of his family – many of whom were still in the Temple – had caused him the greater emotional distress. The few times he was able to contact his family before they left for Guyana were met with suspicion and fear.
The culmination of the campaign against him was an anonymous letter he received in mid-March 1978, which began: “If you think that you are working only to destroy our friend, you’re badly underestimating the course you are on.”
Most of the defendants in these three cases, as well as Maria Katsaris and many members of the Cobb family, died in Jonestown on November 18, 1978.
The three suits were pending when Temple lawyers filed for dissolution of the Peoples Temple corporation in December 1978, as was a countersuit which the Temple filed against Stoen. In the petition seeking dissolution, Temple attorney Charles Garry asked for guidance in how to proceed in all four suits. They were eventually dismissed.