Was Peoples Temple responsible for the deaths of some of its former members?

There have been at least nine deaths in which Peoples Temple was alleged to have had some involvement. None have been substantiated, although the stories continue to circulate in apostate accounts.

Maxine Harpe, who had attended Temple services in Ukiah and who reportedly turned over about $2400 from the sale of a former residence to the church, was found hanging in her garage in March 1970. Following Maxine’s funeral, her three children were placed in Temple foster homes which, according to several accounts, collected more than $10,000 in welfare support checks on their behalf. While the Mendocino County Coroner ruled the death as a suicide, one of the eight articles that San Francisco Examiner religion reporter Lester Kinsolving wrote in 1972 about the Temple – and the first of four that went unpublished – raised the issue of foul play and suggested that Temple members who were in county government colluded to collect the various payments. Forty years later, Maxine’s son Daniel believes that his mother wanted to get out of the Temple and that she did not kill herself. The official verdict of suicide still stands, however, and no one has been charged with any crime related to the death.

• In November 1973, Western Addition activist and Temple member Rory Hithe was shot to death in a room full of witnesses, mostly other Temple members. The shooting itself was not the mystery, but the motive – and its connection to the Temple – is unclear, much less the alleged role of Jim Jones in ordering the killing. Temple guard Chris Lewis, who himself would die under mysterious circumstances four years later (see below), was arrested and tried for the crime, although he was acquitted on grounds of self-defense.

• Curtis Buckley was a teenager in Peoples Temple who died in 1973. While much of his biography is unknown, it is likely he joined with the rest of his family, and his mother Minnie Luna Mae Murral Buckley and his only five known siblings died in Jonestown on November 18, 1978. According to an unknown author of Curtis’ obituary on Find-A-Grave:

His cause of death was listed as a drug overdose but his stepmother [listed in the posting as Janet Shular] has complained regarding the medical records. On the day of his death, he was seen carrying a case of money to Peoples Temple. He was also known never to have taken drugs. His friends have all believed he was murdered.

There are other, equally vague accounts of his death, including one by Temple apostate J.R. Purifoy, as quoted in The Children of Jonestown, a critical account of Temple life by Kenneth Wooden. Curtis Buckley overdosed on a drug one night, according to Purifoy, and was found unconscious and near death. “Instead of them getting him to a hospital to see a doctor, they put a picture of Jones on him to raise him up and heal him. Of course, the child died.”

Two other recollections of Buckley by Temple members suggest a less active or even negligible role of the Temple in the death. While suffering from tonsilitis, Buckley was apparently prescribed erythromycin, an antibiotic eventually demonstrated to be contra-indicated for children because of its potential side effects. One such side effect was schizophrenia, and descriptions of Buckley’s behavior after taking the medication suggest this may have played a significant factor in his ensuing lethargy, hallucinations, and general disorientation, all of which could have played a role in his premature end.

• Truth Hart, a follower of Father Divine in Philadelphia before she joined Peoples Temple in 1971, died of congestive heart failure in July 1974. While Hart, a black woman in her sixties, had had numerous health problems, several Temple antagonists have claimed that her death was accelerated on Jones’ orders. Truth Hart had become disenchanted with Jones’ teachings, especially his denigration of the Bible, and had threatened to leave. The Temple leader decided to use her as an example of what would happen to former members who left “Father’s protection,” and directed a Temple nurse to order a drug known to induce heart attacks. A few days before Hart’s death, according to these accounts, Jones predicted her demise.

• John Head had been a patient receiving treatments for depression at a mental health hospital in Mendocino County where several Temple members worked. He also was the recent beneficiary of a $10,000 insurance settlement, but rather than investing the money in stocks, bonds or other money-making instruments, he took the advice of an unknown Temple member and purchased silver bullion. The same friend later urged him to leave the job he had at a Masonite plant in Ukiah – the employer of numerous other Temple members – and to withdraw the silver to provide money for him to live on. Two days later, John Head joined the Temple himself and turned over the silver in return for life care. The relationship lasted three weeks before Head called his parents and told them of his unhappiness and his plans to leave. The following day – October 19, 1975 – he died following a fall from the roof of a three-story warehouse. Noting the young man’s history of depression, the county coroner ruled the death a suicide.

• Bob Houston had been a youth counselor with Peoples Temple by day and a railroad worker at night, when he was found dead in a railway yard in San Francisco, apparently crushed by a train car, in the fall of 1976. Although the death was ruled an accident, a number of people believed there were too many unexplained factors surrounding the event, including the fact that the gloves he always wore for his safety while working were found neatly folded some distance from the body. The efforts of Bob’s father Sam Houston to involve his elected U.S. Representative – Leo J. Ryan – represented the first steps that led to the congressman’s trip to Guyana in November 1978. The official verdict of accidental death still stands.

• Chris Lewis was an early Temple success story – he was a drug addict who went through a Temple rehabilitation program – and when he was tried later on murder and assault charges stemming from the Hithe shooting, the Temple devoted many of its resources to his defense. The relationship was an uneasy one, though: Lewis worked security for the church, but was rumored to provide some muscle when Jones needed it, threatening people who went against the Temple. When Lewis was murdered in the Bayview-Hunters Point district of San Francisco on December 10, 1977, the police concluded that the crime was either drug-related or a vengeance killing, but without a suspect, nothing could be proven. That didn’t stop either Jones from lauding Lewis as a martyr who had been killed by Temple enemies, or members of the Concerned Relatives from pointing out Lewis’ increasing liability to the Temple cause.

• In February 1980, fifteen months after the Jonestown tragedy, former Temple members Deanna and Elmer Mertle – who defected from the church, changed their names to Al and Jeannie Mills, and founded the Human Freedom Center – were found murdered execution style in their Berkeley home. Their deaths raised the specter of Temple hit squads, even as the police turned their attention to the Mills’ son Eddie, who was in the house at the time. Although Eddie was briefly detained as part of a cold case investigation in 2005, he was soon released and no one has ever been charged in connection with the crime.