The Departure of Teri Buford

Three weeks before the deaths in Jonestown, longtime Temple member and financial secretary (and ones of Jones’ lovers) Teri Buford left Peoples Temple. The timing and circumstances of her departure disturbed both sides in the Peoples Temple battle, which was in its final escalation towards the ultimate tragedy: Was Teri a traitor to the cause, as Jim Jones said in the immediate aftermath? Was she a spy for Jim Jones, setting herself up to play both sides, as she presents herself in the note, and as people in the Concerned Relatives who heard about her defection wondered? Was she an opportunist, using Mark Lane’s infatuation with her to help her get set up in whatever future he himself thought he might have with the Temple, as others maintained in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy?

The questions were not answered, mainly because Teri Buford completely disappeared into Lane’s orbit within days of November 18. The FBI wanted to interview her – and a grand jury subpoenaed her – for what she could tell them about Temple finances, but Lane defended her, both as her lawyer and her lover. She eventually gave Lane information for his book The Strongest Poison, and a child, before she summoned the strength and courage to leave him, just as she had once left Jim Jones.

The only document that is known to have survived from Teri’s exit from the Temple is a four-page note to Jim Jones, with a cover note to Temple member Jean Brown, that she wrote after her departure, likely while in San Francisco. It does not answer the questions people had about her – is she sincere in her offer to take some heat from the Cause, or is she creating a diversion to give her time to effect her plans for her escape? – but her expressions of grief over the children she’s given up, both the one she nurtured in Jonestown and the other she aborted at Jones’ request, are heartfelt. The document is also one of the strongest acknowledgments of Jones’ own failing health in the community’s final weeks, which she said was a strong factor in her thought processes: “I made it quite clear when I left you that I was going to be making a lot of decisions based on the state of your health.”

Teri Buford Note to Jim Jones