The State Department Cables on the Stoen Custody Case

Shortly after leaving Peoples Temple in the summer of 1977 – and in coordination with Grace – Tim Stoen launched his campaign to have John Victor returned to the United States from Guyana, where the child had been living since before the beginning of the year. The campaign meant the Stoens would have to work through the Guyanese court system, which in turn meant they would have interactions, both with the U.S. State Department and the American Embassy in Georgetown, to monitor and coordinate those efforts.

The Embassy soon found itself in a difficult spot. One of its diplomatic responsibilities was to help any Americans who were in some sort of difficulty with the Guyanese government or court system. In this particular instance, however, there were two competing – conflicting – sets of interests, and there were Americans on both sides. That meant the Embassy had to remain neutral in the battle, even as it provided diplomatic and consular services for everyone involved.

The challenges of that unique situation – and the frustration it engendered – are reflected in the cables which went back and forth between Washington and Georgetown. Also reflected is the frustration of the Stoens – and their lawyers, the press and several members of Congress – to reach a resolution in the matter.

On December 8, 1978, three weeks after the deaths in Jonestown, Richard McCoy – former Consul to the U.S. Embassy in Georgetown, then-Guyana Desk Officer at the State Department – wrote a memo to the file summarizing the agency’s and Embassy’s contacts with the Stoens during the previous two years. The memo, initially intended for internal use only, discusses many of the cables below and offers both analysis and overall context to the official narrative on the custody case. While not overtly stated, the intra-office memo reflects the frustration felt in all sides of the dispute.

The chart below represents a compilation of the cables discussing the custody battle over John Victor Stoen. Most were obtained from a release under the Freedom of Information Act for State Department documents related to the Stoen case, although some came from a more general FOIA request for State Department records. All of these also appear on three other pages: the State Department Cables (1974-1977); the State Department cables (January – November 1978); and the State Department cables (Leo Ryan trip).

A key to the notations in the columns appears below the chart.

Date Time Origin ID Content PDF Text
770830 0025 State 206679 Jeffrey Haas to travel to Guyana on Stoen custody matter Stoen Text
770909 1700 Georgetown 5273 2175 Haas fails in attempt to serve process on Jones State Stoen Text
770909 2135 State 216553 Embassy declines to accompany Haas to Jonestown Stoen Text
770912 1110 Georgetown 5288 2206 Attempts to serve Jim Jones are unsuccessful Stoen Text
770914 1428 Georgetown 2236 Haas has authority to obtain passport for John Victor Stoen State Text
770919 1545? Georgetown 5329 2269 Stoen custody battle “now entered political arena” State Text
770919 2034 Georgetown None Looman complains about lack of neutrality in JVS case Stoen Text
770922 1030 Georgetown 5349 2316 Jones to challenge in Stoen custody case Stoen Text
770923 1700 Georgetown 5363 2334 Court hearing on Stoen custody case Stoen Text
770927 1900 Georgetown 5381 2363 Court hearing on Stoen custody case State Stoen Text
771004 1544 Georgetown 2435 5418 Court ruling on Stoen custody expected State Stoen Text
771012 1500 Georgetown 5477 2528 Court denies motion to produce JVS Stoen Text
771122 2008 State 279720 Stoens present custody order to Guyana court Stoen Text
771125 1340 Georgetown 5732 3033 JVS cannot leave Guyana until case resolved Stoen Text
771223 1250 Georgetown 5905 3316 W/W custody case of John Stoen State Stoen Text
780105 2210 State 002640 Members of Congress express interest in Stoen custody Stoen Text
780106 1300 Georgetown 0057 5968 Hearing set on nullification of Jones arrest warrant Stoen Text
780106 2306 State 004065 Haas criticizes State over assistance in Stoen case Stoen Text
780109 1840 Georgetown 0092 5991 Judge hears Stoen custody case Stoen Text
780111 1940 Georgetown 0147 6005 Judge hears motion on voiding Jones arrest order Stoen Text
780114 1345 Georgetown 0201 6039 Embassy note to foreign ministry on Stoen case Stoen Text
780114 1415 Georgetown 0202 6040 Stoens told to leave Guyana Stoen Text
780119 1914 Georgetown 0270 6074 Jones claims paternity of JVS to Embassy Stoen Text
780127 2246 State 022642 Embassy meets with Stoen and Katsaris Stoen Text
780201 1031 Georgetown 6148 0406 GOG aware of interest in Stoen case State Text
780204 0233 State 029903 State urges neutrality in Stoen case Stoen Text
780206 1830 Georgetown 6180 0462 John Victor Stoen believed to be in Jonestown Stoen Text
780207 2151 State 032341 Tim Stoen contacts State for meeting State Text
780209 1722 State 034403 State responds to public query on Stoen Stoen Text
780210 2314 State 036362 Senators express interest in Stoen case Stoen Text
780214 2227 State 039014 Embassy asked to approach GOG on Stoen case Stoen Text
780215 1355 Georgetown 6231 0549 Consul discusses Stoen case with lawyer Stoen Text
780216 2244 State 041710 State urges caution in depending on Stoen attorney Stoen Text
780217 1805 Georgetown 6261 0581 GOG, Embassy discuss Stoen case Stoen Text
780224 1745 Georgetown 6283 0631 GOG, Embassy discuss Stoen case State Text
780313 1718 State 063670 Passport to be made for John Stoen State Text
780321 1933 State 072407 Passport issue becomes complicated State Text
780401 0312 State 084025 Tim Stoen provides requested documents to Embassy State Text
780406 1847 Georgetown 6512 1056 Tim Stoen provides requested documents to Embassy Stoen Text
780816 1040 Georgetown 7419 2629 Guyana justice recuses self from Stoen case Stoen Text
780908 2151 State 228391 State urges quick resolution in Stoen case Stoen Text
780918 1702 Georgetown 7636 3016 Embassy meets with Guyana Supreme Court on Stoen Stoen Text
781006 2228 State 255332 Tim Stoen declares intention to take John Stoen Text
781010 1940 Georgetown 7821 3338 Stoen case assigned to Supreme Court Stoen Text
781101 1523 State 277716 State Dept meets with Ryan staff Stoen Text

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How to read this chart

This is a key to the meaning of the columns and the notations within them:

Columns 1 and 2 comprise the dates and times that the cables were sent. The dates are in the format of the last two digits of the year (74-79), the month (01-12) and the day. As an example, November 18, 1978 would be designated as 781118. The times are in Greenwich Mean Time, used internationally on all cables. They are included because – especially in the first few days after the tragedy – scores of cables were flashing back and forth between offices on a single day.

Columns 3 lists the government agencies and embassies sending the cables. On this listing, the only two originating entities are the State Department and the American Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana.

Column 4 provides the cable identification number, unique to each document.

Column 5 presents a brief description of the cable’s contents.

Columns 6 and 7 provide links to the PDF and Text versions of the cables. The PDF indicates whether the cable came pursuant to the general FOIA request of State or to the second request for Stoen documents.

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