[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Monterey Peninsula Herald on February 28, 1980. It was initially posted to the web here.
BERKELEY (AP) — The murders of a couple who turned against the Rev. Jim Jones have resurrected fears of a death squad unloosed to revenge the demise of the Peoples Temple 15 months earlier.
Even as the hundreds of dead were counted at Jonestown, the Guyanese jungle settlement, Al and Jeannie Mills feared they would be killed for leaving the charismatic Jones and for providing comfort to other “defectors” as tales of beatings, sexual perversion and suicide drills leaked out.
On Tuesday night, Al Mills, 51, was found shot in the head, lying face down in his bedroom of the family’s cottage here. The body of his 40-year-old wife Jeannie, also shot in the head with a small-caliber weapon, was discovered on her back in an adjacent bathroom.
The couple’s 15-year-old daughter, Daphene, was in critical condition last night in Alta Bates Hospital. She reportedly was shot twice in the head and her chances of recovery were slim, sources said.
The Alameda County Coroner’s office added few details of the couple’s death in its preliminary report Wednesday, adding only that there were no signs of a struggle.
Berkeley police were even more close-mouthed late Wednesday after they had questioned the couple’s 17-year-old son, Eddie. The youth told police he was in the home after 9 p.m. when his grandmother, who had come to visit, found the victims. But he insisted, police said, that he was watching television and hadn’t heard the shootings.
Residents near the Mills cottage, whose doors were often unlocked in the evening, also said they hadn’t heard a disturbance, but one neighbor thought a van left the area around the time of the killings. Police couldn’t explain why the young Mills or neighbors didn’t hear the gunfire.
Police also said they could not say why the Millses were shot.
They also downplayed conjecture that the crime was the work — possibly the first — of a Peoples Temple hit-squad, but their word did little to assuage the fears of former members who have insisted that the evils of the church were not buried with the 914 persons who died in Guyana in November, 1978.
A member of the San Francisco Police Department’s intelligence detail, which had investigated the possibility of a hit-squad, would not say whether findings supported a death plan. Last November, a police spokesman said that the detail had concluded that an assassination team didn’t exist.
The ritual of murder-suicide was triggered by a visit by Rep. Leo Ryan, D-San Mateo, and newsmen who came to the jungle compound to investigate reports of mistreatment and brain-washing that were described by the Millses and other defectors.
Ryan, three newsmen and Temple member Patricia Parks, who was trying to flee Jonestown, were shot to death on the Port Kaituma airstrip.
Mills and his wife joined the Jones flock in 1969 when the church was gathering strength in Redwood Valley, a peaceful spot tucked away 125 miles north of San Francisco. It was there the Indianapolis-born preacher would later enjoy the favor of politicians and social leaders who praised Peoples Temple as a caring movement that understood the needs of the many blacks in the congregation.
At that time, the Millses were Elmer and Deanna Mertle, names they shed after fleeing the church. The hard decision to leave came after watching their 16-year-old daughter, Linda, in 1974, writhe under 75 blows of a paddle — punishment ordered by Jones after Linda apparently embraced a friend that Jones deemed a “traitor” to the church.
That cruelty and The Human Freedom Center, a haven the Mills created to give others a shot at life outside the temple, are described in Mrs. Mills’ book, “Six Years With God,” which was published last year.
Angela Miller, editor of A and W, the New York firm that published the work, said the couple “was positive there was going to be some kind of retaliation” against them, a fear heightened last November as the first anniversary of the Jonestown holocaust approached.
On the last tape recording he made from his “throne” in the steamy agricultural outpost, Jones blamed the visit of Ryan in part on Mrs. Mills. “The people in San Francisco (surviving church members) will not be idle over this. They’ll not take our deaths in vain, you know.”