[Editor’s note: This article was written by Bob Calhoun and originally appeared in the November 12, 2015 edition of SF Weekly).
It’s November 18, 1978.
The tape is running. Reverend Jim Jones is rambling into a microphone, dictating a suicide note on behalf of nearly a thousand people. Death is all around him, in the air and on the ground; death that he commanded. People are drinking grape Flavor Aid from a vat. It’s laced with potassium cyanide.
Before Jones, standing on a pavilion in front of his wailing congregation, shoots himself in the head, he issues a warning to a “Deanna Mertle.”
“The people in San Francisco will not be idle,” he says. “Now, would they? They’ll not take our death in vain.”
The following day, 913 people — many of them children — are found dead in the cleared-out patch of Guyana jungle called Jonestown.
In 1974, Deana Mertle and her husband Elmer left Peoples Temple, the paranoid church that Rev. Jones controlled like his personal banana republic in San Francisco’s Fillmore District. The couple had been forced to watch their 16-year-old daughter Linda get whacked 75 times with a 2-foot-long “spanking board” after hugging a friend that Jones branded a “traitor” to the church. It was the last straw; the Mertles abandoned their flock and changed their names to Jeannie and Al Mills, hoping to make a fresh start.
In the months after they left the Temple, the Mills family was subjected to scare tactics from Jones and his followers. Threatening notes were left on their doorstep. Jones’ personal bodyguards stalked them. Peoples Temple members even set off a bomb in the Bank of America branch where the Mills kept a safe deposit box — or at least the Temple took credit for the bombing in another note left on the Mills’ front porch.
“We saw you two near the bank last night,” the note read. “We know where you keep your belongings.”
Jeannie and Al fought back. They established the Human Freedom Center to help other ex-Peoples Temple members readjust to society and put political pressure on Jones through the Concerned Relatives organization. They also went on record in New West magazine’s exposé of the abuses happening inside their former church.
Their efforts led San Mateo Congressman Leo Ryan to make his ill-fated “fact-finding” mission to Guyana in 1978, which ultimately unleashed the Jonestown apocalypse after Ryan was killed by Peoples Temple members. Jones blamed Mertle/Mills for Ryan’s visit in what is now referred to as the “Death Tape.”
Although Jones died in the jungle 4,500 miles away, the Mills didn’t feel safe. The couple grew nervous as the one-year anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre approached. “The people in San Francisco” that Jones spoke of were just across the Bay from the Mills’ Berkeley home. Were any of them still loyal to Jones? Would they still kill for him? There was every reason to believe they would, considering the fanaticism that played out in Guyana.
In the citywide chaos following the assassinations of Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone on Nov. 27, 1978, rumors swirled that a Peoples Temple hit squad was responsible. Jonestown had happened just nine days earlier. It seemed plausible that Temple mercenaries were behind the City Hall shootings before aggrieved ex-supervisor Dan White emerged as the culprit. Peoples Temple hit squads were a haunting Bay Area urban legend throughout the late 1970s.
November 18, 1979, Jonestown’s tragic one-year anniversary, came and went without incident. The Mills family breathed a sigh of relief. They finally appeared to be safe from the horrors of their past.
But their respite was short-lived.