Yesterday’s Crimes: Peoples Temple Hit Squads and Jonestown’s Last Victims (Part 2)

[Editor’s note: This article was written by Bob Calhoun and originally appeared in the November 19, 2015 edition of SF Weekly).

Jeannie and Al Mills and their children left Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in 1974. Jones and most of his followers died in the biggest murder/suicide of all time in Guyana on Nov. 18, 1978. But even with Jones dead in the jungle, Jeannie Mills never felt safe. Jones still had followers in California who hadn’t “drank the Kool-Aid.”

On Feb. 27, 1980, Jeannie’s worst fears came true. She and her husband were found murdered in their suburban Berkeley home. Their 15-year-old daughter, Daphne, was rushed to Alta Bates Hospital, only to die two days later. All of them had been shot execution-style in the head with a .22-caliber pistol.

Rumors of a Peoples Temple Hit Squad seized the public imagination, but police focused their investigation on Eddie Mills, Jeannie’s 17-year-old son from a previous marriage.

Eddie was eight when his parents joined Peoples Temple in 1969. Shortly after the Mills family moved from Hayward to Ukiah to be closer to their new church, Jeannie convinced herself that Eddie had developed an irregular heartbeat. Although doctors never diagnosed or treated the condition, Jeannie believed that Rev. Jones had miraculously cured it through telepathy.

“From that day forward, Eddie was able to play as hard as any boy,” Jeannie Mills wrote in Six Years with God: Life Inside Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, the memoir she published shortly before her death.

But Eddie’s savior soon became his tormentor, as the boy was subjected to the beatings and sleep deprivation that were a routine part of life in Peoples Temple. The trauma didn’t stop for Eddie when his family severed ties with Jones’ organization in 1974. Most of his childhood friends were among the more than 200 children who lost their lives at Jonestown.

On the night of Feb. 27, 1980, Eddie was at home watching TV while the rest of his family were slain in other rooms of their modest cottage. Eddie told police he didn’t hear any gunshots, and neither did the Mills’neighbors, thus lending credence to the teenager’s innocence. One neighbor did report seeing a van leave the neighborhood around the time of the murders, stoking speculation that Jones loyalists had stealthily executed the Mills family.

There was one wrinkle in Eddie’s story: the boy had gunpowder residue on his hands. Nonetheless, police didn’t press the issue, and Eddie Mills remained a free man for 25 years.

In December 2005, he was detained by customs officials while reentering the U.S. from his home in Japan. Berkeley cold case investigator Russ Lopes believed he had put together an airtight case against Mills over the years. However, with just 48 hours to charge Mills with murder, Alameda County prosecutor Chris Carpenter didn’t feel his office had time to review the evidence, so he cut Eddie loose.

“Eddie Mills gets away with murder, and it’s outrageous,” Lopes raged at the Oakland Tribune.

“Even if you’re not absolutely, 100 percent sure you’ll win at trial, you take it to trial and let a jury decide,” Lopes later told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Weaker cases have gone to trial.”

Linda Mertle, Eddie’s sister whose harsh punishment in 1974 urged her family to leave Peoples Temple, championed her brother’s innocence.

“I’m just glad (Eddie’s) home,” she told the Oakland Tribune. “My personal opinion is it’s an easy way out. They don’t want to do the footwork to find out who really did this.”

And who really did it?

Without the closure of a trial and a conviction, nobody really knows. The Berkeley Police closed the case, but the murder of Al, Jeannie, and Daphne Mills remains a mystery.

Eddie Mills returned to Japan where he now lives with his wife and two children.