Additional State Department informational sheets on Stoen inquiries, February 28, 1978

[Editor’s note: On February 23, 1978, the office of Public Affairs of the State Department asked for additional language to be used as standard replies to congressional and public inquiries on the John Victor Stoen custody battle. The following documents include the drafts of the language for three informational sheets, the cover memo approving the drafts, and the sheets themselves.]

United States Government Memorandum

Date: February 23, 1978
To: CA-Mr. Hennemeyer
From: SCS-Francis X. Lambert
Subject: Public Correspondence: The People’s Temple

The Correspondence section of Public Affairs has requested language to use in response to the many letters they have received on the custody case of John Victor Stoen, the People’s Temple and the politics of Guyana. All three subjects are interrelated and the volumes of letters SCS, ARA and PA have received. PA states that the language we submit must be cleared at the Deputy Assistant Secretary level.

We propose to send PA the three attached information sheets. Information sheet number one is the standard response we have been using for Congressional inquiries on behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Stoen. It has been cleared by Miss Watson. Information sheet two is the response drafted by the Guyanese desk in reply to queries by Congress alleging USG [United States Government] interference in the internal affairs of Guyana. It was cleared by ARA-G. Lister. Information sheet three is a new draft providing information in general about the People’s Temple.

Action requested: That you review all three sheets and provide clearance for information sheet three.


Feb. 28, 1878
[To] PA-Correspondence Unit
[From] CA/CSC-Welfare/Whereabouts Unit
[Subject] The People’s Temple

Attached are three information sheets for use in dealing with correspondence on the People’s Temple. Information sheets numbers one and three were cleared by CA, Deputy Assistant Secretary Hennemeyer and Assistant Secretary Watson while information sheet number two was cleared by ARA Special Assistant and Human Rights Officer George Lister.

We trust that these sheets will be useful to you in answering the many queries which have been received on these questions. We do not expect any real change in the case for at least three months so the sheets should be valid for that time.



While we in the Department of State sympathize very much with Mr. and Mrs. Stoen in their efforts to regain custody of their son, regrettably there is little we can do to be of assistance. Neither the Department of State nor the courts of the State of California have the authority to enforce a US court decision concerning the custody of John Victor as long as he is physically located outside of the United States. Child custody orders issued in the United States are normally not accepted for enforcement in another country on the basis of comity. While any American custody decision might be given evidentiary weight in the Guyanese proceeding, by no means will it be binding on the court.

Since the initiation of the custody suit in Georgetown, the Department of State and our Embassy in Guyana have been in close contact with the Stoens and their attorneys, both American and Guyanese. The Embassy has attended all court proceedings, when permitted to attend, and has assisted the Stoens in gaining access to Guyanese Government officials. The Embassy has regularly had conversations with the opposing attorneys and has spoken with Mr. Jim Jones, the head of the People’s Temple. As Mr. Jones is also an American citizen and entitled to the same rights and protection as Mr. and Mrs. Stoen, the Embassy has been careful to avoid prejudicing the outcome of the dispute. It is the Embassy’s responsibility to seek to ensure that the judicial outcome of the dispute results from a fair and impartial determination of the merits of the case, and all of our efforts are so directed.



All the parties to the custody case of John Victor Stoen, currently in the courts in Guyana, are American citizens. The parents of the child are on one side and the People’s Temple, a California religious organization which also operates in Guyana, on the other.

Our Ambassador and his staff in Guyana have taken an interest in the case, but have emphasized that the interest of the United States is confined to assuring that the matter is fairly and impartially adjudicated in the courts strictly on its merits and without outside interference from any quarter. Consistent with this position, the Embassy has avoided taking any sides in what is essentially a civil dispute between two groups of Americans. Nor has any pressure been brought by the Embassy on the Government in Guyana or its courts, which have yet to rule on the matter, in favor of one side or the other.

The inquiries made by the American Embassy on behalf of the child’s parents were normal protective services which any American citizen abroad could expect to receive from his government. The inquiries were not attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of Guyana and, indeed, have not been interpreted as such.



As part of the traditional and internationally sanctioned protection services, officers of the American Embassy in Georgetown, Guyana, periodically visit the People’s Agricultural Temple located at Jonestown, Guyana. These officers have been free to move about the grounds and speak privately to any individuals, including persons who are believed by their family and friends to be held there against their will. It is the opinion of these officers, reinforced by conversations with local officials who deal with the People’s Temple, that it is improbable anyone is being held in bondage. In general, the people appear healthy, adequately fed and housed and satisfied with their lives on what is a large farm. Many do hard, physical labor but there is no evidence of persons being forced to work beyond the capacity or against their will.

Should you have a specific individual about whom you want information, please provide the name of the person and the person’s date and place of birth to the Office of Special Consular Services, Department of State, Washington, DC 20520. During the next visit to the People’s Temple by an officer of the American Embassy, that officer will attempt to speak privately with the individual in question, convey your concern and report to you.