EUREKA — After 30 years, Humboldt County Assistant District Attorney Tim Stoen — formerly a high-ranking aide to cult leader and eventual mass murderer Jim Jones — has apologized to the reporter who broke the earliest stories of strange happenings at the People’s Temple in Mendocino County.
According to a story in Wednesday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Les Kinsolving — a religion writer for the San Francisco Examiner at the time — reported in 1972 how Stoen claimed Jim Jones brought more than 40 people back from near death. Kinsolving also questioned the apparently violent nature of a group, whose temple guards packed .357 Magnums.
Jim Jones, Stoen and others reacted by filing a libel suit, protesting the Examiner’s offices and by impugning Kinsolving in front of national media. Bay Area political heavyweights at the time reacted against the Examiner and the stories stopped until five years later when Jones and his followers were headed toward mass suicide in Guyana. Even Stoen’s 5-year-old son, John Victor Stoen, would perish among the 908 cult members.
Stoen left the group nearly a year before the mass suicide and has said he repented for his membership.
When he recently discovered on the Internet that Kinsolving had had a heart attack, Stoen wrote the letter to offer his apologies. On Wednesday, he claimed the letter contained no new information and that Press Democrat reporter Mike Geniella made a bigger deal of it than necessary.
“I’ve taken this position for 30 years but it gets lost in all the other issues I’m involved in,” Stoen said in an interview Wednesday. “I asked God to forgive me and he has and he’s given me a second chance.”
Geniella, who wrote Wednesday’s story, said the letter was significant and deserved the attention it got because it was a bigger admission of wrongdoing than Stoen has made in the past.
“I truly believe that in a fair assessment, his letter is noteworthy and contains significant statements — perhaps he is not even aware of how significant they are,” Geniella said. “We didn’t go into this lightly.”
The letter, dated Feb. 11 and printed this week in the Press Democrat, tells Kinsolving: “You were right about Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. I was totally wrong. If I had not been ideologically blinded by a Utopian worldview, I should have been open to the truth you were trying to tell.
“You were willing to confrontally take on the Machiavellian Jones when other critics were too faint-hearted to do so.”
Stoen in the letter says that God has given him a second chance but that “the natural consequences of my wrongdoing — especially the death of John Victor and those temple members who joined because they trusted me — cannot be erased.
“I am still a prosecutor but understand, far more than ever before, the reality of original sin.”
Once he received the letter, Kinsolving sent it on to the Press Democrat because he had always appreciated the paper’s reporting of issues around the People’s Temple, said Geniella.
Kinsolving believed what Stoen had to say and forgives him, but regrets that no one paid attention, Geniella said.
“He did get it but no one paid attention to it, including his own paper,” said Geniella. “He was a man who felt that had people paid attention to it sooner, maybe — just maybe — Jonestown may not have happened.”
For Stoen’s part, he said it’s uncomfortable to have the issue raise its head again and again.
“It’s not pleasant to have this story arise all the time, but I did it to myself so I grin and bear it,” Stoen said.
Text of Stoen letter
February 11, 2005
I have wanted for a long time to write a letter of apology to you and reading (on the Free Republic weblog) of the sad event of your recent heart attack, am prompted to do so.
You were right about Jim Jones and the People’s Temple. I was totally wrong. If I had not been ideologically blinded by a Utopian worldview, I should have been open to the truth you were trying to tell.
You were willing to confrontally take on the Machiavellian Jones when other critics were too faint-hearted to do so. You were able to see beneath the surface of the glitter. You deserve an award for both insight and courage.
From my heart, I apologize for my mistreatment of you, including organizing the picketing, filing the lawsuit and castigating your motives.
I have asked God to forgive me for my wrongdoing in being a part of the People’s Temple. He has mercifully given me a second chance. But the natural consequences of my wrongdoing — especially the death of John Victor and those temple members who joined because they trusted me — cannot be erased.
I am still a prosecutor but understand, far more than ever before, the reality of original sin.
In conclusion, I pray God’s blessing on you for a speedy and total recovery. I also pray you can forgive me.