30 years later, former Peoples Temple followers in Ukiah still trying to forget

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A carved-wood shepherd with a lamb draped over its neck and a towering white cross have replaced the guards that once kept unwanted visitors out and cult members in at Jim Jones' Peoples Temple near Ukiah.

Thirty years after Jones and more than 900 of his followers perished in a horrific mass suicide and murder in Guyana, there are no signs of the cult's tenure in the building that now houses an Assembly of God church.

"It looks like a respectable place that honors people and honors community," said Kim Harvey, pastor of the church.

But memories of one of the most shocking episodes in U.S. history remain vivid in the minds of former followers of the man responsible for the deaths of hundreds of their friends and family members on Nov. 18, 1978.

"I keep having recurring dreams" about being trapped in the temple, said Ukiah resident Alan Swanson, 63.

Swanson moved from Seattle to Redwood Valley in 1973 to join Jones' church after attending one of the fiery, self-ordained minister's "miracle healings."

He was lured by Jones' promise of a Utopian community that practiced tolerance and good deeds.

Redwood Valley, about eight miles north of Ukiah in rural Mendocino County, became the epicenter for Jones' cult when he built his church shortly after moving from Indiana in 1965.

Donated land and money from followers, who were required to hand over their worldly possessions, allowed Jones to acquire several houses for communal living near the church. He also ran care homes for the elderly, disabled and troubled teens.

But Swanson became disillusioned with Jones' increasingly authoritarian rule by 1977.

He decided to leave after a friend in the church confided that Jones had put a gun to her head and told her there was a bullet in it for her if she ever left.

Swanson defected a year before Jones ordered his flock -- some say hostages -- in Jonestown to drink poison punch.

Jerry Parks, 75, who had followed Jones to California and then to Guyana, could not escape the horror.

He and his family were on the verge of escaping Jonestown when armed men opened fire on them at the Port Kaituma tarmac as they boarded two aircraft that had brought Congressman Leo Ryan and his fact-finding group to Guyana.

"My wife was sitting in the doorway (of the airplane). They shot the top of her head off," said Parks, who is now retired from a job at Safeway and living in Ukiah.

Four others, including Ryan, who was investigating the cult on behalf of concerned family members back home, also died in the attack. Ten others were wounded.

After temple gunmen attacked Ryan's party, Jones told his flock that suicide was their only way out.

Some willingly drank the cyanide-laced punch and fed it to young children and infants. Others were forced to drink it at gunpoint.

Parks has tried to put the traumatic images out of his mind, but the memories are stubborn.

"I'm thinking about it all the time," he said.

Sometimes he dreams that he's back in Jonestown.

"I was so happy it was just a dream when I woke up," he said.

Parks said he feels guilty and stupid for believing in Jones and for taking his family to Guyana.

"When I got to the front gate of Jonestown, I saw the guns. I knew I'd made the biggest mistake of my life," Parks said.

He said he was beaten the day after his arrival for saying he wanted to return home.

"It was nothing but a jungle prison. We spent seven months there going through suicide drills," he said.

Jones "planned all along when things got bad, the only way out would be 'revolutionary suicide,' " Parks said.

Parks also learned in Jonestown that the man he once thought was a miracle worker was a fraud.

The "healings" he'd witnessed -- which included someone vomiting up something vile-looking that Jones would claim was cancer -- were just tricks, Parks found out.

"I had thought he had paranormal faculties," Parks said.

Memories of that time also remain sharp for Nancy Busch and Brenda Ganatos, two Ukiah women who worked for years to expose Jones before he led his flock to death in Guyana.

They remain angry that officials ignored their warnings.

"It was a horrible thing that could have been stopped right here in Ukiah," said Busch, 67.

Fueled by stories of abuse inflicted on children, they organized about a dozen friends into a group they called "concerned citizens" in the early 1970s.

They pleaded with local and state law enforcement agencies, government officials and the local media to take notice of the concerns brought by neighbors and former temple members, including allegations of beatings, sexual abuse, financial wrongdoing and armed guards.

They also knew about the practice suicide runs.

But they were rebuffed by officials.

Jones had influential friends in government, both in Mendocino County and San Francisco, which he made his new base in the mid-1970s.

His top aide for years was Tim Stoen, then Mendocino County's assistant district attorney.

Stoen, now a deputy district attorney in Mendocino County, defected from the temple and became one of its sharpest critics before the mass suicide in Jonestown but was unable to retrieve his son, who died there. Stoen declined to be interviewed for this story.

After moving to San Francisco, Jones became part of the city's liberal establishment and garnered the support of local and state politicians.

Busch and Ganatos continued their efforts despite being shunned by officials and threatened by temple guards who warned them to stop talking about Jones.

"We weren't afraid," Ganatos said.

The women first found an open ear in San Francisco Examiner religion writer Lester Kinsolving.

Kinsolving, working with an Indiana reporter who also was investigating Jones, wrote the first published stories in Northern California about the man he dubbed the "messiah from Ukiah" in 1972.

Jones and the temple members responded by throwing up a picket line around the Examiner building and threatening legal action. Four more Kinsolving articles were shelved.

Media attention was not revived until 1977, when a damning article in New West magazine was published about Jones and his influence in San Francisco politics.

But it was too late by then, said Ganatos, 68, who still spends winters in Ukiah.

Jones already had an exit plan and fled to Jonestown as the questions about his church mounted. The temple faced a government investigation for tax fraud and lawsuits from former members who claimed they were swindled out of their property.

Relatives of temple members alleged they were being brainwashed.

Parks said he and his family will never fully recover from the Jonestown ordeal.

"We try to live as normal as possible," he said.

But the memories are always there, ready to make an appearance, especially on the anniversary on Tuesday.

"You start to feel really funny. Maybe sad, not knowing you're getting close to that anniversary date," Parks said.

"The body never forgets," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.

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