Jonestown survivors look back, 40 years later
OAKLAND — Jonestown was the highlight of Mike Touchette’s life — for a time.
The 21-year-old Indiana native felt pride pioneering in the distant jungle of Guyana, South America. As a self-taught bulldozer operator, he worked alongside other Peoples Temple members in the humid heat, his blade carving roads and sites for wooden buildings with metal roofs. More than 900 people lived in the agricultural mission, with its dining pavilion, tidy cottages, school, medical facilities and rows of crops.
“We built a community out of nothing in four years,” recalled Touchette, now a 65-year-old grandfather who has worked for a Miami hydraulics company for nearly 30 years. “Being in Jonestown before Jim got there was the best thing in my life.”
Jim was the Rev. Jim Jones — charismatic, volatile and ultimately evil. It was he who dreamed up Jonestown, he who willed it into being, and he who brought it down: first, with the assassination of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan and four others by temple members on a nearby airstrip on Nov. 18, 1978, then with the mass murders and suicides of hundreds, a horror that remains nearly unimaginable 40 years later.
The cult-like church commune first planted its roots in rural Mendocino County in 1965, when Jones and his 140 followers left Indiana and settled in Redwood Valley. 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.
As his “socialist” church prospered. Jones quickly charmed his way into the local political establishment, where he was hailed for his good deeds on behalf of the poor and the elderly. One year, Jones was appointed foreman of the county’s grand jury. He also served as a juvenile justice commissioner.
By the early 1970s, Jones had moved to San Francisco, rising to prominence among the city’s political and religious elite. About 150 of the 900 people who died in Jonestown came from Mendocino County.
But some residents of Jonestown lived. Dozens of members in Guyana slipped out of Jonestown or happened to be away that day. Plunged into a new world, those raised in the temple or who joined as teens lost the only life they knew: church, jobs, housing — and most of all, family and friends.
Over four decades, as they have built new lives, they have struggled with grief and the feeling that they were pariahs. Some have come to acknowledge that they helped enable Jim Jones to seize control over people drawn to his interracial church, socialist preaching and religious hucksterism.
With their lives, the story of Jonestown continues, even now.
CHILD OF BERKELEY
Jordan Vilchez’s parents were Berkeley progressives in the 1960s — her father African-American, her mother Scotch-Irish. They divorced when Jordan was 6.
When a friend invited her family to Peoples Temple’s wine country church, they were impressed by the integrated community. And when her 23-year-old sister joined, Jordan went to live with her at age 12.
“The temple really became my family,” she said.
Devotion to its ideals bolstered her self-worth. At 16, she was put on the Planning Commission where the meetings were a strange mix of church business, sex talk — and adulation for Jones. “What we were calling the cause really was Jim,” she said.