|“||I don't want to die... I don't want to die...||”|
— Stoen before his murder
John Victor Stoen was a boy and one of the children in Jim Jones' cult, the Peoples Temple, who became the center of a child custody battle between his parents and the Temple, and who wound up dying during the cult's infamous mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978.
John was born into the cult on January 25, 1972, to Grace and Timothy Stoen. Grace was the Temple's attorney and church board chairman in Ukiah (but had defected from the cult during John's birth), while Timothy was one of the Temple's legal representatives. John was raised apart from his mother in San Francisco, where he captivated Temple officials due to his precociousness and ability to chant cult slogans as soon as he learned to talk. They considered him the reincarnation of Jones himself. Jones, who considered making John his heair in place of his children, eventually ordered Timothy to take John to Guyana because he feared that Grace, who had started divorce proceedings in 1976, might be awarded his custody.
In June 1977, Timothy met Grace in the U.S., and he left the cult himself when she told him that she had been routinely degraded and told that she was not a good mother while she was a member of the Temple, in an effort to keep her from seeing her son. They began gathering with 50 other relatives of Temple members at the home of early Temple defector Jeannie Mills. Through these meetings, they formed the "Concerned Relatives" group and demanded the return of John, who had been left in Guyana. The ensuing legal battle became the largest scandal involving the cult, as Jones refused to return the child, arguing that he was his biological father and that he had slept with Grace, at Tim's request, to dissuade her from defecting. Timothy later became a target of Jones' verbal attacks when the Temple's settlement in Guyana, informally titled Jonestown, underwent a series of debilitating setbacks in the form of housing problems, increasingly terrible working conditions, and outbreaks of undiagnosed, untreated tropical illnesses due to the undernourishment of members.
Timothy launched a campaign to raise federal awareness to John's situation, writing multiple letters to the U.S. Secretary of State and the Guyanese government, and traveling several times to Washington, D.C., to make calls for an investigation. Because of his valued membership in the group, he became the Concerned Relatives' primary legal representative, and filed court actions against Jones and the Temple on November 18, 1977, on the group's behalf. Finally, later that month, an order, issued in a San Francisco court, granted custody of John to Grace. It also mandated that Jones could not return to the U.S. without facing contempt-of-court proceedings for failing to turn John over; however, it also meant John could never leave Jonestown. In January of next year, Timothy traveled to Georgetown to take custody of John, but was unsuccessful and was eventually told to leave immediately, one week before his visa expired. While he was waiting at the airport, Timothy was threatened by three Temple members, who demanded that he drop his case.
Timothy then returned to Washington, D.C., and visited nine Congressmen, including Leo Ryan of California, who had become interested in the child custody battle; the Temple also sent members to visit eight of those nine in an attempt to discredit Timothy. Timothy also wrote a letter to Congress that described how Jones was illegally holding his son, and urged Congress to write to Guyanese Prime Minister Forbes Burnham to take action. This piqued Ryan's interest, and he wrote such a letter on Timothy's behalf, as did several other Congressmen. At the end of the month, Timothy and another Concerned Relative member held a meeting with U.S. State Department officials. During that meeting, Timothy insisted Jones' mental condition was deteriorating and that he was becoming paranoid and megalomaniacal, going on to urge the State Department to have Guyana "speedily enforce" the custody orders that the Stoens had won. The resulting international pressure prompted Jones to have an interview over the phone with a journalist from The San Francisco Examiner. Afterwards, the Examiner wrote an article about the child custody battle, which lowered Jones' credibility considerably.
The article launched a long string of lawsuits and affidavits from the Temple, all in which the Temple made spurious claims of a "rightist conspiracy" that was attempting to undermine it. Despite all of this, the State Department had yet to take action. On October 3, Timothy threatened, before the State Department, to take John from Jonestown by force if necessary. Ryan eventually decided to launch a "fact-finding mission" to Guyana to investigate the Concerned Relatives' allegations of human rights abuses. Timothy and Grace were allowed to accompany the delegation, but were barred from entering Jonestown itself. The group, led by Ryan, arrived on Guyanese soil on November 15, and all but the Stoens proceeded to Jonestown two days later. As Timothy encountered and was talking with Jones' son Stephan, Ryan's party was subjected to twin ambush attacks by Temple members, which resulted in the deaths of five people (including Ryan) and the injuries of eleven others.
The day after that, a mass murder-suicide occurred in Jonestown, leaving 909 dead, including John, who was found poisoned in Jones' cabin. The last person to see him alive was Stanley Clayton, one of the few Temple members who survived by escaping into the jungle when the mass dying began. According to Clayton, John knew what was going to happen when he was taken from Jones's side by his babysitter, Annie Moore. He kept crying and trying to jerk away from Moore, saying that he didn't want to die, as they walked to the cabin and away from the others. When Jones heard him, he said: "Is that my son doing all that crying? My son shouldn't be crying."
On Criminal Minds
Given that elements of Colton Grant and the Forever People (prominent characters in the episode The Forever People) were likely inspired by Jones and the Peoples Temple, the subplot of a couple trying to recover their child from the Forever People may have also been inspired by John's case. Both events involved at least one defecting parent and the child being left stuck with the cult, albeit for different reasons. In addition, the scenario in which Carl Mason, the father of the aforementioned child, chose to infiltrate the Forever People rather than pursuing legal action may be both a reference to Timothy Stoen's threat to take John from Jonestown by force, and an implicit reflection on how delayed governmental reaction to exposés on the Temple's human rights abuses may have indirectly led to John's death.
- Wikipedia's article about Timothy Stoen, which revolves around John
- John Stoen entry in the San Diego State University website about Jonestown and the Peoples Temple
- Malignant Pied Pipers: A Psychological Study of Destructive Cult Leaders from Rev. Jim Jones to Osama bin Laden (2017)