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Tim Stoen's story


November 1978 was not a good time for the Bay Area. In the third week of that month came the horrifying news of Jonestown, the mass suicide of 900 members of the Peoples Temple, which until the previous year had been based in San Francisco. Then, nine days later, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down in City Hall by Dan White, who was disgruntled because Moscone refused to reinstate him after he changed his mind about resigning from the Board of Supervisors.

It seemed as if everything had suddenly come off the rails and crashed into some dark corner. It seemed as if madness were more powerful than reason. It seemed as if the twisted death wishes of two men -- White and Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones -- could change the world.

This week our cover story is about the man who for much of the `70s was Jim Jones' right-hand man -- Tim Stoen, who today is District Attorney Paul Gallegos' top lawyer. That in itself is not news. Stoen was high-profile when the Peoples Temple, known for its good works with the poor and minorities, was being feted by the likes of Moscone and then-Assemblyman Willie Brown. He also drew attention when he broke with Jones the year before the events in Guyana, and afterwards when a state investigation exonerated him of any wrongdoing. He is a key figure in books on Jonestown, and numerous newspaper articles, most recently a Los Angeles Times story in July, reference his past.

Nonetheless, it's likely that most Humboldt County residents knew nothing about Stoen's Jonestown connection when Gallegos brought him on board earlier this year to head up his controversial fraud case against the Pacific Lumber Co. That's one reason we had staff writer Hank Sims do this story. The other has to do with the fact that a whisper campaign aimed at discrediting Stoen has been going on for the past several months, no doubt led by those outraged by the PL suit and intent on seeing Gallegos recalled. We thought airing out the whole story would be a healthy antidote to backstabbing.

It's the longest cover story the Journal has run, and it's not something you can blow through in a few minutes over your morning cup of coffee. Stoen, as you'll see, was forthright, answering every question but the one he has refused to answer for more than two decades: Why he chose to sign a statement saying that the son born to the woman who at the time was his wife was fathered by Jones, only to later insist that that wasn't true. We think it's regrettable that Stoen chose not to be more forthcoming on this point, particularly since much of the rumor mill has been turning on it. But it is arguably a private matter, and we don't subscribe to the view of Stoen's critics that it proves he is a "weirdo" with a questionable moral character.

We think the opposite is true, and that's why the story of Stoen's involvement with the Peoples Temple is, ultimately, both sad and impressive. Sad because Stoen ended up paying a terrible price for failing to recognize early on that Jones was coming unhinged. And impressive because he was able to recover from something that could easily have destroyed him.

So find some place comfortable and settle into the story. Take a break and reflect if you need to. And when you get to the end, regardless of your reaction, consider the weight Tim Stoen has been carrying around all these years. Think of the weight.





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