Paula Jean Neustel, one of a handful of survivors of the Jonestown mass suicide-murder and a trusted aide to the Rev. Jim Jones, was finally putting distance between herself and the days of violence and death in the tiny country of Guyana.
There was Laurence Alexander, her 18-month-old son and, according to one friend, "the highlight of her life." Though her child had been in and out of hospitals since his birth, the friend said, he'd seemed better lately and Neustel, 34, was working hard to make sure "he would not go through the things she went through in her life." And there was her job at a computer firm in Rockville where she had just received an important promotion.
But somehow Neustel could not escape the violent legacy of her days with the Peoples Temple leader, when she was the chief public relations liaison between the Peoples Temple and officials in Guyana's capital city of Georgetown.
On Oct. 24, with three quick shots from a handgun, Guyana's former ambassador to the United States, Laurence E. Mann, killed Neustel, the baby and himself in her Bethesda apartment. Mann was the baby's father, and, according to friends, the person Neustel had once intended to spend her life with.
It was the kind of tragic sequel that seemed to follow those who had been touched by the tragedy on Nov. 18, 1978, when Jones led more than 900 cult members in a ritual suicide-murder at Jonestown, his remote jungle settlement in Guyana.
As Guyana's ambassador in Washington between 1975 and 1981, Mann had known Jones when the Peoples Temple was headquartered in San Francisco and Jones was working to set up his Guyana outpost. Since that time, the 46-year-old Mann, known in diplomatic circles as a bon vivant and brilliant trade negotiator, had changed his life, too. He had finished his tour of duty as ambassador, worked for a time as a government economic adviser in Guyana and recently left the government to open his own consulting business in Washington.
But one thing had not changed. Neustel, whom he'd met in Guyana, was still a part of his life.
In the mid-1970s, Neustel, then married to cult member Tom Adams and using her married name, was dispatched to Guyana's capital by Jones to curry favor among government officials. According to "Raven," a recent book on the Peoples Temple, her "soft good looks and relaxed style won the Temple many friends there, not least among them Laurence (Bonny) Mann . . . " who would "squire her around town to social and diplomatic functions."
They became a familiar couple: the temple's public relations liaison, a tall blond with delicate features, and the diplomat, a man who one person said "could come into a room and keep a whole party alive for hours."
"He and Paula were always together," Guyanese journalist Paul Persaud said in a telephone interview from the capital. "He was married, but this is the way they lived. I don't think it was ever a secret. It was known to everybody in Georgetown."
In a Guyana news conference a few weeks after the mass poisonings, Neustel confirmed that she was having an affair with a high Guyanese official, whom she did not name. She also acknowledged that Jones had said that she was assigned to seduce the official. "He Jones gave out the story . . . because he couldn't rationalize how I could be having any relationship with anyone outside the Peoples Temple."
Neustel told reporters then that the affair was probably over and she might not see the man again because "he's already been through enough."
But it didn't turn out that way.
Mann went to San Francisco attorney Charles Garry, who had represented the temple in civil matters, and asked him to obtain a divorce for Neustel from her husband, according to Pat Richartz, an aide to Garry.
"He said their intention was to be married and he Mann paid for the divorce," Richartz said. Neustel also wrote a letter to Garry, saying "she loved Bonny Mann and intended to spend her life with him," according to Richartz.
Garry said the final divorce decree was entered in May 1979, and at that time Neustel was still living outside the United States, according to Richartz.
Montgomery County police said Neustel moved to the Washington area in March 1980. That December, she went to work for a computer firm, Libra Technologies, in Rockville, according to an associate there. For the last year, police said, she lived in the two-bedroom apartment at 4977 Battery La. in Bethesda, where she was killed.
"I don't want to add kindling to an old fire," said her father, Donald Neustel of Ukiah, Calif., refusing to discuss his daughter. He said he didn't know why she joined the Peoples Temple after leaving her family's Ukiah home, though the book "Raven" gives some clues. It says that in a testimonial written for Jones, "she confessed that when she first came to Peoples Temple she was a mixed-up woman of 22 with no hope beyond the drinking, doping life of a manic-depressive."
The elder Neustel said both he and his wife had met Mann and believed he was "very much" in love with their daughter. He said he had heard that Mann could be "a violent person after he had been drinking," but as to how their relationship came to such a violent end, the elder Neustel said only, "I wish I could answer that."
A friend of Neustel's from Bethesda said her life here revolved around her son, who had been suffering from pyloric stenosis, a congenital stomach problem that prevents a child from keeping food down.
"Alexander was in the hospital and had an operation," said the friend, Kathy Belt Roberts. "I couldn't imagine going through that and not being bitter and angry, but Paula wasn't."
A eulogy, given at Neustel's memorial service here, said she was someone "who took each pain and joy as it came," and a woman "who cared . . . who was always willing to try again."
Roberts said that as long as she'd known Neustel, Mann was "not in the picture" as far as a relationship went, but that Neustel wanted her son "to know his father . . . ."
"Paula wanted to be independent, to stand on her own two feet . . . and take care of Alexander herself without any help," Roberts said.
Montgomery County Detective Edward L. Day said police do not know precisely what happened the night of the murder-suicide. Once before, last January, Neustel had reported that Mann had threatened her with a gun, but she didn't want to pursue it, Day said.
Their relationship "was strained," Day said. "She was trying to allow the child to have his father's influence," he said, but it also appeared "she was trying to disengage herself from the relationship."
Mann's sister, Lesley King, with whom he lived in Kensington, said she knew about Neustel and the child, but didn't want to know much more. Her brother, she said, was married to his third wife, a woman named Juliette who was living in Trinidad, and he had three other children from his marriages.
As far as his relationship with Neustel, King said, "He didn't share that part of his life. It was very personal."
King said she saw Mann twice at her office on Oct. 24, the day of the shootings, and they talked about "passing nonsense . . . current events. They just bombed the Marines in Beirut. We talked about that." There was no hint, she said, of what was to come.
But about 9:30 p.m., a man passing Neustel's apartment in the Whitehall condominium heard "terrible screams," a banging on the walls and then two shots, according to the neighbors. He asked a woman at the front desk to call police.
When they arrived, they found the bodies of Neustel and the boy just inside the apartment. Both had been shot once in the head. Mann, also wounded in the head, was found in a bedroom and died about two hours later at Suburban Hospital, police said. Neustel's niece, 3-year-old Stephanie Sue Watson, the daughter of a sister who was staying there, was found unharmed in another room.
In San Francisco, Richartz said all she could think of when she heard the news was Mann sitting in their offices after the Jonestown tragedy. He was angry with Jones, she said, feeling he had been deceived and that "Paula had been used by Jim Jones."
Most of all he was angered by the death of the children, and she recalled him saying that he could understand Jones' suicide and perhaps even the suicides of his followers. "But killing the children," Richartz recalled. "That's what he condemned. And that's the weird part, that he ended the same way."