More than four years after the infamous Jonestown murder-suicide of 913 persons in the jungles of Guyana, California courts yesterday approved the final payment of settlements to survivors and relatives of the victims.
One claimant will get a check for 36 cents--the last payment on a $29 settlement for a loved one lost in the bizarre final act of the Rev. James Jones.
In all, relatives and survivors received almost $9.5 million from the estate of the cultist Peoples Temple church, whose members shocked the world with the murder of a congressman and four others, followed just hours later by a ritualistic mass suicide in which the charismatic Jones ordered his followers to drink a cyanide-laced flavored drink.
The highest personal payment was $600,000 to Jackie Speier, a former congressional aide who was severely injured in the airport shootings that killed Rep. Leo J. Ryan (D-Calif.), three newsmen and a church defector as they attempted to leave the area. Ryan had gone to Jonestown to investigate reports of abuse of church members.
Robert Fabian, a court-appointed San Francisco lawyer who tracked down church funds scattered throughout Latin America and then made judgments on the claims, said almost no one was happy with the final settlements.
"Would you be satisfied if you lost a wife and somebody offered you $20,000?" Fabian asked. "When you start out with 913 deaths, it's unlikely that people will be happy, no matter what the outcome is.".
It all started on Nov. 18, 1978, when Jones, once a prominent San Francisco church and social activist, ordered the killing of Ryan and then led his expatriate followers and their children in the mass suicide, a ritual which they had apparently practiced without the cyanide numerous times.
Word of the magnitude of the massacre gradually leaked out of the isolated jungles of Guyana over the next few days and shocked the world, leading to psychological studies of cultism in America, congressional investigations and a tangle of interlaced lawsuits that still is not completely unsnarled.
Several church defectors sued Ryan's estate for failing to provide adequate protection as they tried to escape. Ryan's children sued the federal government for failing to give their father adequate warning of the danger in making his investigatory trip to the Peoples Temple outpost.
Some relatives sued former secretary of state Cyrus R. Vance and former CIA director Stansfield Turner, charging that they conspired with Jones to control the cult as part of a secret government behavior-modification program.
At one point, California's San Mateo County filed a claim against the church estate for $300,000 to defray the special-election costs to replace Ryan in Congress. Fabian, the court-appointed receiver, angrily threw out that claim.
But the federal government also sued--seeking $4.2 million for the Air Force airlift to Dover, Del., of the bloated bodies found at Jones' Guyana encampment. The government received $1.4 million from the church estate, far more than any other claimant.
For almost five months, nearly 300 of the bodies lay unclaimed in Dover. The remains finally were trucked to Oakland, Calif., for burial after affluent Marin County nearby refused to accept the bodies.
Through it all Fabian, a former general counsel for Bank of America, relentlessly tracked down rumors of stashed church funds. When he was appointed four months after the mass murder-suicides, only $295,000 had been located. He found almost $10 million more scattered in bank accounts and property in Latin America, including $7 million in Panama, $600,000 in Guyana and $80,000 in Grenada.
Over the four years, the assets grew to about $14 million as Fabian rolled them over in high-interest certificates of deposit. The original claims against the church totaled almost $1.8 billion but, in an out-of-court settlement designed to avoid future legal struggle, they were reduced to close to the amount Fabian had accumulated.
"I'm glad it's over," Fabian said yesterday. "Four years is enough to spend on one case."
The remainder of the church funds went to legal costs and Fabian's own fee of $480,000.
In yesterday's final court proceedings, Fabian said perhaps $5,000 to $10,000 would be left over when all the disbursements were made. He recommended that the money go to Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.
"I recommended Glide Memorial," Fabian said after the state agreed, "because it is set up to serve the poor, which is what the Peoples Temple said it intended to do." CAPTION: Picture, Jackie Speier, shown in 1979 after wounding in airfield ambush, will get $600,000. By Tom Allen -- The Washington Post