Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror and Deliverance in the City of Love

David Talbot writes in this 2014 book:

* “If you’re going to have a Ken Kesey, you’re going to have a Charles Manson—the one basically gave permission to the other. I went to Altamont and thought it was terrific. The hubris of hiring the Angels to work as security was both ballsy and bad judgment, but that’s what the period was all about—exploring the limits of bad judgment. I remember a woman shrieking and humping the stars, losing herself orgiastically into Jagger’s lips as the Stones bashed away onstage. It seemed entirely appropriate that there’d be people beating each other to death in the midst of all that. Dionysus leads people to being shredded and eaten. Those were the death-defying leaps we were about in those days, and some people die in the process.”

* They informed [Art] Agnos that he was the victim of a Black Muslim death cult that was randomly shooting and slashing white men and women in the city. Agnos couldn’t believe his ears. Ever the good liberal, he immediately thought that they were overplaying the race angle. “You cops are all the same,” he told them. The detectives were flabbergasted by Agnos’s uncooperative attitude.
But in the months to come, as the soon to be nicknamed “Zebra killers” claimed a total of twenty-three victims in 179 days, Agnos realized that Coreris and Fotinos were right. San Francisco was in the grip of a bloody nightmare that tested the very threads holding it together. Cities are frighteningly fragile social enterprises, built on the tacit compact that one racial or religious group or neighborhood won’t start warring on another. Gang violence within the same community is generally shrugged off by the civic establishment as an unpleasant fact of urban life. But when blood is spilled across turf lines, an electric charge of alarm surges through a city—particularly within urban boundaries as tight as seven-mile-by-seven-mile San Francisco, where racial, class, and ethnic tribes are crowded elbow to elbow. One racially charged murder, or even hit-and-run accident, can set off a prickly panic: a flushed foreboding that the whole tinderbox could blow.
The Zebra murders—named after the Z police radio frequency that was assigned to the case—struck a drumbeat of terror, inexplicable and unrelenting, that threatened to drive the city mad. The bloodletting went on day after day. And each explosion of gunfire or grisly discovery of butchered remains took San Francisco closer to the brink of civic breakdown.

* Despite the Zodiac’s media antics, it was the Zebra murders that unnerved San Francisco deepest of all—particularly after it became clear to the public what the police already knew: that the savagery was racially motivated. The “Zebra” code name might not have been intended to convey a racial meaning, but the city soon realized that the slaughter was a black-on-white thing. The killings were a direct assault on the city’s sense of itself as an oasis of racial harmony and civility.

* The core group of killers came together at the Black Self-Help Moving & Storage Company, one of the enterprises that operated under the Nation of Islam’s umbrella. Two of the Zebra murderers were college dropouts from comfortable middle-class backgrounds: Larry Green and J. C. Simon. Two were prison-hardened ex-convicts recently released from San Quentin: Jesse Lee Cooks and Manuel Moore. The moving and storage company on Market Street was owned by Tom Manney, another son of relative privilege. A graduate of elite St. Ignatius High School, Manney starred on the football field at San Francisco State College and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But the team cut him before the start of the season, and he drifted back to San Francisco. The ex-convicts and other Black Muslim converts who found their way to Black Self-Help Moving found not only work and companionship under Manney’s roof but also new meaning in their lives and an explanation for life’s bitter disappointments. The machinations of the white devil—the “grafted snake”—were behind all black men’s sorrows and tribulations.
A select group was invited to attend evening meetings in the second-floor loft of the moving company. They watched films about the white man’s atrocities; they heard lectures about his perfidy. On special occasions, they were addressed by a distinguished official from Chicago, the Nation of Islam’s “New Mecca.” The white man’s depraved rule was coming to an end, he told the young believers. The white devil was beyond reform or salvation. He must be killed.
“All Muslims will murder the white devil because they know he is a snake,” declared the Nation of Islam official. “Each Muslim is required to kill four devils.” The reward for slaying the requisite number of serpents would be admission into a rarefied knightly order of “Death Angels” and free transportation to New Mecca to see Brother Elijah Muhammad himself. Led by the minister from Chicago, the meetings climaxed in a chorus of martial chants: “Kill the grafted snakes!” “Kill the blue-eyed devils!”
Pumped up by the bloodthirsty rhetoric, the Zebra killers cruised San Francisco in search of white victims, riding in a Black Self-Help Moving van and a black Cadillac borrowed from Manney. The bloodshed began one balmy evening in October 1973 following a meeting in the loft, when Green, Cooks, and Anthony Harris, another ex-con recently released from San Quentin, began prowling the streets of the Excelsior, a drab neighborhood of stucco bungalows and lowered expectations.
They were on the lookout for white children, because killing women and kids was the quickest way to become a Death Angel. Cooks, who as a boy had tried to smother his dozing mother with a pillow, had particularly savage fantasies about white kids, telling his Muslim brothers that he wanted to pick them up by their feet and smash their brains out against a wall. On Francis Street, Cooks and Green pulled a gun on two young girls and a teenage boy and tried to hustle them into their van, but the kids broke away and saved their lives by dashing down the street.

* Three years later, after the name Jim Jones had gone down in infamy, state and federal investigators finally began looking into the shady [San Francisco mayoral] election. When they asked for all the rosters showing who voted, the city’s deputy registrar of voters went searching for the records in three locked vaults where they were kept. All the records were missing.

* JONES SOON LEARNED THAT his control over a well-organized, mixed-race army of some eight thousand dedicated followers gave him major stature with San Francisco’s liberal elite. Redevelopment had bulldozed the Fillmore’s political power into the ground. But now this strange white man with the hipster shades, Indian-black hair, and cadences of a black Bible-thumper seemed to be erecting a new political power line into the rubble-strewn, crime-ridden no-man’s-land. Jones could be counted on to deliver busloads of obedient, well-dressed disciples to demonstrations, campaign rallies, and political precincts. The city’s liberal Burton machine quickly identified the Peoples Temple juggernaut as a potentially game-changing ally in its long battle to take over city hall.
It was Willie Brown who first recognized that Jones’s organization could play a pivotal role in his friend George Moscone’s run for mayor. A meeting was set up between Jones and Moscone in the office of Don Bradley, the candidate’s veteran campaign manager. Bradley was initially cautious. “I was a little leery we were getting into something like the Moonies,” he later recalled. But after he looked into the temple’s campaign history in Mendocino and saw how effective it was in delivering victories there, Bradley enthusiastically embraced Jones’s volunteer army. Nearly two hundred temple members showed up at Moscone headquarters, fanning out to campaign in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods, and helping the candidate finish first in the November election.
In the December runoff between Moscone and Barbagelata, Peoples Temple went even further to secure victory for its candidate. On the eve of the election, Jones filled buses with temple members in Redwood Valley and Los Angeles and shuttled them to San Francisco. Security at polling places was lax on Election Day, and many nonresidents were able to cast their ballots for Moscone, some more than once. “You could have run around to twelve hundred precincts and voted twelve hundred times,” said a bitter Barbagelata later, after losing by a whisper of a margin. But he was not the only one who claimed that the Peoples Temple stole the election for George Moscone. Temple leaders also claimed credit.
“We loaded up all thirteen of our buses with maybe seventy people on each bus, and we had those buses rolling nonstop up and down the coast into San Francisco the day before the election,” recalled Jim Jones Jr. “We had people going from precinct to precinct to vote. So could we have been the force that tipped the election to Moscone? Absolutely! Slam dunk. He only won by four thousand votes. I’m sorry, but I’ve got to give my father credit for that. I think he did the right thing. George Moscone was a good person; he wanted what was best for San Francisco.”
Jim Jones made sure that George Moscone never forgot his political debt to Peoples Temple. The man who began his term in city hall with a ringing promise to make San Francisco a beacon of enlightenment would start off his administration with a wretched burden on his back. The mayor could never rid himself of the stench of contagion that Jones brought with him, and as time went by, the power-hungry preacher only sunk his fangs in deeper. The pastor was a wickedly smart reader of a politician’s character, and he knew that the way to enchant Moscone was with young women, not money. When it came to bribing politicians, the temple leader had ample supplies of both. Jones bragged of supplying Moscone with black female members of his congregation. Jim Jones Jr. remembered the mayor as “a party guy. He’d always be there at temple parties with a cocktail in his hand and doing some ass grabbing.”
Temple insiders talked about how Mayor Moscone was one of the politicians under the control of “Father.” They gossiped about the night that the mayor had fallen into Jones’s hands. “Moscone was known to be a boozer; he liked to drink at parties,” recalled temple member Hue Fortson, now a pastor in Southern California. “One night there was some sort of temple event that the mayor attended. The next morning I heard that Jones phoned Moscone and told him it was a pleasure to see him the night before and to see him having such a good time. ‘But I want to let you know that the young lady you went off with is underage,’ Jones told him. ‘Now don’t worry, Mayor, we’ll take care of you—because we know that you’ll take care of us.’”
Jones might have made up the stories of sexual blackmail. He was known to concoct outlandish tales. “Jim was always bragging that he had sexually compromising information about politicians,” remembered Terri Buford, an on-again, off-again mistress of Jones who belonged to the temple’s inner circle. “But you never knew if what he said was true. He once told me that Willie Brown was sexually attracted to him. He just made stuff up.”
Whether or not Moscone was sexually compromised by Jones, he was certainly politically ensnared. The mayor initially resisted the temple’s efforts to insert its members throughout city government. And when Jones himself pushed for a high-level appointment, Moscone at first tried to appease him with a harmless post on the human rights commission. But the temple leader insisted on a position that had more clout, and the mayor decided he was in no position to alienate Jones. In October 1976 Moscone announced that he was naming Jones to the San Francisco Housing Authority, which oversees the operation of the city’s public housing. The agency, the largest landlord in the city, was a notorious maze of corruption, and it provided Jones’s organization with ample opportunity for shady self-dealing. A few months later, Moscone pulled strings to promote Jones, making him chairman.
Jones swept into the normally tedious meetings of the housing commission like a banana republic despot, surrounded by an entourage of aides and grim-faced security guards. Looking stern and inscrutable behind his aviator sunglasses, Jones ran the meetings with scripted precision while sipping a frothy white drink brought to him by a hovering retainer. The audience, packed with elderly black temple worshippers, erupted into wild cheers at his most routine pronouncements. Temple enforcers roamed through the meetings, keeping a watchful vigil, and even blocking people from entering the bathroom while Jones was inside.
Jones used his position to take possession of public housing units and install temple members in them, and he put other followers on the housing authority payroll. The preacher was building his own power base within city government. “He was using his power to recruit members and to put the hammer on people,” said Dave Reuben. “He had a lot of authority.”

* By early 1977, it seemed that Jim Jones had conquered San Francisco. He had the mayor in his pocket and commanded the fawning loyalty of power brokers such as Willie Brown and rising stars like Harvey Milk. Using San Francisco as its power base, the Peoples Temple was ready to expand its operations in Los Angeles, Seattle, and other cities where it had already sunk roots.
There was only one politician who seemed willing to confront the powerful cult: cantankerous John Barbagelata, the fading voice of San Francisco conservatism.
JOHN BARBAGELATA, WHO’D never stopped fuming about his shady mayoral defeat, kept banging the drum about Jim Jones’s political machine and its insidious influence in city hall. During the Proposition B recall campaign, the supervisor charged loudly that San Francisco was being taken over by extremists and kooks—and the Peoples Temple was the most dangerous element of this new coalition. Moscone angrily rejected Barbagelata’s accusation. “There’s no radical plot in San Francisco,” the mayor declared. “There’s no one I’ve appointed to any city position whom I regard as radical or extremist.”
Meanwhile, Joe Freitas bluntly dismissed Barbagelata’s voter fraud charges. In March 1977 the DA wrote Barbagelata, assuring him that his deputy Tim Stoen had investigated the fraud allegations and had determined “that there was not sufficient evidence” to pursue the case. An outraged Barbagelata, now finally aware of Stoen’s blatant conflict of interest, circled Tim Stoen’s name in red on the Freitas letter and scrawled, “President Peoples Temple.”
By then Stoen had disappeared from the DA’s office and had flown to Guyana, where Jones was already preparing his next refuge in a remote jungle. But Barbagelata kept after the Peoples Temple, which he suspected of getting its hands on foster children and kids deemed “incorrigible” by courts, and spiriting them off to Guyana, along with the public funds attached to the children. The anxieties of Peoples Temple relatives were beginning to rise as members began vanishing from San Francisco and Oakland. The conservative supervisor was the only city official who seemed to be making inquiries about the fate of children in Jones’s control. San Francisco’s welfare chief reacted huffily that Barbagelata would even propose such an investigation.
It took courage to confront Jones’s maniacal organization. Barbagelata was barraged with scornful letters from a phalanx of well-positioned Peoples Temple supporters such as the Reverend Norman E. Leach, executive director of the San Francisco Council of Churches, who condemned the supervisor’s talk of a “radical takeover” of the city as “merely sour grapes.”

* As he faded from the political stage, the crusty Cassandra lit a fire under the local newspapers, which had shown little interest in the slithery maneuvers of Jim Jones as he wrapped his coils around the city. “I think the media has to get off its goddam ass and find what’s going on in this city,” Barbagelata growled as he made his exit.
The Chronicle blithely dismissed Barbagelata’s fulminations. “This newspaper is accused by Barbagelata of having complacently ignored his warnings of evil doings in San Francisco politics,” the newspaper editorialized in August 1977. “In truth, his theory of some gigantic conspiracy against the public interest and weal in city hall is a theory we don’t understand and have never found any evidence for.”
The more conservative Examiner fretted that Barbagelata might be on to something, but simply hoped for the best. “It’s true Barbagelata’s imagination is overactive,” the newspaper opined, “but he was right when he said the city must not be turned over to leftists and kooks. Let’s hope his prophecies of doom are off the mark.”
The men who ran San Francisco’s influential dailies would soon learn that Barbagelata’s prophecies were hideously accurate. But by then it was too late. The city’s watchdogs did nothing to alert the public to Jim Jones’s growing menace. The cult leader won the local media’s silence with the same artful combination of seduction and intimidation that he had used on San Francisco’s political caste.

* JIM JONES’S MOST ardent supporter in San Francisco press circles was Steve Gavin, the Chronicle ’s city editor. A Baltimore native, he joined the Chronicle in 1969. Life in San Francisco agreed with Gavin, a gay man in his thirties who loved theater, baseball, and a well-mixed Manhattan. The socially aware newspaperman was delighted when he discovered Peoples Temple and its racially mixed, politically energized congregation. His increasingly warm relationship with Jones made Gavin feel connected to the kind of constituency that newspapers usually overlooked: the black, poor, and religious. Jones and his slick media strategist—a handsome, former local TV newsman named Michael Prokes—made sure that Gavin felt the temple’s love.

* The Peoples Temple skillfully courted other journalists too, including Herb Caen, who enjoyed two long, chatty lunches with the cult leader. “I found him appealing—soft-spoken, modest, talking earnestly of helping people,” Caen wrote later. “If he was a con man, he was masterful at it.” Jones continued to get good play in Caen’s column even after the bloom was fading from the temple’s rose.
But no one in the San Francisco media world proved more useful to Jones than Steve Gavin, who single-handedly made sure that the city’s leading newspaper did not shine a harsh spotlight on the cult leader. When Chronicle reporter Julie Smith began working on a story about the temple in the spring of 1976, Jones somehow learned the exact contents of the story draft while it still sat in her newsroom desk. Later Marshall Kilduff, who had a prickly experience with Jones while covering his strange performance on the housing commission, decided to write a profile of him. Showing up at the temple on a Sunday in January 1977 to interview church officials, the Chronicle reporter was taken on a long tour that ended in the main auditorium, where a service was in progress. As Kilduff was escorted to his seat near the front of the congregation, he was stunned to see his boss, Steve Gavin, sitting among the worshippers.
The next morning, Kilduff gingerly approached Gavin in the Chronicle newsroom. “Quite a show,” said the reporter. “Don’t you think we should do a story about this guy? I hear he’s powerful politically.”
But the city editor cut him off. “We’ve already done it,” said Gavin, referring to the bland, carefully managed article produced earlier by Julie Smith.
Blocked by his own newspaper, the dogged Kilduff continued to work the Peoples Temple story on his own time, while searching for a magazine to publish it. As he tracked down sources, temple members kept close watch on him, digging through his garbage and reporting his every move to Gavin, their friend at the Chronicle . In March, Kilduff finally got a freelance assignment from New West, a regional magazine owned by Rupert Murdoch. But when a temple delegation called on its editor, Kevin Starr, and explained that the article would harm its humanitarian work, he killed the piece. Only after Starr was replaced by a more enterprising editor, Rosalie Wright, did New West revive Kilduff’s assignment.
WHEN THE STORY , “Inside Peoples Temple,” was finally published, it marked the beginning of the end for Jones’s sinister reign in San Francisco. The article, written by Kilduff and New West reporter Phil Tracy, was based on the disturbing accounts of many of the same defectors who had taken their complaints to the San Francisco DA’s office, only to see them bottled up. They told of the beatings, the bizarre temple ceremonies, the confiscation of members’ money and assets, and the political empire building throughout the state. Among the reporters’ sources was Grace Stoen, who had been forced to leave behind her five-year-old son, John, when she fled the temple. To his mother’s anguish, the boy had been taken away to the temple’s Guyana retreat.

* Jonestown was a hideous stain on all those in the Bay Area left who had been taken in by Jim Jones, including attorney Charles Garry. The aging lawyer was forced to flee for his life during the Jonestown bloodbath, huffing and puffing through the Guyanese jungle alongside Mark Lane—another celebrity attorney who had shared Garry’s rosy view of Jones’s “paradise.” Garry forced Lane to carry his suitcase as they sweated their way through the thick, tropical greenery. Lane griped about his burden, but suspecting that the heavy case was stuffed with money, he kept carrying it. The suitcase was actually filled with the toiletries and grooming equipment that the notoriously vain Garry found indispensable, including the hair blower he used to perfect his comb-over. Back home in San Francisco, Garry struggled to make sense of the debacle. “Jim Jones created one of the most beautiful dreams in the world and then destroyed it,” said the still-confused attorney.

* The San Francisco press was as reluctant as local political and religious leaders to take responsibility for Jones’s ascension. The Chronicle, which had chastised John Barbagelata for his strident warnings about Jones and shut down its own enterprising reporter, never acknowledged its mistakes in covering the media-savvy preacher. Herb Caen could not bring himself to do anything more than offer the city bland condolences in his daily column: “Gray skies dripped sadness and sorrow over San Francisco yesterday,” wrote Jones’s former booster. “Headlines told of tragedy and madness in steaming jungles . . . how to judge the insanity surrounding the end of Rev. Jim Jones . . . Who would have expected this ?”
David Reuben, for one. The DA’s investigator saw the nightmare coming, but, hobbled by city politics, could not stop it in time. After the news flashes from Guyana, a disgusted Reuben accosted his boss. “ Now do you think we had something there, Joe?” he asked Freitas.
The district attorney, still in ass-covering mode, dodged any responsibility for bringing Peoples Temple agents into his office and impeding his own investigators’ inquiry.

* After a frustrating loss to the Dolphins, [Bill] Walsh broke down sobbing on the long flight home from Miami. His assistant coaches formed a circle around him, eating peanuts and pretending to be chatting with the head coach, so the players couldn’t witness his breakdown. Walsh was “an emotional basket case,” he confessed later. “I felt like a casualty of war being airlifted away from the battlefield.”
He had poured all of himself into rebuilding the team, working around the clock, abandoning his family, and drawing on all of his hard-won wisdom to revitalize the lowly Niners. But nothing seemed to be working. Maybe his critics were right; he lacked what it took to succeed in the NFL. He decided to quit when he got home. It took him the rest of the flight, sitting alone in the dark cabin, to pull himself back from the brink.
Throughout his years with the 49ers, Bill Walsh was a tormented soul, constantly racked by self-doubts. He carried within him a Platonic ideal of athletic achievement, a standard of physical and intellectual perfection that always loomed maddeningly beyond his reach. Everything had to be just right; he even carefully selected the paint colors for the Niners’ new training facility. He would wander the hallways of the building straightening pictures. DeBartolo used to plague him by tipping them to the side. “He never knew who did it,” said the team owner years later.
DeBartolo’s mercurial temperament did little to reassure the fragile Walsh. During the decadelong partnership between the owner and coach, Eddie Jr. ordered Policy to fire Walsh “about four or five times,” according to the team executive. “Part of my job was to keep those two stable when things were bad, so as not to cause irreparable harm.”
Walsh frequently broke down in tears after team setbacks. He would lock himself in his office and listen to mournful Willie Nelson tunes. He asked the team’s trainer for medication to help him sleep. “Bill was sensitive about everything,” said Policy. “In some way, he was a terrible pain in the neck, a deeply insecure man. He measured everything in terms of money, and he wondered why a star player like Joe Montana made more than him. I’m not saying it was motivated by greed. I think it was a sense of insecurity. How am I viewed, how am I valued? But all this sensitivity was tied to his genius; this almost artistic way that he managed the football field.”

* When it came to religion and football, Landry believed in the fundamentals. “The best offense,” his NFL mentor taught him, “can be built around ten basic plays, the best defense on two. All the rest is razzle-dazzle, egomania, and box office.” The Dallas coach clearly thought that Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense was nothing but fancy-pants gimmickry, as sinuous and vaguely sinister as San Francisco itself.
Walsh and Landry were a clashing contrast in nearly every way. The former approached football like an artistic challenge, the latter like the World War II bombardier that he once was.

* Walsh himself, the chronic worrier and self-doubter, would, in the end, psyche himself out of his job. In 1989, after winning his third Super Bowl victory, an emotionally exhausted Walsh called it quits. But by then, the 49ers had done their job for San Francisco, helping reverse the city’s fate.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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