In the last moments of the mass suicide at Jonestown, its maniacal leader, Jim Jones, exhorted his surviving minions to visit revenge on those who had deserted him. “Remember Deanna and Elmer Mertle,” he said on a tape. “The people in San Francisco will not take our death in vain.”
By then Deanna and Elmer Mertle had become Jeannie and Al Mills. After six years with Jones, they left with their five children in 1975 and changed their names to void the power of attorney they had given him. But to Jones and his followers in the Bay Area, the Millses were far from anonymous. Once free of Jones’ perverse spell, they had worked tirelessly to expose him. Last year Jeannie published a devastating memoir, Six Years with God: Life inside Rev. Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. She and Al helped to establish a center in Berkeley dedicated to deprogramming ex-cultists, and they brought Jonestown to the attention of California Rep. Leo Ryan, whose murder during a fact-finding mission to Guyana touched off the mass suicide.
In the wake of that massacre, the FBI could find no evidence of a Peoples Temple execution squad. The Mills family, which had holed up with other defectors in the protective custody of a police SWAT team, decided to resume normal life. “You can’t live like that forever,” Jeannie said last fall. “We promised to be careful.”
Two weeks ago Al and Jeannie Mills were found murdered execution-style in their Berkeley home. Jeannie’s daughter Daphene, 16, who had also been shot in the head with exploding bullets, died two days later. Investigators could not be certain the killings were cult-related, but there was no forced entry, and burglary was quickly ruled out as a motive. Police were questioning Jeannie’s 17-year-old son Eddie, a troubled high school dropout whose best friends died in Jonestown. Eddie reportedly told police he had been watching TV in the tiny house at the time of the shooting, and had heard nothing.
It was an appallingly ironic end for Al, 51, and Jeannie, 40. They had been led to the Peoples Temple a year after their marriage hoping for answers to the problems of racism and social disorder in general—and, specifically, to the problems of discipline they saw emerging in their own family. Each had children from previous marriages. Jeannie first visited Jones’ Redwood Valley commune in 1969, and recalled: “The children were so respectful of their seniors. The members seemed to be the happiest, most wholesome people we had ever seen.”
Later that year they moved in. Their five children adapted uneasily to life in the commune, but Al and Jeannie became trusted members of Jones’ inner circle. By 1973 his madness was becoming intolerable, and they began to despair. In 1974 Al’s daughter Linda was brutally beaten with a wooden paddle for having a friend Jones suspected was a traitor. Yet even so it took them another year to break free. Back in the Bay Area they tried with mixed success to reunite the family—and to put out the word on Jones. When they cooperated with a New West magazine exposé that helped drive Jones to Guyana, Jeannie felt it was “like signing our own death warrant.” Police protection after the massacre came as a welcome relief from fear: “That was the first time I felt no one could kill us.”
By last month they seemed more optimistic than ever, although there were still problems. Daphene, who Jeannie had said was “most affected” by the separation from her parents at the commune, was still struggling. But son Eddie was working with his stepfather remodeling old homes as student rentals, and Al’s two daughters had moved out and found jobs nearby. Al and Jeannie were still lecturing on their years in the Jones cult, and they had lost their fear of telling the story. But they also seemed ready for a new challenge, and for some closure to that grim episode of their lives. As Jeannie put it to a gathering of students at Dominican College in San Rafael, Calif. just three weeks ago: “I’ve pretty much put all that behind me now. I’m tired of being an ex-member of the Peoples Temple. I really want to get on with the business of living.”