Dispute over Jonestown memorial spills into court

AP News
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Posted: May 12, 2011 10:13 PM
Dispute over Jonestown memorial spills into court

The Oakland cemetery's visitors might not immediately notice its newest feature: four understated slabs of granite embedded in the ground that are etched with the names of the 918 Americans who died in the 1978 mass murder and suicide at Jonestown.

But the recently completed memorial has sparked a legal battle between the Evergreen Cemetery and a minister who lost 27 relatives at Jonestown and who says the memorial's inclusion of Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones' name is an insult to the true victims.

The first stage of the fight unfolded Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court, where the Rev. Jynona Norwood, of Los Angeles sought to obtain a temporary restraining order to block further construction and use of the new memorial, which was completed Monday. She _ along with others _ had planned a different tribute at the site.

Judge Robert McGuiness denied the request but agreed to expedite a preliminary injunction hearing to hear further arguments from both sides. That hearing is scheduled for May 25.

Norwood said she was disappointed the judge didn't see the need for a restraining order, but pleased the next hearing would take place before a planned dedication ceremony at the memorial site on May 29. Organizers expect about 200 people to attend the private event.

Temple survivors and supporters have long called for a proper memorial at Evergreen Cemetery, where more than 400 unidentified and unclaimed Jonestown victims are buried in a mass grave. In August, a group led by Jones' son, Jim Jones Jr., commissioned a memorial after raising nearly $18,000 from about 120 victims' families. The rest of the funding was donated by the cemetery.

Jones Jr. says the inclusion of his father's name among the others is about representing the truth of what happened on Nov. 18, 1978.

"Our memorial removes individual opinions and makes it factual," Pacifica businessman Jim Jones Jr. said outside the courtroom.

Norwood says the cemetery violated an agreement with her for a massive granite memorial wall that would not include Jones' name. She began raising money for that nearly $100,000 project in 1993 and said she made a $30,000 initial payment several years ago to begin its construction off site.

"What they were promised was an opportunity to honor their loved ones _ promises they were never told would no longer be fulfilled," Norwood's attorney, Vernon Goins, said of his client and her nonprofit Guyana Tribute Foundation.

Norwood said including Jones' name "desecrates the memory of the victims."

"Why would anyone want to honor an Osama bin Laden, an Adolf Hitler? That's who Jim Jones is," she said, adding that her ultimate goal is a court order to tear down the current memorial and go back to her original plan for the site.

U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California, three newsmen and a church defector were ambushed and killed on a remote jungle airstrip by temple gunmen while attempting to visit Jonestown on a fact-finding mission to investigate reports of abuses of members. Jones then orchestrated a ritual of mass murder and suicide at the temple's nearby agricultural commune. The dead included 305 children, 17 of whom were members of Norwood's extended family, she said.

In addition to the restraining order petition, Norwood has also filed a lawsuit against Evergreen Cemetery, its president, Buck Kamphausen, and its director, Ron Haulman, alleging breach of contract, misrepresentation and fraud, and seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

Cemetery officials say they never entered into a written contract with Norwood nor sold her any property at the cemetery, and that her efforts to halt the memorial project are too late.

"There's nothing to stop," Haulman said.

Haulman's attorney, Steven Gurnee, said he thinks it's unlikely the judge will issue an order to remove the memorial entirely. He called the decision against the temporary injunction "not surprising and very correct under the circumstances."

Jones Jr., who underwent a kidney transplant operation last year, said a completed Jonestown memorial in the San Francisco Bay area was one of the items on his "bucket list" of things he hoped to experience before he died.

"Our goal with this memorial was simple: Get it done," he said. "What it comes down to with the two (proposed memorials) is one person provided a promise, and another person provided reality."