Twenty-five years before the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, a religious extremist plotted to hijack a commercial airliner — filled with 200 or so unsuspecting passengers — and deliberately crash it.
The target was San Francisco. And the would-be perpetrator was not a jihadist, but the man who would become one of history’s more infamous villains: the cult leader Jim Jones of the Peoples Temple, whose headquarters was then on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco.
With the hijacking plot, described in a coming book and recently confirmed by a former Peoples Temple leader, Mr. Jones is said to have wanted to cause death on a scale that the world would not soon forget. He called it “revolutionary suicide,” a warped vision of religious martyrdom he would ultimately fulfill two years later, in 1978, with cyanide poisonings and shootings in Jonestown, Guyana, that left 918 people — most of them church members — dead.
The San Francisco hijacking plot progressed to the point where beginning in 1975, Maria Katsaris, 21, a close associate and lover of Mr. Jones, attended the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics in Oakland. Academy records confirm that a church paid her tuition.
Ms. Katsaris earned a private pilot’s license and began commercial jet training, but church officials instructed her to attend school only long enough to learn how to take the plane’s controls after storming the cockpit and killing the pilots, according to Teri Buford O’Shea, one of four church members who knew of the plot, and the only one of the four to survive the mass suicide in Guyana.
“They told her she didn’t have to learn how to land, only how to fly,” Ms. O’Shea said in an interview. She said the plane was to have been a chartered commercial jet filled with members of the church’s hierarchy, which was called the planning commission and numbered about 200 people.
Mr. Jones reportedly wanted to kill commission members who he believed were undermining his leadership. He would not be on the flight.
Details of the hijacking plot are in the book “A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown,” by Julia Scheeres, who lives in the Bay Area. It is to be published in October by Free Press. During years of research for the book, Ms. Scheeres studied 50,000 pages of F.B.I. documents, the bulk of them church records — most found in Guyana — and thousands from F.B.I. investigations of what took place in Jonestown. Some documents were made public for the first time without deletions in 2010.
The hijacking plot is just one of several revelations in the book that will shed new light on one of the Bay Area’s darkest chapters.
Ms. Scheeres said Mr. Jones, obsessed with claiming a place in world history, plotted to murder his flock in several ways, including loading church members onto buses and driving them off the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Jones planned to kill his congregation for years before Guyana,” Ms. Scheeres said. “The rank and file didn’t know about it. Only the inner circle.”
She said he abandoned his plans for murder in the Bay Area once he realized the potential of Jonestown. The remoteness of its location in the South American jungle, he figured, would allow him to do away with a thousand people at once.
Fielding M. McGehee III of the Jonestown Institute, part of the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University, which has chronicled the Peoples Temple tragedy — and filed the lawsuits that resulted in the release of F.B.I. documents — said Mr. Jones also plotted “suicide bombings” in California with church members who were willing to die, and to kill others, for the church.
Ms. O’Shea joined the Peoples Temple as a secretary in 1971, when she was 19. She said she eventually became Mr. Jones’s confidante and lover; “I thought he was God,” she said. “I thought God had picked me to be a mate.”
She said she was one of the church’s top leaders and one of the few allowed to travel freely to and from Jonestown.
Ms. O’Shea said Mr. Jones had discussed suicide and murder schemes so often while in San Francisco that few in his inner circle took him seriously. But when the church moved to Guyana, he became “like a caged animal — capable of anything,” she said.
Ms. O’Shea was among the few church members who left Jonestown before the suicides; she had flown to San Francisco to deal with a legal matter and did not return. For nearly 30 years she kept her past a secret. She lives in western Massachusetts and has recently appeared in public to read poems she has written about Jonestown — an effort , she said, to understand why she survived while so many others died.
“I bear a lot of guilt for that,” she said.
Scott James is an Emmy-winning television journalist and a novelist who lives in San Francisco.
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