Mystery writer Julie Smith, a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, once met a man who very nearly embodied pure evil.
That man was the Rev. Jim Jones. Smith was assigned to write a story about Jones when, in the late 1970s , he was named the human rights commissioner for San Francisco.
Jones was a colorful, charismatic man, the leader of a group known as the People's Temple, who was rumored to be a healer so talented he had been known to raise people from the dead. He appeared to be keenly interested in addressing issues of poverty and racism.
Intrigued by the story, Smith began her research and interviews. What followed was several months of frightening confusion and threats as Smith was followed and spied on by cult members. The office of the Chronicle received hundreds of phone calls and letters trying to stop the story. Members of the People's Temple were worried that the press was going to misrepresent their work and their leader.
"Jones was always calling me up and saying I was the Chronicle's hatchet woman," said Smith.
Ironically, Smith was not an investigative reporter. She preferred to do feature stories on lost puppies. She definitely wasn't out to "get" Jim Jones.
Smith said that she got phone calls from her own friends asking her not to do the story. She says Jones' people went through her garbage trying to find something that might incriminate her.
"People squared off and took sides," she said. "But why? There shouldn't have been sides."
When Jones finally granted Smith an interview, she walked into his church to meet him.
"He was sitting in a high-backed chair, like a king in a medieval court, with his people standing around him. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
"But I had to do my story and I made the mistake of thinking that he was scary but inept."
When the story finally ran, Smith said it had been edited by higher-ups at the newspaper into a piece of bland nonsense. Jones had gotten to The Chronicle.
Several months later, in November of 1978, Jim Jones and 900 of his followers, the subject of governmental inquiry, committed mass suicide at their new temple compound in Guyana.
Smith describes Jones as "the person probably responsible for the most deaths in the 20th century who wasn't a head of state."
"When it was all over, I felt betrayed," said Smith. "So years later I had to invent fictional characters to have those same experiences."
Smith was in the Bay Area recently promoting her most recent book, "Crescent City Kill" (Fawcett, $23), which features a Jones-like villain, Errol Jacomine. Jacomine also appeared in Smith's 1996 "The Kindness of Strangers."
Writing has helped Smith banish many of the demons that haunted her in earlier years.
"I feel a lot better now," she said.
Smith has been a successful writer for many years but she is the first to recall her rocky beginnings. She quit The Chronicle in the early 1980s to write mysteries that didn't sell. Then she won the Edgar Award for her first Skip Langdon novel, "New Orleans Mourning" (she calls it "a dark and brooding book"), and her fortunes improved. At the time, she was the first American woman to win an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America since 1956.
Now she is known for two series: the Langdon mysteries featuring a female New Orleans cop and a series set in San Francisco featuring lawyer-detective Rebecca Schwartz.
After many years in California, and more years commuting between New Orleans and the Bay Area, Smith recently returned to New Orleans and now lives there permanently in a 1830s Creole town house with, she says, its very own ghost and serial murder story.