Robert Spencer and Sleepy LaBeef
One look at the two men pretty much confirms the father/son relationship. It reminds me of when I first saw a picture of my own dad’s father – a man I never expected to identify because my dad’s mom was unwed and gave birth to him at a Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers in Ocean Beach CA.
In Robert’s case, one could say he is fortunate he was adopted. His mother, Agnes, was a follower of Jim Jones who led his congregation known as the People’s Temple to commit mass suicide in Guyana. Robert’s mother and 4 siblings all died in that horrific event. I actually stumbled on Robert’s story looking into some information I encountered about Jim Jones adopting children.
Jim Jones was a charismatic white man who preached racial equality and socialism. When he moved his followers to the South American jungles of Guyana, which is a multiracial country, he planned to build what he called a “rainbow utopia.” When Robert was 10 years old and living in Hayward CA with his adoptive parents, they had to break the news to him that his mother had died in the sad tragedy. His birth mother, Agnes Bishop Jones, was the eldest adopted child of Jim Jones and his wife, Marceline.
Robert turned out to be a fine man. He is employed as a park ranger in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a firefighter in the summer. He also volunteers at his church and labor union. For years, Robert shut the door on his family connection to Jonestown. Eventually though he became consumed by questions about why he’s helpful, why he’s tall, why his skin is olive and why his eyes are clear-blue. He didn’t want to replace his adoptive parents, who he says loved and raised him. But he says there was “something about that biological connection” that he was desperate to experience. He wanted to know more about his mother, Agnes, and about her life in the Temple. One big question that nagged him: Why wasn’t he with her and his siblings on that fateful day?
Since both his mother, Agnes, and Robert were adopted, it made searching for blood relatives that much harder. The only biological child of Jim and Marceline Jones, Stephan Jones, who survived the 1978 tragedy because he was on the other side of the small South American country playing basketball when his father’s suicide order came down. He was 19 years old at the time and had spent his entire life in the Temple.
Robert and Stephan met in person in 2014 at a reunion of Jonestown survivors, friends and families in San Diego. People there began asking questions about Robert’s claim that Agnes had put him up for adoption. They believed him, but it raised a red flag because Temple members didn’t put their children up for adoption to outsiders. Some people at the reunion began to speculate that perhaps Jim Jones was Robert’s biological father and he just wanted to “make that go away” by putting him up for adoption. DNA testing by Stephan proved that Robert was not Jim Jones’ son. That was actually a relief even though it did not answer his identity questions.
Eventually, DNA led Robert to his father, Thomas LaBeff who was born in Smackover Arkansas in 1935 (same year my dad was born). He now lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He is a recording artist for Columbia Records under the name Sleepy LaBeef. His music is a mix of American roots music – blues, country and rockabilly. The only explanation for Agnes and Sleepy getting together was that she was one of the fans taht would come backstage to meet the musicians. Sleepy admits, “sometimes we were not as responsible as we should have been … and so things happened.” Best guess was a Nashville night club, possibly Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge or The Honey Club.
Though they look a lot alike they are very different people. He’s a Democrat and they are all Republicans. They’re Pentecostal and he’s not. But he has been warmly welcomed and has “family” now. Of course, he’s thankful to Agnes for giving birth to him in the first place and understandably thankful she let him go. Thanks to being given up for adoption, he can tell the rest of that story of how he is a “rock ‘n’ roll baby.” He is also at peace now.