Congresswoman Speier remembers the Jonestown Massacre

By Martina Castro

San Mateo Congresswoman Jackie Speier has lived quite an eventful life. But arguably the most remarkable event happened during her time spent as a legal aide to San Mateo Congressman Leo Ryan in the fall of 1978. That November, Speier was with Ryan on a fact-finding mission into the People’s Temple in Jonestown. It was a mission that ended in bloodshed and the death of Congressman Ryan.

Congresswoman Jackie Speier visited the StoryCorps booth in San Francisco with her senior advisor, Brian Perkins, to share her experience in Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan.

JACKIE SPEIER: He became concerned that there was something going on that was indeed problematic, and as he became introduced to more and more former members of the People’s Temple, people who had defected, his concerns grew and he was chair of a sub committee on protecting American citizens abroad. So as chair of that sub-committee he decided to make a trip to Jonestown and find out first hand what was going on.

We got to the commune and it was pretty remarkable. In two years, they had created a very viable community. There were crops growing, there were cabins, there was a pavilion, there was a medical clinic, there was a day care center. So over the course of that evening we interviewed many members.

Meanwhile Don Harris, the NBC reporter on the trip, was moving around the pavilion. There had been a show put on for us and they were making a very positive impression on many people, and someone had slipped Don Harris a note. His name was Vernon Gosney, and he desperately wanted to leave, so he brought the note over to Congressman Ryan and myself and you know, our greatest fears had been realized – that people were being held there against their will and people wanted to leave.

The next morning word had started to spread and another person came forward and wanted to leave, and then before you knew it, it was a whole family that wanted to leave. And then pandemonium started to break out. Jim Jones became very agitated, “Why do all these people want to leave? We have a beautiful life here.” And then he tried to convince them to stay. So emotions were running very high.

One of my vivid recollections is of a family, two parents, pulling on a child, one wanting to leave, one wanting to stay. So over the course of that day, more and more people wanted to leave. We didn’t have enough room on the plane to take back all the defectors that wanted to go so Congressman Ryan decided that he was going to stay behind with the second airlift.

We eventually all got onto the dump truck and were in the process of leaving, when there was this huge cry that erupted from the pavilion. The truck stopped and shortly thereafter Congressman Ryan walked down towards the truck in a bloodstained shirt. There had been a knifing attack on his life.

We get to the airstrip and we have two planes, and I’m starting to load the planes. One of the new defectors was a young man by the name of Larry Layton, who just hours before was one of the most fervent apostles of the People’s Temple and convincing us what a remarkable place it was. He had this poncho on him and I was just suspicious of him and asked that someone frisk him. He was frisked but they missed the fact that he had a gun on him. He was put on the smaller aircraft, and I was loading those on the larger aircraft. All of a sudden unbeknownst to us there had been a tractor-trailer following from behind and they started shooting.

All of sudden Congressman Ryan was hit and blood gushing from his neck. I raced under the plane and tried to hide behind a wheel and then they came and shot us at point blank range.

BRIAN PERKINS: You were shot how many times?

JACKIE SPEIER: I was shot five times. I was 28 years old, and I thought, “Oh my God, this is it.” When I was still alive my grandmother’s face kinda flashed in front of me and she was one of my “sheroes,” and I thought to myself, “I’m not gonna have her live through my funeral if I can avoid it.” So I sorta dragged my body to the plane’s cargo section and someone pushed me in. And I mean the plane wasn’t going anywhere because it had bullet holes through the engine and tires. It was a long 22 hours.

The funny thing that happened, we were on the side of the airstrip and the others who were part of the party that were leaving, including the concerned relatives and the defectors, ended up spending the night in Matthews Ridge at a bar. And through the night different people would come to where we were and they would offer me and I presume everyone else, rum! Guyanese rum, which was very potent, and I would take a couple of swigs and literally, that’s how I got through the night because – there wasn’t any medication, there wasn’t any help.

BRIAN PERKINS: Help me understand … I’ve often heard it said that Jonestown was a mass suicide. Was it a mass suicide?

JACKIE SPEIER: It always makes the hair on the back of my head stand up because there was nothing about it that was a suicide. By the 900 people that were members of that cult, they were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language “drinking the Kool-aid” is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.

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