The Assassination of Representative Leo J. Ryan and the Jonestown, Guyana Tragedy

May 15, 1979


MAY 15, 1979


This investigative factfinding report has been submitted to the Committee on Foreign Affairs by the Staff Investigative Group. Per my directives and pursuant to the committee's investigative authority, the Staff Group conducted a comprehensive inquiry into the international relations aspects of the activities of the People's Temple, the tragic events that led to the murder of Representative Leo J. Ryan and other members of his party, and the mass suicide/murder of the followers of People's Temple that occurred in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978.

The findings and recommendations in this report are those of the Staff Investigative Group and do not necessarily reflect the views of the membership of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Clement J. Zablocki, Chairman.


A. Ryan Trip Background

The chain of events which led to Representative Leo J. Ryan's death in Guyana on November 18, 1978 began 1 year earlier almost exactly to the date. The spark that ignited his interest was a San Francisco Examiner article of November 13, 1977, involving an old friend and constituent, Mr. Sam Houston of San Bruno, Calif. Headlined "Scared Too Long," the story recounted the death of Sam Houston's son, Bob, beneath the wheels of a train on October 5, 1976, 1 day after he had announced his decision to leave the People's Temple. The article explained that Mr. Houston was "speaking out" because he was outraged by the way the Temple had treated his son, about whose "accidental" death he had lingering doubts. He was also speaking out because his two granddaughters, who were sent to New York on a "vacation," ended up at the People's Temple agricultural mission in Jonestown, Guyana-never to return. Sam Houston was also described as speaking out because he didn't have much time left. Doctors would be removing his cancer-choked voice box within a few days. Finally, Sam Houston said he was speaking out because he was "tired of being scared."

Representative Ryan read that story and soon thereafter took the initiative to contact the Houstons and visited their home. Reinforced by the fact that a relative had been involved in an unusual church group, Mr. Ryan decided at that time that the matter needed to be looked into.

Over the next 6 to 8 months several other developments took place which increased his interest in the activities of the People's Temple. One was another San Francisco newspaper story recounting the defection from People's Temple of Debbie Blakey, including excerpts from her sworn affidavit of June 15, 1978, noting mass suicide rehearsals at Jonestown. Further impetus came in letters he received from concerned relatives of People's Temple members, some of whom were constituents, asking his assistance and alleging, among other things, social security irregularities, human rights violations, and that their loved ones were being held in Jonestown against their will. He subsequently met with a group of these concerned relatives in August 1978. As his interest in People's Temple became more widely known, he also began receiving extensive mail and petitions favorable to People's Temple. He also hired a young California attorney to interview former People's Temple members and concerned relatives. His specific instruction was to look for possible violations of Federal and California State laws.

The cumulative effect of this effort undertaken by Representative Ryan led him to request a meeting on September 15, 1978, with Viron P. Vaky, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Inter-American Affairs, U.S. Department of State, and other State Department officials. What he had earlier considered merely the "possibility" of going to Guyana appears to have become firm in his mind at that meeting. On October 4, 1978, he requested House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Clement J. Zablocki's permission to go to Guyana. He explained his interest in part stemmed from his membership on this committee's Sub-committee on International Operations, as a result of which he had become increasingly aware "of the problems related to protecting the lives and property of U.S. citizens abroad." A key paragraph in his letter stated:

It has come to my attention that a community of some 1,400 Americans are presently living in Guyana under somewhat bizarre conditions. There is conflicting information regarding whether or not the U.S. citizens are being held there against their will. If you agree, I would like to travel to Guyana during the week of November 12-18 to review the situation first-hand.

In response to Chairman Zablocki's request, and in compliance with committee travel guidelines, Mr. Ryan subsequently attempted to interest other committee members in accompanying him. Although Hon. Edward J. Derwinski was originally scheduled to do so, he subsequently had to cancel those plans because of unavoidable conflicts in his schedule.

Prior to his departure for Guyana on November 14, Mr. Ryan and members of his staff and this committee's staff received briefings and met with State Department officials on October 2, 25, and November 9 and 13. Chief among the topics discussed in those briefings was the Privacy act because both the Embassy and the State Department were highly sensitized by legal actions taken under this statute by the People's Temple and because some 1,000 Americans living in Jonestown were protected by the provisions of this act. Logistical problems in getting to Jonestown and other related matters were also reviewed.

During approximately this same period the media became aware of Mr. Ryan's trip as did members of the Concerned Relatives of People's Temple members in San Francisco. By the time he departed for Guyana on November 14, the group of newspaper and television media accompanying him grew to 9 and the Concerned Relatives delegation numbered 18. In this connection, it is important to note that neither the media nor Concerned Relatives were a part of Mr. Ryan's official Codel.1 Rather, the official party was made up of Mr. Ryan, Mr. James Schollaert, staff consultant for the House Foreign Affairs Committee; and Miss Jackie Speier, of Mr. Ryan's personal staff and whose expenses were not paid for by the U.S. Government.

On November 1, Mr. Ryan sent a telegraph to Jim Jones outining his plans and expressing his desire to visit Jonestown. On that same date, Mr. Ryan wrote to Hon. John Burke, U.S. Ambassador to Guyana, informing the Ambassador of his proposed date of arrival in Georgetown (November 14), and relaying to Ambassador Burke the text of his telegram to Jones. On November 5 the U.S. Embassy advised Mr. Ryan that the People's Temple wanted Mr. Ryan to work with People's Temple legal counsel, Mark Lane, on the appropriate arrangements for the Ryan Codel to visit Jonestown.

The Embassy also relayed to Mr. Ryan that the People's Temple had informed an Embassy official that Mr. Ryan could visit Jonestown provided: (1) that the Codel was "balanced"; (2) that there would be no media coverage associated with the visit; and (3) that Mr. Lane be present during the visit. Attempts by Mr Schollaert to negotiate these matters with Mr. Lane on Representative Ryan's behalf were unproductive.

On November 6, Mr. Lane wrote a letter to Mr. Ryan outlining logistical difficulties if the Ryan Codel decided to visit Jonestown and informing Ryan that Lane would be unable to be in Jonestown at the time Ryan wished to visit the settlement. Lane also made inferences in the letter to a "witchhunt" against the People's Temple by the U.S. Government. On November 10, Mr. Ryan responded to Lane's letter, expressing regret at Lane's remarks about the Codel's motives and informing him that despite Lane's scheduling conflicts, the Codel planned to leave for Guyana on November 14. Further negotiations between Representative Ryan and Messrs. Lane and Charles Garry, also legal counsel to the People's Temple, resumed in Georgetown after the Codel's arrival.

B. Summary of Events of November 14-19, 1978

The Ryan Codel, together with its unofficial contingent of media and Concerned Relatives, arrived in Georgetown, Guyana at approximately midnight November 14. The official Codel group proceeded into Georgetown where Mr. Ryan was a house guest of U.S. Ambassador John Burke and Miss Speier and Mr. Schollaert registered at the Pegasus Hotel. Despite confirmed reservations, the Concerned Relatives group was unable to obtain rooms at the same hotel and spent the night in the lobby. With one exception, the media group cleared customs and took rooms at the Pegasus Hotel. The exception, Mr. Ron Javers of the San Francisco Chronicle, was detained overnight at the airport because he lacked an entry visa and for what was later described as on orders from "higher ups."

Over the next 2 1/2 days the following incidents took place:

  • With the assistance of Embassy personnel, Mr. Javers was eventually allowed to enter, other members of the media group were summoned to the Ministry of Immigration, and attempts were made to shorten their visas from 5 to 1 day;
  • Representative Ryan, Miss Speier, and Mr. Schollaert received briefings from members of the U.S. Embassy team;
  • Mr. Ryan paid a courtesy call on Guyanese Foreign Minister Rashleigh Jackson to discuss United States-Guyanese bilateral relations;
  • Mr. Ryan arranged a meeting between Ambassador Burke and the Concerned Relatives group at which they voiced their concerns and allegations regarding their relatives in Jonestown;
  • Mr. Ryan made an unannounced visit to the People's Temple Headquarters in Georgetown at 41 Lamaha Gardens; Mr. Charles Krause of the Washington Post accompanied Mr. Ryan but did not enter the headquarters;
  • Some of the Concerned Relatives groups also attempted to talk with People's Temple representatives at the Lamaha Gardens People's Temple facility but were generally unsuccessful;
  • Because negotiations between Representative Ryan and Messrs. Lane and Garry were still unresolved, the plane originally chartered to go to Jonestown on Thursday, November 16, was rescheduled for Friday, November 17;
  • By late Friday morning Mr. Ryan advised Messrs. Lane and Garry that he was leaving for Jonestown at 2:30 p.m. regardless of Jones' willingness to allow the Ryan party to visit Jonestown. He also assured Lane and Garry of two seats on the plane if they decided to accompany him;
  • Mr. Ryan, Miss Speier, Deputy Chief of Mission Richard Dwyer, Messrs. Lane and Garry, all nine media representatives, four individuals representing the Concerned Relatives group, and Mr. Neville Annibourne, a Guyanese Information Officer, left for Jonestown at approximately 2:30 p.m., Friday, November 17, Guyana time (12:30 p.m., e.s.t., Washington, D.C.).

On the group's arrival at the Port Kaituma airstrip the chronology of events which ensued was as follows:

  • They were met initially by a Corporal Rudder, described as a Guyanese Regional Official assigned to the Northwest territory. He advised them that he had orders "from Jonestown" not to allow anyone off the plane except Messrs. Lane and Garry. Representatives of the Jonestown People's Temple facility also at the airstrip met privately with Lane and Garry and it was eventually decided that only they together with Mr. Ryan, Miss Speier, Mr. Dwyer, and Mr. Annibourne could proceed into Jonestown;
  • Mr. Ryan eventually obtained Mr. Jones' approval for the media group and Concerned Relatives to enter Jonestown and the People's Temple truck was sent back to Port Kaituma to transport them. They arrived in Jonestown after dark. Only Mr. Gordon Lindsay, a former free-lance reporter for the National Enquirer, and on this trip, working as a consultant to NBC, was denied entry. A previous unpublished story by Mr. Lindsay critical of People's Temple had incurred Jim Jones' wrath and accounted for the refusal to allow him into Jonestown. Mr. Lindsay thereupon immediately returned with the plane to Georgetown;
  • Dinner was served to the entire delegation and they viewed a musical presentation by People's Temple members. Throughout this period the reporters were casually interviewing Mr. Jones; Mr. Ryan and Miss Speier were contacting and talking to People's Temple members whose names had been provided them by relatives in the United States. Although the evening was generally informal and casual, the emotional atmoshere was described as at a "fever pitch." At one point, Mr. Ryan addressed the assembled People's Temple audience of approximately 900 and received an extended, standing ovation in responce to his comment that "for some of you, for a lot of you that I talked to, Jonestown is the best thing that ever happened to you in your lives";
  • Sometime during the evening, a People's Temple member passed a note to NBC Reporter Don Harris indicating the individual's desire to leave Jonestown. Harris hid the note and later showed it to Mr. Ryan. That same evening another People's Temple member made a similar verbal request of DCM Dwyer to leave "immediately," which he passed on to Mr. Ryan;
  • At approximately 11 p.m. the media group and Concerned Relatives were returned to Port Kaituma for makeshift accomodations after Jim Jones refused to allow them to spend the night in Jonestown. Only Ryan, Speier, Dwyer, Annibourne, Garry, and Lane stayed in Jonestown the night of Friday, November 17;
  • Following their arrival in Port Kaituma, three members of the media were approached by local Guyanese, including one reported to be a local police official. The Guyanese related stories of alleged beatings at Jonestown, complained that local Guyanese officials were denied entry to and had no authority in Jonestown, and described a "torture hole" in the compound.

On Saturday, November 18, the following chronological order of events took place:

  • Following breakfast, Ryan, Speier, and Dwyer continued their round of interviews with People's Temple members in the process of which they were approached by a People's Temple member who indicated to them secretly that she and her family wished to leave Jonestown;
  • The media group and Concerned Relatives returned to Jonestown from Port Kaituma aboard the People's Temple truck at approximately 11 a.m., several hours later than the schedule promised by Mr. Jones on Friday night. The media began to seek access to various Jonestown facilities. They also continued their interviews of Jim Jones and People's Temple individuals;
  • At about 3 or 3:30 p.m. a total of some 15 People's Temple members who had indicated their desire to leave boarded the truck for return to the Port Kaituma airstrip. Only Mr. Ryan and People's Temple lawyers Lane and Garry planned to remain in Jonestown 1 more night. It was at this point that an unsuccessful knife attack was made on Mr. Ryan's life. The attacker, identified as Don Sly, was fended off by Mr. Lane and others but cut himself in the process and Mr. Ryan's clothes were spattered with blood. After receiving Mr. Jones' assurance that the incident would be reported to local police, Mr. Ryan assured Jones that the attack would not substantially influence his overall impression of People's Temple. Despite the attack, Mr. Ryan reportedly planned to remain in Jonestown and eventually left only after virtually being ordered to do so by DCM Dwyer. In turn, Mr. Dwyer planned to return to Jonestown later in an effort to resolve a dispute between a family who was split on the question of leaving Jonestown;
  • Because of the unanticipated large number of defectors, an unexpected request was made to the Embassy in Georgetown at about noon Saturday for a second plane. A considerable effort was required by Embassy personnel to obtain the aircraft on such short notice;
  • The entire group, including the defectors, arrived at the Port Kaituma airstrip between 4:30 and 4:45 p.m. The planes, which were scheduled to be there on the group's arrival, did not arrive until approximately 5:10 p.m. A six-passenger Cessna was loaded and had taxied to the far end of the airstrip when one of the passengers in that plane, Larry Layton, a self-styled "defector," opened fire on its passengers. At approximately the same time, a People's Temple tractor and trailer which had arrived at the airstrip shortly before, was positioned near the twin-engine Otter aircraft onto which some had already boarded. The trailer occupants waved off local Guyanese who had gathered about and opened fire on the Ryan party. Mr. Ryan, three members of the media, and one of the defectors were killed; Miss Speier and nine others were wounded-five seriously. According to information received by the Staff Investigative Group, the shooting started at 5:20 p.m. (3:20 p.m. Washington time) and lasted about 4 to 5 minutes. The larger aircraft was disabled but the smaller Cessna took off in the ensuing confusion. The attackers left the airstrip and the survivors sought various cover and protection through the night under the direction of DCM Dwyer;
  • The evidence the Staff Investigative Group has indicates that very shortly after the Ryan group left Jonestown, Jones was in a highly agitated state. In an apparent attempt to calm the situation his wife, Marceline, urged everyone to go to their cabins to rest. But shortly thereafter everyone was ordered back to the Pavillion. On the basis of the evidence we estimate that the mass suicide/murder ritual began at about 5 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, Guyana time. It ultimately claimed 909 lives, including that of Jim Jones. Word of the Jonestown deaths reached Port Kaituma about 2 a.m. Sunday morning with the arrival of two survivors, Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes. At approximately 7:40 p.m., Saturday, Sherwin Harris, a member of the Concerned Relatives Group, was informed by Guyanese police officials that his ex-wife Sharon Amos and three of her children were found dead at the People's Temple headquarters in Georgetown;
  • Shortly after takeoff the Cessna aircraft radioed the Georgetown tower with news of the attack and Guyanese officials were informed. At about 6 p.m. Saturday, Prime Minister Forbes Burnham telephoned Ambassador Burke to request that he come immediately to his residence where he received word of the shooting. Ambassador Burke returned to the Embassy at 7:55 p.m., dictated a cable to the State Department which was sent at 8:30 p.m. (6:30p.m., e.s.t. Washington time). The text of that cable was subsequently read over the phone to a State Department official in Washington at approximately 8:40 p.m.;
  • The first contingent of Guyanese Army rescue forces arrived in Port Kaituma shortly after dawn (approximately 6 a.m.) on Sunday, November 19. The complete contingent of 120 soldiers were on the scene 1 hour later. The first Guyanese rescue aircraft landed at Port Kaituma without medical supplies or personnel at about 10 a.m. All of the wounded and most of the survivors were airlifted by Guyanese from Port Kaituma before the end of the day. On arrival in Georgetown, the wounded were transferred to waiting U.S. Air Force medical evacuation aircraft.
  • Earlier reports of the mass suicide/murders at Jonestown were confirmed late Sunday morning when Guyanese Army contingents arrived there.

1. "Codel" is an abbreviation for an official Congressional Delegation traveling overseas. (Back)

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