30 years later Jonestown still affecting Californians

Palo Alto Daily News/November 14, 2008

Thirty years after 900 people died at the remote Jonestown settlement in a South American jungle, the shocking event still reverberates in Northern California.

Rep. Leo Ryan, whose assassination Nov. 18, 1978 on an airport tarmac near the settlement triggered the murders and suicides that brought an end to charismatic leader Jim Jones and his cult followers in Guyana, will be honored Monday when Rep. Jackie Speier hosts a ceremony renaming the U.S. Post Office on Ellsworth Avenue in San Mateo after him. Speier, then a staff aide to Ryan, also sustained five gunshot wounds on the tarmac and required long-term hospitalization and years of physical therapy for her injuries.

Meanwhile, one of Ryan's former staff assistants who spent months probing Jones' Peoples Temple in San Francisco has emerged to reveal that threats on his life he received that fateful day turned his life upside down.

"There are two stories here," said William Holsinger, the former assistant. "One is Peoples Temple and Jonestown and the other is this extraordinary man Leo Ryan."

Holsinger, today a 57-year-old San Mateo lawyer, added that Ryan "literally sacrificed his life for his constituents in a way that no other member of Congress ever had."

Ryan and others wanted to get to the bottom of rumors that Jones had brainwashed and abused members of his colony.

Jones founded the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis in the 1950s but later moved the group to Northern California, where it attracted more followers and established a regular presence in San Francisco's political scene. In the late 1970s, most members followed Jones to Guyana to participate in an agricultural project at Jonestown.

When Ryan and Speier traveled to Guyana to investigate the Peoples Temple, they were accompanied by journalists and relatives of some of Jones' followers.

The group arrived in Guyana on Nov. 14 and three days later gained access to Jonestown, where it interviewed Jones and some of the settlement's 900 residents. Things appeared to be going smoothly, with a special dinner, musical presentation and warmly received speech by Ryan, until a number of Jonestown residents told the visitors they wanted to return to the United States.

Ryan arranged for about 16 temple members to leave the settlement with his group.

On Nov. 18, members of the Jonestown security unit shot and killed Ryan, three journalists and one defector as they attempted to leave an airstrip near the settlement on two planes. The gunmen injured 10 other people, including Speier, who sustained five gunshot wounds.

Holsinger said his wife received three threatening phone calls at their home in San Francisco's Richmond District that same afternoon.

"Tell your husband that his meal ticket just had his brains blown out, and he better be careful," the caller allegedly said.

The caller was reportedly a young, well-spoken man with a slight Southern accent - clues Holsinger said he used to identify the person in sealed congressional testimony as a known member of the Peoples Temple in San Francisco.

At the time of the calls, Holsinger had been interviewing members of the Concerned Relatives group, as well as investigating the temple's tax-exempt status and its alleged cache of weapons.

He arranged for patrol cars from the San Francisco Police Department and the California Highway Patrol to escort his wife and young son from San Francisco to Palo Alto. The couple then spent a few days in Lake Tahoe and later holed up at a ranch in Houston.

They never returned to their home in San Francisco and arranged for movers to take their belongings to Foster City without knowing the destination in advance. They survived those months as a couple but split up a year later.

"From my perspective, I think it was just taking caution," Holsinger said "If there was a determined and coordinated conspiracy to do harm, they could find you."

James Reston Jr., author of the 1981 book on Jonestown "Our Father Who Art in Hell" and a radio documentary on the subject, said people who received threats "had a real, genuine reason to be afraid.

"That was a tyranny of the mind like we've never seen before in America," Reston said. "There were all kinds of intimidation going on, and people had reason to think they could back it up."

But Dr. John Hall, a University of California, Davis professor who wrote the 1989 book "Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History," said such threats require a healthy amount of skepticism since both followers and opponents of the Peoples Temple engaged in "political dirty tricks, including threatening phone calls that claimed to be from one party and were from another."

When Ryan and the others arrived in Jonestown, Jones was taking massive amounts of drugs and falling apart both physically and mentally, Reston said. A doctor who visited the camp in August said Jones would likely die before the end of 1978.

By November, the Peoples Temple already had acquired the poison they would imbibe with punch and had conducted suicide drills, but Ryan's visit gave Jones the excuse he was looking for to incite the killings and suicides, Reston said.

Jones "wanted to die in a grand way so he would be remembered by history," Reston said. "Ryan was the provocation - that's how Jim Jones could whip up the community into this fervor.

"It would not have happened had Ryan not gone down there personally," Reston added. "From a cold historical standpoint "... yes, he is responsible."

Dr. Rebecca Moore, a San Diego State University professor who maintains an extensive Web page on Jonestown and wrote the upcoming book "Understanding Jonestown and Peoples Temple," agreed that Ryan arrived "at the worst possible time."

By the time Ryan arrived, the community had become demoralized by Jones' physical and mental decline and what appeared to be increasing pressure from outside to shut the settlement down, Moore said. That fall, members felt beleaguered by a number of lawsuits and perceived threats from the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Communications Commission to revoke the temple's tax-exempt status and take away its short-wave radio permits, she added.

"The larger question that we should ask is what would have happened if relatives or the media hadn't pressured the community?" Moore said. "If they had tried different means, would they have succeeded, and would 900 people be alive today?"

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