Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Speier spoke out Thursday about the discovery of the cremated remains of nine victims who died during the Jonestown massacre more than 35 years ago. The remains were found in a defunct funeral home in Dover, Delaware.
Speier survived an attack during a 1978 fact-finding mission to Jonestown, Guyana, which killed U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan of California, three newsmen and a defector from the group headed by Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones. Following the attack, Jones orchestrated a ritual of mass murder and suicide at the temple's nearby agricultural commune, ordering followers to drink cyanide-laced grape punch. Most complied, although survivors described some people being shot, injected with poison, or forced to drink the deadly beverage when they tried to resist.
For Speier, news of the discovery brought back memories of a tragedy that killed hundreds of children and horrified Americans. "It's heartbreaking to think that even in death the victims of the Guyana tragedy have gone unclaimed, unnoticed, unconnected with their loved ones,” Speier told NBC Bay Area.
When they were alive, many of them became disconnected with their family members because Jones was such a purveyor of chicanery and would lure people into his "church," Speier said. "Of course, once they were engulfed in his web, they lost all sense of self and mind control became a key component of how he was able to control 900 plus people for so long,” she said.
Jonestown Massacre Remembered Jonestown Massacre Remembered
The remains found in Dover were clearly marked, with the names of the deceased and place of their death included on accompanying death certificates, authorities said. Kimberly Chandler, spokeswoman for the Delaware Division of Forensic Science, declined to release the names of the nine people to The Associated Press. She said officials were working to notify relatives.
Jonestown Massacre Victim Remains Found in Delaware
"It's simply a case of unclaimed cremains at a closed funeral home," Chandler said.
In 1978, the U.S. Military brought all the Jonestown remains to Dover Air Force Base for distribution to families. “I am assuming that’s why they ended up in a Dover funeral home,” Speier said.
As for why the cremains were never connected with their family members, Speier said that once all the bodies were returned to the United States, they were not properly cremated or not properly connected with their family members.
“Many of them were disassociated with their families because of a myriad of reasons,” Speier said, adding that the Delaware funeral home which reportedly went bankrupt may not have done the due diligence in terms of trying to connect the cremains with their relatives.
Speier said it was the state of Delaware’s responsibility to investigate what exactly went on with the cremains at the funeral home and why their families were never notified.
“It’s another sad commentary on a very tragic event in our history,” Speier said.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.
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