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Congresswoman Left for Dead at Jonestown Recalls the Massacre, 37 Years Later

(Bettmann/Corbis /AP Images)

This story was updated on Nov. 20, 2019 | Rep. Jackie Speier knows exactly how it feels to be left for dead.

On Nov. 18, 1978, she was shot five times on a remote airstrip in Guyana, South America. Her boss, Rep. Leo J. Ryan and four others lay dead nearby, killed by gunfire as they tried to escape Jonestown, the commune built by cult leader Jim Jones.

Nearly 40 years later, Speier still remembers why she decided to get on a plane to go down on the ill-fated congressional trip.

[Also read: Jonestown — Government inaction haunts 41 years after grisly deaths]

“Back in 1978, there were not many women in high-ranking positions in Congress," said Speier, who was legislative counsel for Ryan at the time. "I felt if I didn’t go, it would be a step back for women holding these high positions. I thought, 'I can’t not go.'”  

So she went, accompanying Ryan and 23 other people to Guyana, on the northeastern coast of South America, attempting to visit Jim Jones and nearly 1,000 followers he’d amassed.  

By the end of the trip, Ryan was dead — the first and only congressman to be assassinated in office — along with three journalists and one cult defector. Speier and nine others had been shot and left for dead at a remote airstrip;  they waited 22 hours for help to arrive.  

Immediately following the shootings, Jones and more than 900 of his followers died from self-inflicted cyanide poisoning in what was seen as a mass suicide at the time, but is now widely considered a mass murder.  

The Ryan congressional delegation had no military escort. The State Department had given neither a warning nor protection.  

Speier has occupied Ryan’s former seat in Congress since 2008. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, she noted that while much has changed, some fundamental questions about Jonestown remain unanswered.