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Jonestown Revisited: Jackie Speier, a 40-Year-Old Audio, Heroism and Difficult Memories

Long-lost audio tape shows Rep. Ryan planned to rescue willing residents

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(Editor’s Note: Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of a still-shocking mass-killing that left more than 900 people dead in “Jonestown,” a remote settlement in Guyana founded by cult leader Jim Jones.  Most were poisoned  with a cyanide-laced drink.  Leo J. Ryan, a Democratic lawmaker from San Francisco, had traveled to Jonestown to investigate reports of people being held against their will in Jonestown. Ryan and four others were fatally shot at a nearby airstrip. Rep Jackie Speier, D-Calif., then a Ryan staffer, was among several more who were shot repeatedly and left for dead at the airstrip. The mass killing began soon afterwards.)

The 40-year-old audiotape sounded tinny and indistinct to Rep. Jackie Speier. In her Capitol Hill office, the California Democrat leaned forward in her chair to listen to the voices from the recording on the laptop computer.

On the tape were her former boss, Rep. Leo J. Ryan, her 28-year-old self and Debbie Layton Blakey, an escapee from the settlement in Guyana called Jonestown. Speier had not heard the recording since shortly after it was made on September 1, 1978. After the National Archives made the tape available a few years ago, Speier said she was eager to be one of the first to listen to it.

At the time of the recording, Ryan, 53, was investigating the Peoples Temple, the organization that moved its headquarters from northern California to the tiny South American coastal nation in July 1977; Speier was his staff legal advisor. The 25-year-old Blakey had been a Temple member, lived in Jonestown for four months, re-located to the capital Georgetown in March 1978 and fled the Temple and Guyana to the United States in mid-May 1978.

In June 1978, the San Francisco Chronicle published a story in which Blakey accused Temple leader Jim Jones of abuse and threatening to wipe out the community of 1,000 people. Speier and Ryan read the story in July, reached out to Blakey and met with her at a Wells Fargo branch in downtown San Francisco.

“There was a lot of stuff that went went on in the church and you’re afraid to leave,” Blakey told Ryan and Speier on the tape.

“Physical violence?” Ryan asked.

“Oh yeah, and you’re afraid to leave, because there’s this threat that they’ll either kill you or beat you up,” Blakey replied.

By now, Speier had leaned back in her chair. Fifteen minutes into the tape, Ryan asked Blakey why residents had not left Jonestown.

“Well, it’s not that simple, see. They’ve got armed guards. You can’t get out,” Blakey said.

“Do the armed guards shoot if anybody tries?” Ryan said. “Has that ever happened?”

“I don’t …” Blakey stammered.

Ryan raised his voice a pitch higher. “Do the armed guards shoot anybody?”

Picking up on the exchange, Speier had bent her right ear to the laptop. She looked sorrowful.

Her boss had anticipated the scenario which would result in his murder 78 days later.

A rescue mission

Ryan was more than victim, though. He planned to rescue Jonestown residents willing to escape.

“Okay, we were talking about not believing you,” Ryan said to Blakey. “Let’s suppose that I went down there, to Guyana, to Jonestown, and said, ‘If anybody wants to leave, they can leave with me right now and I will stay here until everyone who wants to leave has found a way to get out and I’ll provide some sort of transportation?”

Ryan paused. Then he raised his voice. “What would the result be?” he asked.

“I don’t think anyone would leave with you,” Blakey said.

Speier smiled after Ryan recognized Blakey’s doubts about her veracity.

Yet Speier betrayed little emotion while listening to 20 minutes of the 76-minute tape on Friday, just two days before the 40th anniversary of the tragedy.  Her eyes moistened talking about Ryan after hearing the tape, but she mostly kept her feelings in check.

“It makes me very sad. You could tell, he was very probing that was part and parcel of his personality and there was an impatience you could hear on the tape,” she said of Ryan. “He wanted things to move. He wanted action and he sought truth.”

Blakey had warned federal authorities that Jones planned to kill everyone in Jonestown.

On November 18, 1978, Jones led 908 of his followers into a mass-murder and suicide.

Before Jones killed everyone, Ryan and Speier had contributed to rescuing 25 people.

Before Ryan could escort some the defectors to safety, he was murdered by the same armed guards he had asked Blakey about.

Speier was shot five times on her right side.

“Those people we did rescue, but there were 40 other people who wanted to leave the community who couldn’t get out,” Speier said. “We were ill-prepared.”

Speier has been an uneasy hero. Some Americans may think of Capitol Hill as filled with self-promoting hucksters. Yet Speier has downplayed her heroism. While she acknowledged her role in saving abuse victims at Jonestown, she declined to make this point in her new memoir, “Undaunted.”

Instead, Speier, 68, has emphasized her other personas. She is a survivor of tragedies.

‘Women are tough in my family …’

“Women are tough in my family. We’ve had to be,” she said in the opening of the book, which she echoed in the book’s last lines.

She was an abuse victim. When she was 5 or 6 years old, she was molested by her paternal grandfather.

She is a leader on women’s issues, such as those related to the #MeToo movement.

In person, Speier recognizes Ryan and her role in his investigation as heroic. While she has said that Ryan declined to listen to her warnings about the trip, she has shown reverence for him on Capitol Hill.

On the wall to the right of the Catholic lawmaker’s desk which looks out at the National Mall are 5×7 pictures of Mother Theresa and Ryan side by side. Last year, Speier pushed for the House Democratic cloakroom to be christened with Ryan’s name on it as well as that of Rep. Gabriel Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who survived a gunman’s murder attempt.

“He was heroic. There’s no doubt in mind,” Speier said of her former boss.

Some members of Congress agree. In 1983, Congress awarded a gold medal posthumously to Ryan, one of the two highest civilian awards.

“Leo Ryan did it and went there for his constituents,” Rep. Charles Rangel, a retired New York Democrat said in a December 2016 interview. “He had more concern for human life than any priest or rabbi.”

Blakey, too, agreed. “I’m glad they went to Jonestown,” Blakey said in an interview.

Speier said she admired Ryan’s lonely stand for Jonestown residents, some of who were Ryan’s constituents.

Some academics have accused Ryan of precipitating the disaster, such as John R. Hall, in his book, “Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History.”

Speier rejected that idea.

She said that San Francisco politicians failed to hold Jones accountable before he fled to Guyana in July 1977.

“Elected officials in San Francisco put their political interests ahead of their public duties to enforce the laws,” she said.

At the same time that Ryan investigated Jonestown, California state Assemblyman Willie Brown was organizing a $25-a-plate fundraiser for the Peoples Temple in San Francisco, with comedy legend Dick Gregory as a headlining act and city supervisor Harvey Milk as a scheduled attendee.

Speier said that State Department officials failed to hold Jones accountable after he moved to the remote northwestern province of Guyana.

“The State Department did not do its job,” she said. “They had a duty to warn, a duty to investigate, a duty to protect, and they failed on all three of those.”

While Speier has downplayed her role, and Ryan’s, outside Capitol Hill, she has grim reminders of them every day.

Two dum-dum bullets remain lodged in her body. On the wall out of her Capitol Hill office is a 1 x 3-inch chunk of concrete from the Port Kaituma airstrip where she watched Ryan die.

Speier said she takes off the anniversary of the massacre.

That’s Sunday this year. She plans to attend Golden Gate Cemetery in San Bruno, where Ryan is buried.

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