Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jonestown Massacre: A 'Reason' to Die

The Official Story

The first reports out of Guyana on November 18, 1978 were that Congressman Leo J. Ryan and four other members of his party were shot and killed as they attempted to board a plane at Port Kaituma airstrip. Within hours, came the shocking announcement that 408 American citizens had committed suicide at a communal village they had built in the jungle in Northwest Guyana. The community had come to be known as "Jonestown." The dead were all members of a group known as "The People's Temple" which was led by the Reverend Jim Jones. It would soon be learned that 913 of the 1100 people believed to have been at "Jonestown" at the time had died in a mass suicide.

According to the official report submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives on May 15, 1979, the chain of events leading to Leo Ryan's death in Guyana began a year earlier, after he read an article in the San Francisco Examiner on 13 November 1977. The article entitled "Scared Too Long" related the death of Sam Houston's son, Bob, in October 1976. Houston had decided to speak out about his son's death because he believed that the reason Bob had died, beneath the wheels of a train, was because he had announced his decision to leave the People's Temple the day before. Houston was also concerned that his two granddaughters, sent to New York for a vacation, had ended up in "Jonestown," Guyana and never returned.

Over the ensuing six to eight months, Ryan would hear more about the People's Temple through newspaper articles and from direct requests for assistance from concerned families whose relatives had disappeared into the Guyana jungle to join the "Jonestown" community. There were claims of social security irregularities, human rights violations and that people were being held against their will at "Jonestown." In June 1978, Ryan read excerpts from the sworn affidavit of Debbie Blakey, a defector from "Jonestown," which included claims that the community at "Jonestown" had, on a number of occasions, rehearsed for a mass suicide. After meeting with a number of concerned relatives, Ryan's interest in the People's Temple became widely known and the reports about the group, both favourable and unfavourable, began to pour in. He hired an attorney to interview former People's Temple members and the relatives of members to determine whether there had been any violations of Federal and California state laws by the group.

In September 1978, Ryan met with Viron P. Vaky and other State Department officials to discuss the possibility of Ryan making a trip to "Jonestown" in Guyana. This request was made official on 4 October. Permission was granted and the trip was planned for the week of November 12-18. Ryan's intention to visit "Jonestown" soon became widely known and the numbers wishing to accompany him had grown substantially. By the time of his departure there were nine extra media people and 18 representatives from a delegation of Concerned Relatives who would go with him, at their own expense. The official party, or Codel, consisted of Ryan, James Schollaert and Jackie Speier, Ryan's personal assistant.

In the days of preparation for the trip to "Jonestown," Ryan contacted Jim Jones by telegraph to inform him of his intention to visit the settlement. Through the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, Ryan learned that agreement for the visit was conditional. Ryan would have to ensure that the Codel was not biased, there would be no media coverage of the visit and Mark Lane, the People's Temple legal counsel, would have to be present. On 6 November, Lane wrote to Ryan and informed him that he would not be able to attend at the time they wanted, and claimed that the Codel was nothing more than a "witchhunt" against the People's Temple. Ryan responded with a declaration of his intentions to visit the settlement anyway and that he would be leaving on 14 November.

Problems began for the group as soon as they arrived in Guyana at midnight. Ron Javers from the San Francisco Chronicle was detained overnight at the airport, as he did not have an entry visa. The group of Concerned Relatives, despite having confirmed reservations, had to spend the night in the lobby of the Pegasus Hotel in Georgetown, because there were no rooms available for them. Over the next two and a half days, Ryan met with Embassy personnel and organised a meeting with Ambassador Burke and the Concerned Relatives. He and the family members attempted to speak with a representative of the People's Temple at their headquarters in Georgetown, but could not gain entry. In addition, Ryan was unable to negotiate successfully with Lane or Garry, another legal representative of the People's Temple, resulting in the postponement of the scheduled flight to the mission until Friday 17 November.

The negotiations still had made no headway on Friday morning, so Ryan informed Lane and Garry that he and his party would be leaving for "Jonestown" at 2:30 pm. There were two seats on the plane if Lane and Garry wished to leave with them. The plane left as scheduled at 2:30 pm that day. On board were Ryan, Speier, Deputy Chief of Mission, Richard Dwyer, Lane and Garry, all nine media representatives, four representatives of the Concerned Relatives group, and Neville Annibourne, a representative of the Guyanese Government.

At the Port Kaituma airstrip, Corporal Rudder, the Guyanese Regional Officer of the Northwest district, met the plane. His instructions from "Jonestown" were that only Lane and Garry were to be allowed to leave the plane. Negotiations as to who would be allowed entry into "Jonestown" then ensued between Ryan and "Jonestown" representatives who were at the airport. Eventually it was agreed that all but one media representative could go. Gordon Lindsay, consulting for NBC on the story, was denied entry because of an article he had written in the past that had criticised the People's Temple.

Upon their arrival at "Jonestown," the delegation was served dinner and entertained by a musical presentation by People's Temple members. As the evening progressed, reporters interviewed Jim Jones while Ryan and Speier talked to People's Temple members whose names had been provided by relatives in the U.S. During the course of the evening, a "Jonestown" member passed a note to NBC reporter Don Harris indicating that he and his family wished to leave. Another member made a similar verbal request to Dwyer. Both requests were reported to Ryan.

At 11:00 pm, the media and family representatives were returned to Port Kaituma as Jim Jones refused to allow them to spend the night on the compound. Ryan, Speier, Dwyer, Annibourne, Lane and Garry were the only ones who spent the night of Friday, 17 November at "Jonestown."

Back at Port Kaituma, local Guyanese, including one police official who told stories of alleged beatings at "Jonestown", approached media representatives. They complained that Guyanese officials were denied entry to the compound and had no authority there. They also described a "torture hole" in the compound.

The media and relatives were not returned to "Jonestown" until 11:00 am the next day, several hours later than planned. Ryan had continued interviewing members since early in the morning, during which time more individuals told of their desire to leave. By 3:00 pm there were a total of 15 People's Temple members climbing into the trucks with the delegation to drive to Port Kaituma airport. Ryan had intended to stay but was attacked by a People's Temple member, Don Sly, with a knife. He was not hurt but Dwyer insisted that Ryan leave with them. Dwyer planned to return to "Jonestown" later to resolve a dispute with a family who was split on the question of leaving Jonestown.

The party arrived at Port Kaituma airport at about 4:30 pm but the two planes did not arrive until about 5:10 pm. The delay had been caused by the unexpected request to the US Embassy for a second plane to carry the extra fifteen passengers. Soon after its arrival, a six-passenger Cessna was loaded and ready to leave. As it began to taxi to the far end of the airstrip, one of the "Jonestown" defectors on board, Larry Layton, opened fire on the other passengers.

At the same time, as Ryan's party were boarding the other plane, a twin-engine Otter, occupants of a tractor and trailer owned by the People's Temple, opened fire. Ryan, three members of the media and one of the defectors were killed. Speier and five others were seriously wounded. The shooting lasted between 4-5 minutes and the larger plane was disabled. The Cessna was able to take off and reported news of the attack to controllers at the Georgetown tower. They in turn notified the Guyanese officials. The attackers left the airport soon after, while survivors of the attack sought cover and protection for the night.

According to the official report, the mass suicide began at about 5:00 pm as the shooting was beginning at the airport. At about 6:00 pm, Ambassador Burke was informed of the shooting. He, in turn, informed the US State Department at 8:30 pm by cable. At approximately 7:40 pm, Guyanese police told Sherwin Harris, a member of the Concerned Relatives Group, that his ex-wife Sharon Amos and three of her children were found dead at the People's Temple headquarters in Georgetown.

Word of the deaths at "Jonestown" reached Port Kaituma at about 2:00 am on Sunday morning when survivors Stanley Clayton and Odell Rhodes arrived there.

Congressman Leo J. Ryan
Congressman Leo J. Ryan

At dawn, Sunday, 19 November, the first contingent of Guyanese Army rescue forces arrived in Port Kaituma. More soldiers arrived within the hour. Their arrival later in the morning at "Jonestown" confirmed earlier reports of the mass suicide. The first Guyanese rescue aircraft landed at Port Kaituma, without medical supplies or personnel, at about 10:00 am. All of the wounded and most of the survivors were airlifted from Port Kaituma before nightfall and transferred to US Air Force medical evacuation aircraft in Georgetown.



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