WASHINGTON – 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.
Forty years later, Speier still remembers why she decided to get on a plane to go down on the ill-fated congressional trip.
“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.’ ”
As a staffer, Speier spent time listening to stories from constituents worried about their loved ones who had gone to Guyana and not been heard from again. She also heard from people who had left Jonestown, and told stories about Jones’ violent side and the arms and ammunition he was amassing.
Working with the State Department ahead of the trip, however, no one advised Speier of the potential danger.
“The State Department was really flat-footed,” Speier said. “They were more interested in making sure the prime minister, [Forbes Burnham], who was Marxist, was kept happy.”
Still, Speier had an inkling of the risks involved based on the stories she’d heard.
She was in the process of buying her first home, a condo in Virginia, and she included language in her signing papers saying that if she did not return from Guyana alive, the contract would be void.
“I didn’t want my parents to be saddled with this piece of real estate across the country,” the Californian said.
When the group arrived in Georgetown, Guyana, Speier said they waited two days for permission from Jim Jones to visit. She recalled Jones’ wife taking them on a tour.
The desire to escape
“As the evening went on and they had entertainment, we were in the corner interviewing people. There was a long list of family members who wanted us to check on their children,” she said.
Then a note was passed to Don Harris, a reporter on the trip. People wanted to leave.
“Don comes over, hands us the note. My heart sank,” Speier said. “Everything those defectors said is true. Then more people wanted to leave and the whole thing exploded. It was such a tinderbox of emotions and tension. It became clear that one plane wasn’t going to be enough. The congressman decided he was going to stay behind, [and take] the next airlift out. It was so emotionally raw.”
Speier described Jones as “agitated.” Larry Layton — one of Jones’ top operatives, whose sister Debbie, had defected — claimed he wanted to leave too, but Speier didn’t trust him.
“I just knew there was something wrong,” she said. “We get to the airstrip, I started loading passengers on both planes. I turned to Ryan and said, ‘I don’t want Layton on our plane.’ ”
Ryan suggested that Layton fly on the other plane. As Speier started to board passengers, a young Guyanese child ran on the plane. She recalled trying to coax him off.
That was what she was doing when a tractor trailer drove on to the airstrip and people started shooting.
“People ran into the bush,” she said. “I followed Ryan under the plane and hid under one of the wheels.”
Waiting through the night
Speier and others were shot at point-blank range. Ryan and four others, including Harris, were dead. The survivors waited, supporting one another through the night.
Speier had a long recovery ahead. Shot five times, she spent two months in the hospital and had 10 surgeries, all with 24 hour protection from the U.S. Marshals Service — because of threats to her life.
“It was the most incredible welcome,” when she returned home. “I thought to myself, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life a victim of Guyana. I want to be a survivor.”
Candidates, including a co-worker of Speier’s, were lining up for the special election to replace Ryan. “On that Monday, the very last day, I decided to run to carry out his legacy,” Speier said. She didn’t win.
The following year, she ran for the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, beating a 20-year incumbent, then later served in the California Assembly. “I never had any intention of returning to Washington,” she said.
But Congress called to her again after the death of Rep. Tom Lantos, who held Ryan’s seat for 27 years. She was elected to fill Lantos’ seat in a special election in April 2008.
Jonestown had ceased to define her. “I had spent 24 years in elected office; I had moved beyond being a survivor. It’s part of my life story, but it’s a small part of my life story,” she said.
Speier thinks more can be done to ensure nothing like Jonestown ever happens again.
“Nine hundred American citizens lost their lives. They were not suicides, they were murder,” Speier said. “It wasn’t that [U.S. officials] weren’t tipped off that there were problems; they were.”
She is now a member of the Intelligence Committee and has seen secret files on Jonestown. “It was mishandled on a number of levels,” she said.