Erin Ryan wants father to be appreciated

Erin Ryan was a 21-year-old student at Georgetown University when her father, Democratic Rep. Leo J. Ryan, was murdered on an isolated airstrip in Guyana by followers of the Rev. Jim Jones.

She heard of her father’s death from a television news report.

“It was a very sensational story, it was huge,” said Ryan, sitting this month in Leo J. Ryan Park in Foster City. “It bothered us at the time that much of the coverage didn’t appreciate him or what he did or why he was doing it.” Today, she would like to change that.

Ironically, Erin Ryan now works as a legislative aide to State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who in 1978 served as legal counsel to her father. Speier was wounded in the ambush that killed Leo Ryan.

Ryan’s family underwent years of turmoil after her father’s death. Her sister Shannon changed her name to Jasmine and joined a cult – which baffled many in the family. Her other sister, Patricia, became a leader in the anti-cult movement as president of the Cult Awareness Network.

But Ryan separated herself in her career. She attended law school at UC’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and got a job as an intelligence analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, where she worked for eight years until 1992.

After leaving the CIA, Ryan embarked on an eight-year career as a pastry chef in New York City. But the world of politics beckoned to her and she jonied Sen. Speier’s staff.

In the years following his death, each anniversary made Ryan just want to forget. “But now I feel there’s a whole generation who doesn’t know anything about Jonestown and how it happened,” she said. “I do think that the underlying events and causes of Jonestown can happen again and have happened on lesser scales.”

In addition, Ryan wants people to know the truth about her father.

“He went to Watts after the riots in L.A. while he was in the state Assembly and taught as a substitute teacher because he wanted to know firsthand what was going on,” she said. “He also spent a week on Death Row in Folsom Prison investigating prison conditions.”

Ryan said she thinks this 25th anniversary of Jonestown will be the last time it gets any attention. She and her sisters have discussed writing a book about their father, but no plans are in the works.

Ryan said she might be interested at some point in running for her father’s former congressional seat.

“But I don’t think (Rep.) Tom Lantos will be giving it up anytime soon.”

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