FREEHOLD — For many, the date of Nov. 18 passes each year without much thought.
For 74-year-old Shannon Ryan Torphy, it always passes with a recollection of her older brother, Leo and the Nov. 18, 1978, shooting in Jonestown, Guyana, that killed him.
“I remember . . . I always remember. He was my brother and I lost him,” she said recently while seated on a couch of her room at the Brookside Assisted Living facility in Freehold.
It was on that date that California Democratic Congressman Leo Ryan, 53, was gunned down by members of the Rev. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in Guyana, South America.
Ryan had led a delegation of reporters and relatives of temple members on a fact-finding mission to the jungle compound to investigate reports from constituents and family members that those living at the religious settlement were not permitted to leave and were punished if they failed to work hard enough. Jones had established the settlement of 1,200 Americans in Guyana the year before.
The group arrived on Nov. 17, 1978. But as they were leaving the following afternoon, they were ambushed by Jones’ followers on the airstrip in Port Kaituma, Guyana. Ryan, three journalists and a camp defector were killed.
The attack was followed by the mass murder-suicide of more than 900 of Jones’ followers, who drank cyanide-poisoned punch at his order. Jones was found shot to death.
Ryan Torphy, who was 48 and lived in Colts Neck at the time, said she was alerted by her sister at midnight on Nov. 19 that Leo Ryan had been shot when leaving Jonestown. She learned later that morning that he had died. But she had an earlier premonition.
“At 2 a.m., I felt in my own heart . . . I knew he had died. I felt at that time that he had succumbed,” she said. “I took it with a lot of unhappiness.”
She and her family attended her brother’s funeral in the San Francisco area. She said she was surprised not only by the number of supportive people but the “outgrowth of real, honest sorrow.”
Ryan, who was five years her senior and her only brother, was like a father-figure, she said, because her father had died when she was young.
For years after his death, Ryan Torphy said, she religiously followed all news connected to Jonestown.
“I wanted every bit of information that came out after his shooting to know for my own purposes what was going on,” she said.
After his death, Ryan Torphy and her family had three goals: to push for congressional hearings on events leading up to Ryan’s killing and the mass suicide; to see that her brother was recognized by Congress; and to follow the prosecution of Larry Layton, a People’s Temple member who posed as a defector but shot and wounded those at the airstrip.
Ryan is the only member of Congress to have been killed in the line of duty and was posthumously recognized in the 1980s with a congressional award presented by then-President Ronald Reagan. Ryan Torphy said she attended the presentation of the medal in Washington, D.C.
She also attended the congressional hearings on Jonestown. A congressional report on the tragedy criticized both the State Department and the U.S. Embassy for failing to properly respond to information received about events there.
Finally, Layton, the only temple member tried and convicted in the United States, was sentenced to life in prison in 1987 for his role in Ryan’s murder.
Ryan Torphy is proud of her brother. She said she believed he was successful in raising awareness that cults exist and can be dangerous.
“People did not know about it,” she said. ‘It was not a popular thing to think about. You didn’t want to think about things that were unpleasant.
“He was a good politician,” she added. “He was for the people. Leo was a politician I think would have gone on to higher political aspirations. He’s missed a great deal,” she said, adding that Thursday, the anniversary, was spent remembering him.