By late 1978, stories of abuse and mass suicide rehearsals in religious leader Jim Jones’ exiled community, located in a remote area of Guyana, had attracted the attention of the mainstream media and the concern and curiosity of a California Congressman.
In November of that year, Rep. Leo Ryan (D) embarked on a fact-finding mission to the Jonestown settlement on behalf of the International Relations Committee and concerned relatives of cult members. He was determined to investigate allegations of mental and physical abuse and bring to light the truth about Jones’ People’s Temple religious sect.
The visit to the village revealed a depressed and angry community, and Ryan left with approximately 15 defectors. In a shocking turn of events on the afternoon of Nov. 18, Ryan’s group, which also included journalists, relatives and aides, was ambushed by members of the cult on an airstrip in Port Kaituma. Ryan, three journalists and a defector were shot and killed, and numerous others were wounded, including Ryan aide Jackie Speier, now a California state Senator.
Just as the ambush was beginning, Jones ordered more than 900 people to drink cyanide-laced fruit juice in one of the largest mass suicides in history.
Former Roll Call columnist Karen Feld wrote that Ryan was “always looking, always questioning, always seeking answers. His fierce independence led his path from California to Washington as it also led his mission to Guyana.”