Before the 9/11 Islamic extremist terrorist attacks, one of the biggest losses of American civilian life was the Jonestown Massacre in 1978. At its heart was Jim Jones, whose San Francisco- based cult became largely untouchable because of his political influence. As rumors spread about abuses within his church, Jones left the country with hundreds of followers to start a socialist Utopia in South America. A young Congressional aide named Jackie Speier was part of a group investigating Jonestown 41 years ago and survived the massacre. Today she’s a Congresswoman herself and tells her story in the new book Undaunted.
By the mid-70’s, Jim Jones had attracted 20,000 followers to his San Francisco church preaching against capitalism and what he called a racist America.
Jim Jones: But anything I hate is a funky middle-of-the-road liberal that won’t stand up for anything and falls for everything. Peace. But I believe that the only honorable thing is to be a socialist, an international socialist.
Voices in crowd: Right.
Rep. Jackie Speier: I was Legislative Council to Congressman Leo Ryan at the time and he had constituents who had gotten involved in the church and their parents— typically cause these were young adults who had gotten involved— were very concerned about them.
Sharyl: You said that someone named Debbie who had actually worked for Jim Jones or the People's Temple came to your offices and told a story about Jones telling his followers that they had to kill themselves— this is before the actual event. And acknowledged that she'd felt coerced to stand in line, to drink a red liquid that he handed out to people meant to kill her in a matter of minutes. When the time of their supposed deaths came and went with everybody alive, Jones said it had all just been a drill to test their loyalty. When you heard that, what thoughts were you thinking and Congressman Ryan thinking about?
Rep. Jackie Speier: Well, we had heard about beatings. We had heard about sexual abuse. So, this was just consistent with a man who had been able to impose this mind control on people.
Sharyl: Jim Jones had political clout at the time. Is that fair to say? Is that why maybe some of this got out of hand without people getting a grip on it, do you think?
Rep. Jackie Speier: So, I blame two spheres. I blame the local political power base in San Francisco, both the elected and the law enforcement that looked the other way, because Jim Jones could deliver 2,000 people to walk precincts for you at a moment's notice. And then I blame the State Department that was given ample warning that there were problems there and they basically looked the other way.
Jones eventually fled to Guyana, South America with 900 church members and promised a socialist, utopian escape. But his followers found themselves trapped. On Nov. 14, 1978 a delegation including family members, press, Congressman Ryan, and Speier, his aide, flew to Guyana to investigate.
Rep. Jackie Speier: So I thought there was danger before we even left.
Sharyl: How old were you?
Rep. Jackie Speier: I was 28. So I made the purchase of a condominium in Arlington, Virginia, contingent on my surviving the trip to Guyana. I left a note in my desk drawer for my parents. So I had a strong sense that this was very dangerous. So you should always listen to your intuition.
At Jonestown, Congressman Ryan made a speech offering safe passage home for anyone who wanted to leave.
Congressman Ryan: I’m very glad to be here. This is a Congressional inquiry. I think you know that I am here to find out more about questions that have been raised about your operation here.
All seemed calm — on the surface.
Rep. Jackie Speier: Meanwhile, one of NBC reporters was walking around the outside of the pavilion, smoking a cigarette and one person slipped him a note and it had the names of two people that wanted to leave. So at the end of the evening, he brought this note to us and my heart sank because our fears were being realized. There were people there being held against their will. So the next day as we were preparing to help them escape, more people wanted to leave and more people wanted to leave. So it became a powder keg of emotion and tension. And I just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.
The next day, Congressman Ryan survived a knifing attempt by a cult member. The mission to evacuate 19 defectors grew urgent.
Rep. Jackie Speier: At that point I'm loading passengers onto the two planes that we have on the airstrip. And my back is turned to the area where a tractor trailer came onto the airstrip with seven gunman and they started shooting. So at first I didn't even know what was happening. And then when I turned around and Congressman Ryan had been hit and was blood coming out of his neck. I turned to reach him and he fell. And then I ran under the plane and hid behind a wheel.
Sharyl: You had been shot?
Rep. Jackie Speier: I was shot five times.
Sharyl: Did you know that right away?
Rep. Jackie Speier: Well, I was lying on the air strip, hiding behind a wheel, pretending I was dead and they just came and shot me at point blank range. So the whole right side of my body was just destroyed.
13 cult members had attacked— killing a defector, a San Francisco Examiner photographer, an NBC News reporter and a cameraman, and Congressman Ryan — who was shot more than 20 times. Eleven were injured.
Sharyl: How did you get out?
Rep. Jackie Speier: 22 hours on that airstrip with no medical attention. And eventually there was a chartered plane that took us out to the capital of Guyana - Georgetown. And there was a US medevac plane waiting; this white, shiny plane with the words United States of America. And it was, if someone had just wrapped me in the American flag.
Meantime, Jones prompted cult members who stayed— to line up and drink a poison-laced flavored drink. The horrific event recorded on audiotapes.
Jim Jones: No, no sorrow that it’s all over. I’m glad it’s over Hurry, hurry my children, hurry. All I say, let’s not fall in the hands of the enemy. Hurry, my children.
Some who wouldn’t drink were injected with poison.
Jim Jones: Quickly, quickly, quickly, quickly, quickly!
Jones died from a gunshot to the head. The final death count: 913 people including 300 children.
Rep. Jackie Speier: I'm lying on this airstrip dying and I just kept flashing on all the faces of people that still wanted to leave that never got out.
Sharyl: You’ve written that when you hear it called a mass suicide, that makes you angry.
Rep. Jackie Speier: It does because there was not free will there. Mind control was his way of controlling people. There were gunmen surrounding everybody. These people were murdered. The children were injected with the cyanide laced Kool-Aid or were given cyanide directly. Everyone else drank the cyanide laced Kool-Aid. Not by choice.
Sharyl: How did that experience do you think shape the kind of legislator you are today?
Rep. Jackie Speier: Well when you’ve looked death in the eye, you’re not afraid of anything. And the book is really about resilience, overcoming obstacles. Because that experience in Guyana was only one in a series of events in my life that were traumatic. I was sexually abused by my grandfather as a young child, my first husband was killed in an automobile accident when I was pregnant with our second child. I had two miscarriages I was a single mom for eight years. We have more resilience than we think we have. And not that anyone should necessarily be tested, but there’s hope. There’s reason to be very hopeful.
Speier was elected to Congress in 2008. The only one ever prosecuted for the shootings was cult member Larry Layton who said he'd been brainwashed. He was released from prison in 2002.