By Ryan McCarthy
Leo Ryan was a homegrown political success story – a large Irishman with a booming voice who dominated San Mateo County politics in a congressional district that encompassed all of the county.
A true maverick, never played along to get along, the time-honored way of succeeding in the U.S. Congress.
His career was marked most distinctly by his crusading nature. He was unafraid to venture places an elected official never went – Folsom Prison, where he posed as an inmate to push for prison reform; the Arctic Circle, where he personally confronted hunters who were clubbing baby seals to death.
His constituents loved all of it. In the 1972 election, he was the nominee of both the Democratic and Republican parties.
He believed he could go anywhere and do anything and the attendant publicity would raise his own profile, and, not incidentally, focus attention on an important issue.
Wherever he went, he believed his office would protect him.
It was a fatal miscalculation. But he was compelled by his constituents, many of whom had expressed directly to him their fear over what was going on at the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, a remote outpost in an obscure South American nation not far removed from colonial status.
They were Peninsula mothers and fathers, who had come to his office, often in tears, terrified that their sons and daughters were in danger, being misled by a mad man.
Somebody had to do something.
Leo Ryan was that somebody.
When the news began to trickle about the fullness of the tragedy of Jonestown, it seemed like a story from a faraway place.
But, it was a local, Peninsula story. It was our story.
Rosalie Wright left her home in Belmont, moved into the Stanford Court Hotel in San Francisco and bought a Beretta .380 semi-automatic pistol. The 35-year-old editor of New West magazine was threatened by the Peoples Temple against publishing an expose of Jim Jones. Phone calls at 2 a.m. to Wright’s home warned her: “Don’t do it.”
But Wright, who took firearm instruction at Coyote Point in San Mateo, ran the magazine story that detailed how guards patrolled the aisles during temple services on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco. New West told about the temple newspaper ‘Peoples Forum’ exalting socialism and forecasting a government takeover by American Nazis. And about former temple members talking of “regimentation, fear and self-imposed humiliation.”
The night Jim Jones learned about the magazine expose he announced Peoples Temple would leave for the South America jungle settlement called ‘Jonestown.’
Sixteen months later cyanide killed nearly a thousand people. Jones directed mass death on Nov. 18, 1978.
The same day at an airstrip six miles outside Jonestown, temple security known as the Red Brigade shot and killed 53-year-old Rep. Leo Ryan, three newsmen and a woman trying to leave Jonestown. Jackie Speier, then a 27-year-old attorney on Ryan’s staff, was shot five times but survived.
Ryan went to South America to investigate accounts that Jonestown was an inhumane, armed camp. Families from San Mateo County, which Ryan represented in the 11th Congressional District, had contacted him about relatives in Jonestown.
Jones, 47, told his followers gathered at the settlement’s tin-roof pavilion the day before Ryan’s arrival that the congressman was part of a CIA conspiracy against the Peoples Temple.
“I didn’t come this far to be pushed about by someone from Burlingame or San Mateo, and now we found the CIA, we found our link, he’s the catalyst,” Jones said of Ryan. “We found out just exactly that. He is the catalyst.”
Jones’ paranoia and drug use spiked in the jungle. Without providing details, he said Ryan’s visit was part of the conspiracy that the temple leader said extended to groups as varied as the American Medical Association and Michigan State University. Jones claimed the university was a CIA front group.
He complained that his followers had traveled to the South American jungle only to face an inquiry by Ryan.
“We been raised up to run clear over here to find some peace to have that son of a bitch come up out of San Mateo,” Jones said. “He can take his ass back to San Mateo.”
Jones said he didn’t vote for Ryan.
“And I don’t know where Burlingame is,” Jones told followers in the jungle. “A few of you may have been there. I didn’t come from Burlingame. I don’t want nothing from Burlingame.”
When Ryan, Speier and reporters reached Jonestown the next day – Nov. 17, 1978 – Ryan told Jones’ followers that he was there for a congressional inquiry.
When Ryan said that some people in Jonestown believed this settlement was the best thing that ever happened to them, his comments were greeted with long and raucous applause. Smiling, Ryan said “I feel terrible that you can’t all register to vote in San Mateo County.”
Jones replied that people could vote by proxy.
Ryan laughed again.
“By proxy. Okay. We’ll do that if we can.”
Less than 24 hours later, Ryan would be shot dead at the airstrip.
In Jackie Speier’s newly published book ‘Undaunted’ the congresswoman writes about Ryan’s decision to investigate Jonestown.
“He knew that Jones had considerable political clout, with close ties to Democratic leaders in San Francisco, Sacramento, and even with the State Department of the Carter administration,” Speier recounts. “Politically, there was nothing to gain — and everything to lose — by taking on Jim Jones.”
The temple leader “arguably played a huge role in electing Mayor George Moscone in 1975, then again in defeating a recall attempt in 1977,” Speier said. “Several politicians praised Jones, none more effusively than Supervisor Harvey Milk, who went as far as writing a letter to President Jimmy Carter extolling Jones’ work.”
Speier said of Jim Jones that, “Everything about him made my skin crawl.”
“We could all sense the palpable tension in the air, hovering just beneath the surface,” she said of Jonestown the day before the settlement ended in death. “It felt like if you struck a match, the whole place would instantly explode.”
Of the deaths by cyanide of almost 1,000 people, she said, “This was not a mass suicide. It was a mass murder.”
Bill Royer, former Redwood City Councilman and San Mateo County Supervisor, won the special April 1979 election to succeed the slain Ryan. The Washington Post described Royer as a 58-year-old millionaire realtor who was friends with Hall of Fame baseball player Willie Mays.
Congressional hearings began Feb. 20, 1980 in Washington D.C. about putting in place government recommendations that followed Ryan’s death. Royer talked about Ryan’s friends as well as relatives of people who died in Jonestown.
“They all had one thing, one request – to come back here and see if everything had been done that could be done to bring the killer or killers of Leo Ryan to justice – and to see that never again would there be a situation where 900 American citizens would die in a foreign land under the tyrannical control of a false prophet such as Jim Jones.”
Clare Bouquet, a Burlingame schoolteacher whose 25-year-old son Brian died in Jonestown, spoke to the congressional panel.
“Some segments of our society have dismissed them as a bunch of crazy fanatics, or a grotesque spectacle,” Bouquet said of temple members who went to Guyana where Jonestown was located.
“But someone loved each one of them,” Bouquet said. “They went to Guyana looking for some sort of promised land, and found themselves prisoners in hell.”
She later said of her son’s death in Jonestown that, “I’m not at peace, and I’ll never be at peace.”
“But I’ve separated my son from the whole mess. He’s still my Brian. I’m very proud of him and he broke my heart and it’s still broken. It was such a waste of a beautiful life.”
Brian Bouquet had attended Mills and Serra high schools as well as the College of San Mateo.
Among the dead in Jonestown was 31-year-old Teresa King, who before joining the temple had dropped out of the University of Arizona when her boyfriend won a chemistry fellowship at Stanford.
King got a job at Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park where she helped try to organize workers and was disappointed by the store owner’s opposition. A temple member King met on the Peninsula told her about the Peoples Temple, which crusaded against capitalism and for Marxism.
Each new story the temple member told seemed to offer King hope.
“What I described,” the temple member said, “offered something to live for and ultimately to die for too.”
King joined the temple in 1973. In Jonestown, six months before the jungle settlement’s deadly end on Nov. 18, 1978, she spoke in favor of “revolutionary suicide” and described herself as having been one of “capitalism’s casualties.”
“I didn’t have anything to live for, but since I’ve been here, love has given me something to live for, and I’ve seen this happen in the lives of everybody here,” King said.
“I’ve been able to see that communism is what is necessary to bring this about,” she continued.
At his law office in San Mateo, Will Holsinger spoke in October about working for Ryan when Holsinger was a 27-year-old graduate of Hastings Law School in San Francisco.
“He was the quintessential Irish Catholic politician,” Holsinger said of Leo Ryan.
At Ryan’s funeral at All Souls Catholic Church in South San Francisco, security was tight because of fears about surviving temple members trying to take revenge.
“I had to wear a bulletproof vest,” Holsinger recalled.
Seven months before his death, Ryan had traveled Newfoundland to monitor the harvest of Canadian harp seals on ice floes.
Rep. James Jeffords, a Republican from Vermont, joined Ryan for the trip. In a 2007 book Jeffords wrote about Ryan as “a born challenger who wanted to build a coalition to save the world.”
Ryan “got me involved in one adventure after another,” said Jeffords.
“Leo was a complex character,” Jeffords said. “He could drive you crazy with his shenanigans, but he had a big heart and was willing to take big risks for causes he believed in. He died doing so. His death haunts me to this day.”
Clare Bouquet, now 88 and living in San Mateo, called Speier a very brave woman and spoke about Ryan as a hero.
“Leo had a heart,” Bouquet said.
When learning about conditions in Jonestown, “He didn’t say, ‘I’ll send an emissary.’”
Ryan traveled to the jungle, unaware of what awaited him, she said.
“And he lost his life,” Bouquet said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Headline photo of Jim Jones (on right) with an unidentified man at Jonestown on Nov. 18, 1978. (FBI)