Surviving the Heart of Darkness
by Maitland Zane, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco Chronicle
November 13, 1998
On Wednesday it will be 20 years since Jackie Speier
was badly wounded in the Port Kaituma airstrip ambush that preceded
the Jonestown massacre.
``I was very lucky,'' she said.
``I was shot five times and still have two bullets in my body.
I could easily have been shot dead.''
The newly elected
state senator from San Mateo's Eighth District spent more than
an hour detailing her feelings about the Guyana tragedy, in
which five people were murdered in an ambush and Jim Jones and
912 followers died in a mass suicide.
Speier, 48, was then
the legal aide to Rep. Leo J. Ryan, D-San Mateo, who had won
congressional authorization to investigate charges that the
Jonestown colony had become a jungle concentration camp ruled
by a madman, and that the lives of nearly a thousand Americans
were in danger.
In Georgetown, the humid, ramshackle capital
of the former British colony, the craggy-faced congressman and
his fact-finding party of concerned relatives and reporters
got a curt brushoff from emissaries of the faith healer Jones.
``None of you are welcome,'' said a statement issued from the
villa where some 50 Peoples Temple members were living communally.
Ryan was told he might visit the settlement 150 miles north,
near the Venezuelan border, but only if he came alone. That
was a cruel blow to the 17 Bay Area relatives who had flown
5,000 miles to visit their kinfolk, for they were barred, as
were several newspaper reporters and an NBC TV team.
On Wednesday, November 15, the relatives got into a tearful shouting
match at the American Embassy with the U.S. Ambassador, John
R. Burke, and Richard C. Dwyer, the deputy chief of mission,
threatening not to budge until they were allowed to see their
The relatives were not placated by the slide show Burke and Dwyer showed.
``It was a dog-and-pony show that Ambassador Burke put on to make it seem he had been doing his job,'' Speier said. ``But the fact is the U.S. Embassy abandoned its responsibility to protect American citizens abroad.''
When she defected in May 1978, Debbie Layton Blakey warned Richard Dwyer that a mass suicide had been rehearsed and that Jones was a megalomaniac who likened himself to Christ and Lenin. But it wasn't until November 7 that Dwyer dispatched two deputies to Jonestown.
Ryan, 52, became involved because he represented a district in northern San Mateo County, and many of his constituents were Peoples Temple members.
Ryan said a settlement deep in the bush might be reasonably run on authoritarian lines -- but residents must be able to come and go freely. If it had become a gulag, he said, he would do everything he could to free the captives.
Lawyers Mark Lane and Charles Garry, both strident defenders of Jones, negotiated with Jones and Ryan to arrange a meeting. Lane had written to Ryan the month before attacking the planned visit as ``religious persecution.''
The lawyers persuaded Jones to allow a visit on Friday, the 17th. Speier said Ryan was not warned that it might be a death trap. Burke and Dwyer insisted all was benign.
A WARM WELCOME
Much to their surprise, the Ryan party found the welcome mat out at the settlement of cottages for families, long dormitories for seniors, a school for the hundreds of children, and a medical clinic.
A large pavilion had a tin roof and open sides, and on the stage was Jones's throne, an armchair with microphone close at hand. Placed above was a large sign saying ``Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.''
A spellbinding preacher since his boyhood in Indiana, Jim Jones was then 47 and addicted to ``uppers.'' On a tape found after the slaughter he can be heard ranting, ``You've seen me raise the dead, seen those who were blind open their eyes, seen the crippled suddenly made whole, seen them pass cancer after cancer. . . . I'm incarnate. I'm a liberator. I'm a savior. I am that which they call God.'' That evening Jonestown inhabitants dined and then danced to the sounds of the camp's rock group, the Jonestown Express, and Ryan was clearly puzzled by all the happy faces and apparently healthy people. Taking the microphone, he said, ``I'm very glad to be here. Despite the charges I have heard, I am sure there are some people here this evening who believe this is the best thing that ever happened in their whole lives.''
Pandemonium. Reporters said the whoops and applause went on five or 10 minutes. Ryan laughed, saying he wished he could register every Jonestown resident as a San Mateo voter. But then he turned serious: ``I won't pull any punches. This is a congressional inquiry.''
Jones consented to an interview after dinner. Reporters found him puffy-faced and ill. His black hair and sideburns appeared to be dyed. He wore makeup as if for a stage performance. He claimed to have a temperature of 103 degrees and was slurring his words. Popping pill after pill, Jones called the 3,000-acre farm a ``sharing community, like living in a big happy family.''
Dwyer and Jones were seen to embrace cordially. To Speier it appeared they were ``in cahoots.'' Reporters sensed that something was staged about the reception. First to get an inkling of the reality of Jonestown was NBC correspondent Don Harris, when later that evening a young man passed him a note. Two names were on it, Vernon Gosney and Monika Bagby, with this message: ``Please help me get out of Jonestown.''
``By then we knew we were on to something,'' said Speier. ``It was apparent there was fear and intimidation, that the reception was a charade, that people were being held against their will.'' The following morning Ryan and Speier began interviewing residents, and Edith Parks, an elderly woman in a baseball cap, was first to step forward. ``I want to go with you. I want to leave Jonestown.''
Her spunkiness encouraged her family, and by early afternoon word had gotten around and other people said they wanted to leave, too.
``My most vivid memory -- it's one that haunts me still -- is of a couple pulling on the arms of their child, who was 3 or 4,'' Speier said. ``One parent wanted to leave; the other wanted to stay, and the child was caught between.''
The defections infuriated Jones. He gave Harris an icy glare when the NBC correspondent showed him Gosney's note. ``People play games, friend. They lie. Are you people going to leave us? I just beg you, please leave us.''
SUSPICIOUS OF LAYTON
Enter Larry Layton, who worked at the Jonestown hospital as an X-ray technician. Layton had denounced his sister Debbie for defecting, telling Speier that Jonestown was ``an extraordinarily good place to live.''
So she was instantly suspicious when Layton announced that he ``wanted to be repatriated too.''
When the time came for the visitors and defectors to depart, Layton was seen hugging Jones, but he did not have so much as a farewell kiss for his wife Karen, who became hysterical. The genuine defectors shrank away when Layton climbed aboard a big yellow dump truck without baggage.
Ryan volunteered to say behind to protect other would-be defectors. But an ultraloyalist, Don Sly, put a knife to his throat, snarling, ``Congressman Ryan, you are a mother-.''
Garry and Lane intervened. Lane grabbed the knife, and, in the scuffle, Sly cut his own hand, spraying blood on Ryan's shirt. Dwyer, the official escort, insisted that Ryan leave for his own protection, and the pale and shaken lawmaker agreed. Back at the Port Kaituma airport, Speier recalled, Layton was intense. He had a mission and he was going to fulfill that mission. I was fearful about being on the same aircraft as Larry Layton. I told Leo Ryan I thought he was a fraud.''
The Twin Otter had 19 seats, so a second plane was chartered for the defectors, and the six-passenger Cessna was the one that Layton whined to be put aboard. He evaded the body search other passengers were subjected to, but Tim Reiterman of the San Francisco Examiner alerted Dwyer, who insisted Layton be frisked, too.
Perhaps Layton hid his revolver under the seat, for when he climbed out to be searched he was clean. Reboarding the small white plane, Layton picked the seat behind the pilot's and buckled up, still stonily silent.
The Cessna was at the far end of a rough sloping airstrip revving for takeoff when Jones's ``Red Brigade'' arrived, several men in a flatbed trailer drawn by a farm tractor.
Seconds later NBC cameraman Bob Brown was killed by a shotgun blast at short range. He might have survived if he had run for cover, but he continued filming the advancing gunmen until cut down himself, the last frames tilted crazily. ``Bob's brain was blown out of his head,'' said Ron Javers of The Chronicle, who took a slug in the shoulder. ``It splattered the blue NBC minicam. I'll never forget that sight as long as I live.''
Ryan's face was blown off. Patricia Parks and Don Harris were shotgunned to death at the steps of the Twin Otter, and the fifth fatality was San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson.
Seeing the assault on the Ryan party, the Cessna pilot aborted the takeoff. Layton began firing wildly, first wounding the defectors Bagby and Gosney. Then the fanatic turned his .38 on Dale Parks, but the gun misfired and Parks was able to wrestle it away. Caught literally red- handed, Layton first lied, saying Parks had tried to shoot him, then boasted he had shot the defectors.
``I was lying on the ground by one of the plane's wheels, pretending to be dead,'' Speier said.
``I had my head on my arm, but I was one of the people they targeted, and was shot five times in the shoulder and right side by guys with rifles and shotguns.
``I went into shock. My mind rejected what had happened. Once I comprehended it I thought, `I never expected to die at such an early age -- I was 28 at the time. Would my parents ever know?' And then I waited for the lights to go out.''
Incredibly, Speier recovered her nerve. She decided she didn't want her 86-year-old grandmother to have to attend her funeral.
Charles Krause gave her his shirt to stanch the bleeding. And at her request, Javers tape recorded an ``oral will'' for her parents.
The pilots fled, taking the wounded Bagby and others to Georgetown.
``We all thought we were goners,'' said Speier, who took shelter in a tent, Javers and others wrapping her in a tarpaulin. ``We thought the hit squad would come back and finish us off.''
There was no doctor in Port Kaituma, no medicine of any kind. But one of the survivors fetched a bottle of liquor from the village disco.
Speier suddenly smiled, her hazel eyes sparkled when she said, ``I survived that night on Guyanese rum. One hundred and fifty proof, really potent stuff. We took turns taking swigs.''
The defectors said the White Night ritual they had rehearsed 42 times was probably now under way. ``Revolutionary suicide'' was what Jones called it. So it turned out. Speier said that sometime after midnight word filtered back from Jonestown that there had been a massacre, that everybody was dead.
``I bristle when people say Jonestown was a `mass suicide,' '' she said with heat. ``Hundreds of people, including the children, were murdered!''
Speier said it was not until about 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon that a rescue plane arrived from Georgetown, and by Monday she was in surgery at Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington. One of the souvenirs she saved was a bullet extracted from her side, neatly encased in plastic and carrying an FBI tag.
Could another Jonestown happen again? ``Cults are here to stay. The menace still lingers,'' she said. ``It's arrogant to believe something like this couldn't happen again.''
``Many of the Peoples Temple members came from dysfunctional families, with low self-esteem. They were searching for love. They were fragile people whose lives were incomplete. Cults attract people who are searching for some meaning in their life.''
A CAREER IN POLITICS
Since her days as an undergraduate at University of California at Davis, when she interned in the California Legislature, Speier had always aspired to a career in politics. After several years as a county supervisor, she won the Assembly seat once held by Leo Ryan, and by dazzling coincidence was sworn in the same day in 1986 that Larry Layton was convicted of aiding and abetting the assassination of Ryan. Layton is now serving a life term at Lompoc.
In January 1994, Speier suffered another devastating blow. Her physician husband, Dr. Steven Sierra, was killed in San Mateo by a red- light runner driving with defective brakes. She was pregnant with a second child.
As a single mother raising her son Jackson, 10, and daughter Stephanie, 4, she spent the past two years as vice president of a software company. Elected with a smashing 3-to-1 majority, she succeeds outgoing state Senator Quentin Kopp in a district that covers the northern part of San Mateo County and the western half of San Francisco.
Wednesday will be the 20th anniversary of her Jonestown ordeal. As in years past, Speier will take the day off. She plans to visit Leo Ryan's grave at Golden Gate National Cemetery with her friend Pat Ryan, one of the slain congressman's children. ``It will be a day of reflection,'' she said.
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples