Left for dead at Jonestown 40 years ago: A look back at the horrifying ordeal by survivor Congresswoman Jackie Speier

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ByCheryl Jennings KGO logo
Saturday, September 29, 2018
SHOT & LEFT FOR DEAD: Rep. Speier recounts Jonestown massacre
In 1978, Congresswoman Jackie Speier was shot and left for dead in the largest mass murder-suicide in American history. She opened up to ABC7 about the ordeal that haunts her to this day.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- This year marks the 40th anniversary of the largest mass murder-suicide in American history. It happened in a remote village overseas named "Jonestown" in the South American country of Guyana. Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Calif., was there in 1978. She was shot and left for dead. She talked with ABC7's Cheryl Jennings about the horrific ordeal that haunts her to this day.

VIDEO: Rep. Speier opens up about Jonestown massacre

"There are so many thoughts that run through your head when you're dying. And I was 28 years old. I had resigned myself to the fact that I was dying." Bay Area Rep. Jackie Speier was shot and left to die in what became the largest mass murder-suicide in American history. Here's a look at what she shared with ABC7's Cheryl Jennings about the ordeal that haunts her to this day.

"Every time I go back to that moment, I thank God that I'm still alive, because there's no reason why I am alive," she said.

Speier was just 28 years old. She was an aide to Congressman Leo Ryan, who went to investigate claims of abuse and people being held against their will in Guyana by cult leader Reverend Jim Jones. But his followers weren't going to let the Congressional delegation, including journalists, leave alive. They were ambushed as they were boarding their plane.

Speier: "And then Ryan started to run so I ran under the plane. And as I was running, he was hit once. And then he was hit again. And fell. And I just ran to one of the wheels and tried to hide there, pretending I was dead."

Jennings: "Do you remember the physical-ness of being hit?

Speier: "The first thing I felt was the impact and then I looked onto my right side and my right arm was blown up and there was bone sticking out. My right thigh was totally destroyed, but the femoral artery was still intact. If that had been severed, I would have bled to death."

Speier was shot five times, including a bullet to her back.

Jennings: "You were basically left for dead."

Speier: "We were on that airstrip for 22 hours without medical attention."

Miraculously, Speier survived. She was finally airlifted to America where she would undergo at least 10 surgeries.

Jennings "Do you still have shrapnel in your body?"

Speier: "I do. I have two bullets still and then shrapnel as well."

Shortly after the attack on the Congressional delegation in Guyana, more than 900 men, women and children died after Jim Jones ordered them to drink a cyanide-laced beverage. Speier says the children and infants were injected with the poison.

"I always get my hackles up when people say it was suicide. Those people were murdered," Speier angrily reflected.

They had believed the promises by Jim Jones, that he would lead them to a better life as members of his church, The Peoples Temple. He was powerful and charismatic.

The late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone talked about Reverend Jones' appeal, "He had a reputation in the community for being able to bring peacefulness and harmony to people who were very poor and very frustrated."

RELATED: 40 years after Jonestown massacre: Why survivor Jackie Speier says we have to be vigilant about religious groups that operate in secret

Jim Jones was close to prominent leaders in San Francisco government, in spite of complaints against him and by people who wanted to leave his church.

Of the politicians, Speier says they, "Just turned a deaf ear. And they did so because Jim Jones represented two to 3000 votes. Two to 300 precinct walkers, two to 3000 individuals who could get out the vote. And he was immediately made the chairman of the Housing Authority once he helped deliver the election of the Mayor."

According to Speier, she heard all the stories from the defectors.

"So I knew he was an unstable person going in," she said. "And was concerned about that trip and said to Congressman Ryan, 'Are you sure we should be going?' He had this sense that we would be protected."

The late Congressman Leo Ryan talked about his conversations with supporters of Jim Jones.

"There are some people who believe this is the best thing that ever happened to them in their whole life," he said.

RELATED: 40 years after Jonestown massacre, ex-members describe Jim Jones as a 'real monster'

And Jim Jones chastised anyone who complained about him, saying, "People play games. They lie. They lie, what can I do about liars?"

The painful truth is that Ryan was shot more than 40 times. He died trying to save people from Jim Jones.

More than 400 Peoples Temple members are in a mass grave at Oakland's evergreen cemetery. That includes children. A simple tombstone marks their remains.

Speier found a way to survive emotionally. She appreciates all she's been given, after her brush with death and the Jonestown massacre.

"I have lived a very full life," she said. "I've had lots of highs and a fair number of lows but I'm very lucky because of my family, friends, and my faith."