From the Horror of Jonestown to State Capitol : Fate Plays Part in Assemblywoman Speier’s Life

Times Staff Writer

Looking back at her survival at Jonestown and the other triumphs and tragedies of her life, freshman Assemblywoman Jackie Speier says she is convinced that they are all bound together by a single thread that she calls fate:

Fate, that prompted a young assemblyman by the name of Leo Ryan to pick her out of a university political science class to become his legislative aide.

Fate, that brought her to the South American country of Guyana eight years ago where she was gunned down in the Peoples Temple attack that killed Ryan, then a U.S. congressman and her political mentor.


And fate, that enabled her to take the oath of office for Ryan’s former Assembly seat just as a federal jury was returning the sole conviction in the Jonestown murder-suicide that followed the 1978 jungle attack.

“It was one of the most poignant days of my life,” Speier, 36, said of Dec. 1 ceremonies that marked her first day as a state legislator.

As she stood amid the ornate splendor of the Assembly chambers, Speier, who prides herself in the dispassionate way she is able to discuss the Jonestown tragedy, broke down and sobbed.

Felt ‘Released’

“I guess I felt finally released from all of that,” the San Francisco Bay Area Democrat recalled during an interview in the sparse surroundings of her temporary Capitol office. “It was the end of a real tragic chapter, not only in my life, but in the lives of many people in this country who were so troubled by what happened.”

Petite and attractive, Speier carries scars from five gunshot wounds. Two bullets are still lodged in her chest and pelvis. Otherwise, she insists that she has put the trauma of Jonestown and Ryan’s death behind her.

“You grow from that and it does not plague you,” Speier said. Pausing momentarily, she added: “Especially if you don’t want it to.”


It was a long road back, however.

There were nightmares, she said, fears that another hit squad would return to finish her off. And there was the intense drive she felt at first to complete Ryan’s political agenda--a desire that caused her to launch an unsuccessful bid for his San Mateo County congressional seat just days after leaving a Maryland hospital where she spent two months recuperating from her wounds.

In the wake of that defeat, Speier began to carve out an independent political career. She won two terms on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Then she captured Ryan’s old Assembly seat after a bruising primary battle against another Democratic candidate hand-picked and heavily financed by powerful Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and his close associates.

Today, Speier must endure repeated remembrances of her Jonestown experiences, at each anniversary of the tragedy and most recently in two days of testimony at the San Francisco trial of Larry Layton, a former lieutenant of the Rev. Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple founder.

It is a remarkable story of survival, however, and a story she says she gains great strength from recounting.

It was November, 1978. Speier, then legal counsel to Ryan, was preparing for a trip with the congressman to Guyana to investigate charges that some members of the Peoples Temple cult were being held against their will. The cult, previously based in the Bay Area, had established the Jonestown agricultural settlement in the Guyanese jungle in 1976.

Premonition of Disaster

So strong was Speier’s premonition that something would go wrong that she drew up a new will and then added an ominous clause to a contract covering her pending purchase of a new home in Arlington, Va.: The sale would be contingent on her surviving the journey.

“I had that much trepidation about it,” she said, recalling that she had just finished reviewing six hours of taped interviews with defectors from the Jonestown cult.

She discussed those fears with Ryan. But he reminded her that an assassin’s bullet had never struck down a member of Congress. “He felt committed to go down and do the investigation,” Speier said. “I think it was a fatal flaw that he felt there was a congressional shield protecting him.”

Once in Guyana, the trip seemed uneventful. As the investigating party prepared to return to the United States with a group of journalists and Jonestown defectors, Speier wondered to herself whether her fears had been exaggerated.

It was only a momentary reflection, however. For as she and Ryan helped passengers board a small plane on a lonely Port Kaituma airstrip, a truck carrying armed cult members appeared on the Tarmac.

“All of a sudden the gunfire broke out,” Speier said. “We scurried under the plane and I took cover, if you could call it that, behind the wheel and feigned death.

“But (the gunmen) walked among us and shot us with automatic rifles and shotguns. I was shot five times. They used those dumdum bullets that explode when they hit. I had bone just jutting out of my arm. My whole right side of my body was . . .” her voiced trailed off.

About six feet away, Ryan lay dead. She would find out much later, during testimony at the Layton trial, that he had been hit at least 30 times. Three others were shot to death and 11 in the party were wounded, some scattering into the surrounding jungle for cover.

Cult Commits Mass Suicide

And back at the nearby settlement, Jones assembled his followers and began the ritualistic mass suicide that the cult had been preparing for over several months. A vat of fruit punch laced with cyanide was set out, and most members drank from it. Those who refused were shot or injected with poison. More than 900 people died, including Jones, who was found shot in the head.

For 22 hours, Speier and the other ambush survivors were left at the airport without medical attention, their only painkiller a particularly potent rum that is produced in the Guyanese jungle.

In the cruelest turn of all, Speier never lost consciousness during the ambush and the interminable hours of waiting that followed.

“I had been moved to a tent at one point,” she said. “There was some sort of a local police official in the community who came out and watched over us. Every hour or so, the pain would get so unbearable that I would take a swig of the rum and that would help.”

Speier described the chilling events with a kind of detachment. Friends say they often hear her telling the story in the third person, as if it happened to someone else. And during a recent interview, she skipped over some of the most vivid details, later admitting they were simply too horrifying to recall.

But the day she left the hospital in 1979, in an interview with The Times, she gave this account of her first night in the jungle, after being moved by some of the survivors to a grass-covered area away from the airstrip:

“When I was taken to the grassy knoll, I was placed on top of an ant hill. There were ants crawling all over my face and body. There were natives who kept coming over, obviously shocked by my wounds, making these sounds, obviously horrified. They did not know first aid, so they couldn’t help. I was still pretty frightened. We thought the gunmen would come back and finish us off.” She said her worst fear was having to “go through a second death.”

Today, Speier’s clearest memories are more general. “It was the pandemonium, the blood, the death, the ability of people to have so little respect for life.”

Ultimately, she spent two months in the hospital and underwent 10 surgeries. Physicians, she said, decided not to remove bullets lodged in her chest and pelvis because they believed that to do so “would almost be more traumatic.”

Death Threats Phoned

Her psychological recovery took longer. “I went through some tough times,” she said, “with nightmares and the anxiety of whether or not there would be another hit squad.” Several telephoned death threats--linked, she presumes, to the Peoples Temple--did not help matters. But, she added, “the old adage that time heals all is very, very true.”

Today, Speier said she is still bothered by a 30% reduction in the functioning of her right arm. There also is a “dull pain that’s always there.”

But emotionally, she said, her survival heightened her willingness to take risks “both personally and politically.”

Said Speier: “It was the whole reflection that you may not be around tomorrow, so why not go for the gold?”

It was that kind of intensity that propelled her into the special election called to fill Ryan’s congressional seat just days after leaving the hospital. By the time the campaign was over, Speier had spent only a fraction of what most of her 11 opponents spent and still managed to come in third.

“Had I not run, I would not have known that I had some great support in the community and maybe someday I could run for something else and be successful,” Speier said.

The next year, she defeated a 20-year incumbent to win a seat on the Board of Supervisors, where she built a legislative record around environmental and consumer issues.

Speier insists that she would have been content to remain a county supervisor for some time to come. But early this year, a sudden shake-up in the roster of Bay Area legislators left an open Assembly seat in her district. It was Ryan’s old seat. The temptation, she conceded, was just too strong.

Candidate Selected

Speaker Brown, however, already had a candidate in mind--Mike Nevin, a San Francisco policeman and Daly City mayor who also happened to be the brother-in-law of Assemblyman Pat Johnston (D-Stockton), a close associate of Brown.

More than half of Nevin’s $300,000 primary campaign budget was provided by a long list of Democratic legislators and from Brown’s political organization, while Speier found herself unable to attract much money from political action committees (PACs) and businesses that normally support the Democratic establishment. In all, she raised only about $200,000 in total for both the primary and general elections, most of it from local supporters.

Speier’s largest single donations--$10,000 each--came during the primary campaign from a Republican business group, which was apparently embracing Speier as an alternative to the organization-backed Democrat, and the California Medical PAC, which presumably was concerned about a $10,000 contribution to her opponent by the California Trial Lawyers PAC. The medical and trial lawyer lobbying groups have been in fierce battles over proposed solutions to the so-called deep pockets liability-insurance crisis, and Speaker Brown is a strong supporter of the lawyers’ side.

“The word had gone out that no member (of the Assembly) could put money into Jackie’s race,” said Paul Kinney, a campaign consultant and longtime associate of Speier. “We felt like the whole world was on the other side and we were in there with just Jackie Speier.”

There were charges by Speier’s primary election opponent that she was not a “team player,” and worst of all, in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, that she accepted campaign money from Republicans. There also was a smattering of innuendo about “family values” and depictions of Speier, who is single, as someone who would be more representative of the small portion of the district that lies in San Francisco than of the more conservative suburban communities of San Mateo County that make up most of the district.

Under fire politically, Speier agreed with a campaign consultant’s decision to use her Jonestown experiences in a biographical television commercial.

“I was not running as a Guyana survivor,” she said. “I had a record on the Board of Supervisors that I was proud of. But my campaign consultant persuaded me that it was part of my life, that it showed I had some toughness, some strength and what they referred to as courage. And here I was in another battle and it took a lot of courage to do that.”

Speier won the Democratic primary by just 555 votes, or 1.4% of those cast.

Since her primary victory, the Democratic leadership has slowly tried to make amends. A few Democratic legislators who strongly supported her primary opponent contributed money to Speier’s general election victory. She won in a landslide on Nov. 4, garnering nearly 74% of the vote.

Even Brown, who opposed her so vigorously in the primary, offered to help retire her $160,000 campaign debt. She refused his money, telling a reporter later that it could be better spent in some other hard-fought races.

Yet, Speier said she expects to have no problems dealing with Brown or any of the other Democrats who tried to defeat her. “I didn’t run against the party,” she said.

Others, like her primary opponent Nevin, wonder whether she can function effectively in the Legislature after having shown her willingness to buck the top party leaders. Nevin said he also is convinced that “deep inside,” Speier’s ultimate aim is to win a congressional seat, preferably the one formerly held by Ryan. “This is kind of a waiting game,” he said.

Speier vehemently disavows any such motives. Yet some of her closest supporters concede that speculation of that nature is likely to follow her as long as people are reminded about her Jonestown experiences.

Speier, however, is intent on keeping even the darkest of those memories alive.

“It’s very, very good for me to recall the anniversary date each year and to spend some time thinking about it,” she said. “The one very special gift that came out of that tragic experience was a real appreciation of life that I did not have before, to recognize it’s fleeting and we are not guaranteed a long-term contract here.

“I call upon that recollection often.”