Jonestown Ambush Survivor, Shot 5 Times and Went on to Congress, Retires: 'I Lived and I Served'

In her announcement this week, California Rep. Jackie Speier recalled surviving the trip to the cult's remote compound four decades ago

Representative Jackie Speier
Rep. Jackie Speier. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

California Rep. Jackie Speier, who was shot five times in an ambush by Jonestown cult members in 1978, announced this week that she won't seek re-election after serving seven terms.

"Forty-three years ago this week, I was lying on an airstrip in the jungles of Guyana with five bullet holes in my body," Speier, 71, said in a YouTube video Tuesday announcing her decision. "I vowed that if I survived, I would dedicate my life to public service. I lived and I served."

As she noted, Speier was inspired to pursue political office during the 1978 trip with her then-boss, Rep. Leo J. Ryan, on a fact-finding mission to Jonestown, a remote settlement in Guyana founded by Rev. Jim Jones and followers of his Peoples Temple church.

Ryan went to investigate reports of abuse in Jonestown, where some of his San Francisco-area constituents were among approximately 1,000 church members living there.

Speier, who was 28 at the time, was the congressman's staffer.

Jackie Speier Wounded in Jonestown
Jackie Speier, wounded by gunfire in 1978. Bettmann Archive

While trying to leave on an airplane with defectors from the group as well as journalists and concerned relatives who joined the congressional fact-finding mission, Ryan and four others were shot and killed by members of Jones' cult on Nov. 18, 1978.

Nine others, including Speier, were wounded.

Speier ran for Ryan's seat on Congress a year later but lost that election. After serving six years on the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and 18 years in the California State Legislature, she was elected to Congress in 2008, claiming the seat Ryan once held, the Associated Press reports.

Leo J. Ryan
Rep. Leo J. Ryan. Charles Gorry/AP/Shutterstock

"It has been a remarkable journey that has surpassed my wildest dreams," Speier said in her retirement announcement this week. "It's time for me to come home, time for me to be more than a weekend wife, mother and friend. It's been an extraordinary privilege and honor to represent the people of San Mateo County and San Francisco in almost every level of government for nearly four decades."

Following the deadly 1978 ambush in which Speier was seriously injured, the Guyanese army arrived at Jonestown to find 909 of its inhabitants dead — including 304 minors — in a mass murder-suicide.

In what became known as the Jonestown massacre, many of the group's members drank a poisoned grape-flavored drink prepared by church leaders under Jones' direction. Some, including babies, were given the laced concoction.

1978 file photo shows the bodies of five people, including Rep. Leo J. Ryan, D-Calif., on the airstrip at Port Kaittuma, Guyana
1978 photo of the Guyana airstrip where Rep. Leo Ryan died. Tim Reiterman/The San Francisco Examiner via AP

Speier, who has been outspoken about sexual harassment and shared her own experience of being attacked by a congressional staffer in 2017, this week also thanked her community for sending her to Washington, D.C., for seven consecutive terms in the House of Representatives.

"I have never forgotten that I have been given the opportunity to serve because of you," she said. "As I leave, I want to convey my deepest appreciation to you and urge you to protect our precious democracy. It is fragile and vulnerable."

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