Jun 15, 2015

Little Known Characters in America: Leo Ryan

Journal-Gazette and Times Courier
By Cal Campbell
June 15, 2015

Leo Joseph Ryan, Jr. served as a U.S. Representative from California’s 11th congressional district from 1973 until he was assassinated in Guyana by members of the Peoples Temple shortly before the Jonestown Massacre in 1978.

Perhaps his “true grit” came from being a submariner in the United States Navy from 1943 to 1946. Ryan’s inspiration to serve his country was “triggered” by listening to John F. Kennedy’s call to service in President Kennedy’s inaugural address. It was after hearing Kennedy’s speech that Ryan decided to run for higher office.

His political career started by his being elected mayor of South San Francisco. He served less than a year as mayor, before taking a seat in the California State Assembly’s 27th district.

In 1972, Ryan was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He was successively elected three more times to the United States Congress.

On November 3, 1977, Ryan read into the United States Congressional Record a testimony by John Gordon Clark about the health hazards connected with destructive cults.

It was Ryan’s dogmatic determination to rid the country of cults that led to his death in Guyana. Ryan’s style of investigation was

to see for himself what was going on at the Peoples Temple in Jonestown.

On November 1, 1978, Ryan announced that he would visit Jonestown. He did so as part of a government investigation and received permission and government funds. He was authorized to make this trip in his role as chairman of a congressional subcommittee with jurisdiction over U.S. citizens living in foreign countries.

After Ryan received notes from several members of the cult asking that they be allowed to leave Jonestown, Ryan and a group boarded a plane and attempted to “free” the grip of Cult members.

Unfortunately, several devoted members of Jim Jones’ group opened fire on the plane resulting in the death of Congressman Ryan, three journalists and a defecting Temple member.

The departing plane radioed the attack and stated a few individuals on the plane survived and that U.S. Ambassador, John R. Burke be notified. Ambassador Burke reported to Guyana’s Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.

It was not until the next morning that the Guyanese army could cut through the jungle and reach the Cult’s settlement. Upon arriving at the site the soldiers found 909 of the inhabitants dead. It was determined that they had died in what the United States House of Representatives described as a “mass suicide/murder ritual.”

For his tireless work in exposing the “wrong-doings” he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously in 1983.

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