The airstrip at Port Kaituma, Guyana, where Congressman Leo Ryan and other victims of the Jonestown massacre were shot 30 years ago. (David Howells/Corbis via Getty Images)

The storied life and tragic death of Leo Ryan

In November 1978 Leo Ryan, a U.S. congressman from California, was murdered along with four others on a remote airstrip in Guyana.

Ryan had traveled there to follow up on concerns from his constituents that their family members were being sexually and mentally abused at the People’s Temple compound led by the Rev. Jim Jones. On the same day of the murders, more than 900 members of the cult died in a mass murder and suicide.

Ryan, who also served as South San Francisco’s mayor and a state assemblyman, was by many accounts a force of nature. After the Watts riots of 1965, he took a job there as a substitute teacher to try and understand issues affecting the community. As a state lawmaker, he entered Folsom Prison as an undercover inmate to investigate prison conditions.

Isolated in his cell, he played chess with other inmates by calling out moves with a set made from toilet paper and toothpaste. When he left, the inmates presented the lawmaker with the chess set. It became his prized possession.

Asked later what he learned from the Folsom experience, Ryan said, “I learned that if you give in to fear you can’t do your job.” Washington Post | NPR

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In a bizarre twist, after Ryan’s killing his daughter Shannon Jo Ryan joined the Rajneeshees, a group known for their cult-like devotion to the Indian guru Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. “It is impossible that Bhagwan would ever ask people to kill anyone,” she once told a reporter. “But if he asked me to do it, I don’t know. I love and trust him very much. To me he is God.” People | Washington Post

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