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Jim Jones Warned Leo Ryan's Visit Would be a 'Grave Mistake'

In this series, Newsweek reconstructs the events leading to the Jonestown Massacre as it happened in 1978, day by day.

November 2, 1978: Ryan's telegram failed to mention a key detail: he was bringing an entourage. It included a three-person NBC crew, journalists from the Washington Post, National Enquirer, Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle, and several members of the Concerned Relatives.

When Jones learned the Congressman was bringing reporters, he was furious. Ever since New West magazine published an exposé on Peoples Temple in the late summer of 1977, he'd been fending off media inquiries. Before the investigation ran, Jones had been the darling of San Francisco. His integrated church ran a soup kitchen, offered free medical care to the indigent, provided free daycare for single working mothers. He cozied up to politicians, helping elect Mayor George Moscone in 1975 by instructing his followers to canvass neighborhoods and even cross voting lines to cast their ballots for him. In turn, Moscone made Jones the head of the city's Housing Authority.

Jim Jones Rally SF 1976
Jim Jones speaks at an unspecified rally, San Francisco, April 1976. Jones was courted by politicians in the 1970s as he was able to mobilize voters. Getty Images/Janet Fries

But the New West investigation changed all that. Former Temple members revealed how Jones faked faith healings and pressured congregants to turn over their paychecks, bank accounts and real estate to the church. They detailed the "catharsis sessions," where members were lined up and paddled for infractions as small as nodding off during his sermons.

The investigation also contained this ominous passage:

The ex-members we interviewed had the ability to walk away from the temple once they found the courage to do it. Whether the church will permit those who move to Guyana the option of ever leaving is questionable.

New West magazine 1977 Jim Jones
New West magazine investigation into Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. Jones was furious about the magazine article. San Diego State University

Jones fled for Guyana before the issue hit newsstands, where he alternately sedated himself into indifference and cursed a blue streak over Jonestown's ham radio. Meanwhile his aides in California organized a mass exodus, rushing to put his followers on planes bound for South America before their relatives could read the expose and try to impede them from going.

After the Congressman announced his visit, Jones consulted with his lawyers, Charles Garry and Mark Lane. Garry urged Jones to let Ryan's entourage into Jonestown, believing that skeptics would be impressed by the large, organized community residents had built from scratch in the middle of a jungle. But Mark Lane fanned the flames of Jones' paranoia, telling the Temple leader that Ryan was part of a "massive conspiracy" against the Temple by U.S. intelligence organizations. Lane said as much to Ryan, accusing the Congressman of conducting a "witch hunt," to which Ryan coolly replied, "The Committee does intend to leave as scheduled."

The specter of the visit tapped into Jones' deepest fears. If he allowed Ryan into Jonestown, he was certain that at least one unhappy resident would try to leave with him. And if that defector told the press what was really happening in Jonestown, the house of cards that Jones had so carefully constructed would collapse.

Despairing, Jones sent a message to his allies in the Guyanese government. "We prefer death to this kind of harassment," he stated. If they allowed Ryan and his entourage into Guyana, he added, "it would be a grave mistake."

Julia Scheeres is an award-winning journalist and author. Her books include Jesus Land and A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown.