289. Briefing Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs (Watson) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Newsom)1


  • CODEL Ryan—Killings in Guyana and Consular Preparations


Preliminary Briefings

The Department learned early this September that Congressman Ryan intended to visit Guyana and the People’s Temple. The Congressman had received appeals and complaints from constituents about the condition of children and relatives in Jonestown; he wished to follow up these matters personally. Department officials held their first meeting with the Congressman on September 17 and the last one on November 13, the day before he left. Between those dates, ARA, L, and CA frequently discussed the trip with the Congressman and his staff. On [Page 699] these occasions the Congressman was told it could be dangerous to fly into a primitive airstrip in the midst of very rugged country. He was also aware that the People’s Temple community was opposed to his visit. Defectors from the Temple group had reported the presence of guns in the community, plus such practices as physical abuse and even dry-run suicide drills.2 Since June of 1977 approximately 5 consular visits were made to Jonestown to look into allegations that Jonestown residents were being abused. No clear indications of abuse were obtained. Relatives of Jonestown residents continued to say “would be” defectors were either being brainwashed or intimidated. (With regard to threat assessment, consular officers had performed activities similar to those which led to the Congressman’s death—but without apparent threat or hazard to themselves.)

The Shootings

The ambush which killed Congressman Ryan and four others and wounded nine more has been reported.3 Confirmed also is that Guyana Security Forces after carefully approaching Jonestown have so far found about 400 dead. No survivors in Jonestown have yet been reported.

Current Activity—Additional Personnel

We do not want to over-burden Georgetown’s small staff but we are responding to their needs as determined through constant telephone and cable traffic. The Embassy staff has been increased by 3 consular officers and 4 communications officers. Two (2) consular officers and a communications unit will be in Jonestown this morning. A senior consular officer (who handled the Tenerife aircraft crash) will also be going down tonight. A Graves’ Registration team from DOD of about 20 men is also leaving for Guyana tonight.

The total Jonestown community may in fact not much exceed the 400 dead. Accounts that the community numbers more than 1,000 may be exaggerations.4

Burial of Congressman Ryan’s Party

Congressman Ryan’s family wishes his body transported directly to San Francisco for a Wednesday funeral at the Golden Gate National [Page 700] Cemetery. Three other dead also, we think, may be buried in California. The fifth victim resided in Ohio.

Burial of Jonestown Victims

Guyanese police say some of the Jonestown dead died by poison and others gunshot wounds. For legal prognostics, sample autopsies are being made from both groups. Guyana law requires burial within 36 hours. It has so far not been possible to identify the dead but in many cases we believe the next-of-kin would not want to be responsible for the costs of transport or even burial. Also, the return of these dead at U.S. Government expense would be a precedent. Under existing regulations if financial arrangements cannot be made to return a dead American, consular officers arrange for local burial. The matter, however, is being intensively studied. A mass burial of such a pathetic group could look a little heartless. The climate, communications, and Guyanese law might in the end make local burial obligatory.


Nine wounded returned to the U.S. via a C–141 last night. They were met by Miss Watson. Aircraft are available to bring back a great many dead and any wounded (who may yet be discovered). A C–141 is on the ground in Georgetown and may return this afternoon or evening—perhaps carrying the bodies. Another C–141 arrives today. At least two other aircraft (C–130’s) will be in Georgetown by tonight or tomorrow morning. They are carrying helicopter assembly equipment and supplies. A C–5A may fly in tomorrow with additional helicopters. Helicopters will break the bottleneck of access to Jonestown which now is only via a Guyanese 18 passenger Otter and another 5-seat aircraft.

Mark Lane

The well-known criminal lawyer, Mark Lane, who represented the Rev. Jim Jones is in Georgetown. Somehow he made his way to the capital from Jones’ settlement. A report from the Embassy is expected momentarily.5


I will be interviewed by Susan King for WDVM–TV (Channel 9) at 2:00 p.m. today.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P780182–0554. Limited Official Use. Drafted by Henneke and Horan in CA; cleared by McCoy. Copies were sent to Christopher, Tarnoff, Vaky, Bennet, a working group on the issue, and PA.
  2. On October 3, Timothy Stoen sent a private telegram to Christopher declaring he would “retrieve my son John Victor Stoen by any means necessary” and warning the Deputy Secretary about preparations for mass suicides at Jonestown. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P780166–2384)
  3. Telegram 3776 from Georgetown, November 19, transmitted the initial report of Ryan’s death on November 18. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780476–1143)
  4. A total of 909 people died in the suicides at the Jonestown site; 918 people died overall.
  5. Telegram 3807 from Georgetown, November 20. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780477–1118)