(Bonnie Yates is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. Her previous articles may be found here. She may be reached here.)
Clare Bouquet is an intelligent, compassionate Catholic woman of 92 who used to teach in a parochial school. She is very passionate about her faith that has guided her actions and taken her through both the good and the bad times in her life.
She is also the mother of Brian Bouquet, who died in Jonestown, and a former member of Concerned Relatives, and much of the woman she is today was deeply affected by the events of November 18, 1978. This is her life as she related it to me in telephone interviews during the summer of 2022.
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Clare’s parents were a great influence in her life. They immersed themselves in the Franciscan Catholic Order, and were so devout in their faith that when they died, they were buried as “Third Order Franciscans,” the highest order for laypeople and one that only a few attain. Clare remembers an example of her father’s deep faith from when she was a child. One Christmas Eve, her father had received “word that a friend’s wife had passed away in his arms that day.” Although her dad had his own wife and children to spend time with on that holy night, he went to be of comfort to the man and his sister. For many years, Clare didn’t realize what it meant to the Charlie Lang family that her father had shown them his faith-based compassion. When Clare’s own father died, Lang family members attended his funeral services and told Clare how much her father had helped them get through the loss of their mother. Her father had “held them up,” they told her. At that moment, Clare resolved to do the same in her own life.
Clare is the mother of five children. Her first was a boy named Brian, who would later die in Jonestown. Her others were Mark, a girl named Mary – who died at five weeks of age – followed by Jeannie and Patrick. She loves her children very much and was involved in their lives as much as she could be.
Clare became a single mother following her divorce from her husband Pierre, and did her best to raise her four surviving children with faith and structure. Eventually, however, she had to bury two more of her children: her son Patrick, who was taken by cancer; and of course, Brian. Each of the losses was painful and devastating to her heart, but the loss of Brian went beyond that.
Who was Brian Bouquet?
Brian Bouquet was born on July 7, 1953. Along with his sister and two brothers, he grew up in Burlingame, California. Brian was “very bright and talented musically,” Clare recalls, and “taught himself how to play a few different instruments. He enjoyed playing the saxophone the most.” As a teenager, he was popular with other students, and was known for his kindness and compassion, with the ability to see things from the viewpoint of another. While a student reporter for the Mills High School newspaper, he went to the local Juvenile Hall to see what it was like for delinquent youngsters put into the system. The teachers who had assigned the story thought it would focus on why a teen should avoid bad behavior that led to Juvenile Hall. Instead, the article he wrote was about the demeaning treatment that was given to teens – having to undress, being left in a room without a doorknob on the inside, the harsh words of the guards – which “wasn’t what they were expecting,” Clare says.
During his high school years, Brian heard the urban legend regarding the death of the legendary blues singer, Bessie Smith. Known as the “Empress of the Blues,” Bessie was a talented vocalist and well-known innovator of the Harlem Blues scene in the Jazz Age of the 1920’s and 1930’s. On September 25, 1937, Bessie was a passenger in a horrible car accident on US Highway 61 between Memphis, Tennessee and Clarksdale, Mississippi. Her right arm was almost completely severed at the elbow. She lost a great deal of blood before receiving medical attention, and died the next day. But the story around her death has it that she was refused care at a “White hospital” that was close to the scene of her injury. In reality, Bessie was taken directly to a Black hospital and was given immediate treatment, but because of the severe blood loss and the sepsis she contracted at the hospital, she died, a fact that has taken many years to reveal itself. Nevertheless, Clare says, when Brian heard the story about Bessie Smith’s death, he was beyond disgusted to think that a anyone would be denied medical care simply because they were Black. The story changed how he viewed the world. He had “always stood up to injustice,” Clare says, and this form of vicious racism only solidified Brian’s desire to avoid all racist behaviors, and to aspire to a world where racism would no longer determine how people were treated within society.
Brian Joins Peoples Temple
Brian’s own story with Peoples Temple and Jim Jones is rooted in the divorce of his parents, Clare and Pierre, which “destroyed their family.” Pierre’s departure from the family home led to a severely strained relationship with Brian. The estrangement left her son “ripe for the picking” by Jim Jones, who was well-known for assessing what everyone in his church was lacking in their lives and fulfilling that need to secure their allegiance. Brian started attending Peoples Temple services in 1975, and soon fell in love with its tenets and beliefs, especially as they pertained to racial equality and harmony. This ideal within the organization greatly appealed to Brian, as did Jones’ role of “father” in his congregation. Brian very deeply wanted a father figure in his life, and Jones seemed ready-made for the role.
Clare wasn’t terribly alarmed in the beginning of Brian’s involvement, nor did she take issue with the group’s stance on racial relations. Based upon her own Catholic faith, she found it to be quite refreshing. Most of what Peoples Temple offered to its members and the community were exactly what a caring church should provide: clothing, medical care, food, shelter, etc. But Clare was concerned about the stories that Brian told when he came home for a visit, as when he told her that he “had witnessed Jim Jones be shot” by an unseen and unknown enemy. Brian claimed that he had “watched Jim Jones heal himself” of the bullet wound. Concerned for her son and what he was claiming, Clare replied, “Brian, you think you saw that, but it was a trick.”
This story was well-known within the Temple. No one is exactly sure what, if anything, happened to Jim Jones. What is known is that he proclaimed to his congregation that he had been shot and had healed himself of a bullet wound, but no one could say they had witnessed it firsthand. Instead, according to the story, Jones produced a shirt with a hole and what appeared to be blood, which he said was from a bullet, as his evidence.
Clare found such claims disconcerting. She also didn’t like that Brian had stopped visiting her as often as he had been before joining Peoples Temple. But Brian was in his early twenties, and she didn’t feel that she could tell him what to do. In the final analysis, aside from a few outlandish tales, Peoples Temple had all of the appearances of any other church.
Brian Marries Claudia Norris and Goes to Jonestown
One of Brian’s passions in the Temple was playing saxophone in the church band. Another passion was Claudia Norris, a beautiful young Black woman who sang along to the music he played. Claudia’s mother and siblings were also part of the church, though Claudia’s father never joined. Deeply in love with each other, Brian and Claudia married.
Clare stayed in contact with Brian the best that she could over the next couple of years. In 1977, she read an article written by Marshall Kilduff in New West magazine, which was critical of the church and the ongoing child custody struggle over John Victor Stoen between his mother Grace Stoen, and Jim Jones, who claimed to be the boy’s biological father. Clare clipped the article and sent it to Brian, and asked him what was going on. She also sent a check as an Easter present. As time went by and the check remained uncashed, she began to worry. When she called the Temple in San Francisco, she was told that Brian had gone to the church’s agricultural mission in Jonestown, Guyana. Clare was both devastated and alarmed, and immediately wrote to Brian. This time, Brian responded, telling her that all was well and enclosing a photo of “himself and Claudia standing in front of their house in Jonestown.” Clare later learned that the photo was a ruse, that it had been taken “to make me think they lived in that house.” In reality, the couple had been standing in front of the house of Jim Jones’ wife Marceline, and in fact, the couple lived in cramped quarters with numerous other individuals where they had no privacy.
Jonestown had experienced a mass migration to the settlement in the summer of 1977, and suddenly more people than could comfortably be housed were living there. The first settlers who had gone to Guyana as pioneers to clear away the jungle and build living quarters simply hadn’t been able to build enough when Jones responded to the increasingly negative press – especially the exposé in New West magazine – by ordering the migration.
This falsehood about “Brian and Claudia’s house” left Clare concerned. She continued to write to Brian, but his responses became fewer and farther between. Her son had never behaved in such a manner with her – Brian was the sort of person to go above and beyond for those he loved – and his pulling away was the ultimate sign that, whatever he was involved in, things were going wrong in Jonestown.
Clare Tries to Find Help in Connecting with Brian
Later that year, Clare learned of the Concerned Relatives, founded by former Temple members Jeannie and Al Mills (known in the church as Deanna and Elmer Mertle). The group was made up of other former members, as well as relatives of people living in Jonestown. They wanted to be sure that their family members were well-fed, healthy and not under undue stress or being manipulated by anyone to stay in the settlement. They were also alarmed by the lack of communication and how that fed their other concerns. Clare joined the group in the hopes that strength in numbers would help give her more access to Brian.
She also began to write letters to anyone she thought could possibly help her check in on Brian, including local Catholic authorities such as the Archbishop of San Francisco, to individuals in local government, and to the State Department in Washington, D.C. She even wrote to President Jimmy Carter. There were no responses to any of her letters, except from two congressmen. One, Pete McCloskey,was interested in the situation but was tied up with his schedule.
The other, more significant reply was from her representative, Leo Ryan, of California’s 11th district.
Congressman Leo Ryan, Clare Bouquet’s Hero
Clare remembers well that Leo Ryan “was the only person who responded.” Ryan spoke with her and other members of the Concerned Relatives, listening to their stories about their inability to reach their family members in Jonestown. Clare says that Ryan was “a compassionate, caring man, who paid for his compassion with his life.”
After much investigation and many personal conversations, Congressman Ryan decided that the best way to check on the kin of his constituents was to make a trip down to Guyana, and to try to visit Jonestown itself. To that end, Ryan asked several of his congressional colleagues to accompany him, but one by one, they fell away, until in the end, he had only his legislative assistant, Jackie Speier, and Jim Schollaert, a staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Clare had no way of knowing what the risks were for everyone who went. She later learned that Speier – then only 28 – “made out her will” before leaving on the trip.
Not every member of the Concerned Relatives accompanied Ryan’s entourage on the flight to Guyana, but Clare was one who did. There was also a small press contingent that traveled with the group. On November 14, 1978, the group landed at Timehri, the airport for the capital city Georgetown, and went on to their lodgings at the Pegasus Hotel.
The real discussion centered on who would actually go with Ryan to Jonestown, since the small plane that had been chartered to fly into Port Kaituma had limited seating. Even though all the Concerned Relatives wanted to go to Jonestown to see their family members – after all, they had traveled this far – that wasn’t feasible. Clare ended up being one of those who stayed behind in Georgetown, but Ryan promised her “he would ask to speak to Brian first thing” when he got to Jonestown. Jackie Speier later told Clare that Ryan did indeed keep his promise to her, that Brian was the very first individual that the congressman met at the settlement. Greg Robinson, a photographer for The San Francisco Examiner, took a photo of Clare and the congressman just before he flew out to Jonestown. In it, Ryan has his arm around Clare as if consoling her, making his vow to check in on Brian. This image holds great importance to Clare, especially since Robinson was one of those killed at the Port Kaituma airstrip on November 18. From what Clare has heard, his camera was “picked up by another member of the press.”
After the chartered plane took off for Port Kaituma, those left behind returned to the Pegasus hotel. They hung out downstairs and chatted amongst themselves, passing nervous hours. Clare remembers that they were surprised when, out of the blue, the Jonestown basketball team, in Georgetown for a tournament, stepped into the hotel. Both the relatives and the team members were a bit wary of each other initially, but before long, everyone was speaking with one another pleasantly. Clare recalls it was her first indication that Jim Jones’ son Stephan was “nothing like his father.”
On the night of November 17, 1978, even as Leo Ryan and his group were being received in Jonestown, and a dinner and show was being presented to the visitors – including Brian playing saxophone in the Jonestown Express band – Clare decided that she wanted to try to speak with her son. That meant she’d have to go to Lamaha Gardens, the Peoples Temple house in Georgetown, and use their HAM radio. To that end, Clare went with to the house accompanied by House committee staffer Jim Schollaert.
Clare was met at the gate by Sharon Amos, known as a true believer who carried out every order that Jones gave her. “She tried to close the gate on me when she saw me.” Clare begged to be allowed inside, telling Sharon, “I just want to talk to my son!” Responding, “I understand, I’m a mother, too,” Sharon finally relented and allowed Clare to come in.
It took a few moments to get through to Jonestown and to get Brian on the radio, but they finally connected. Clare asked if he was all right, and told him that she “wanted to see him and would try to get out to Jonestown the next day if she could get a flight.” She told her son that she loved him, and was pleased when he responded, “I love you, too,” especially since she had a strong suspicion that Jones was standing right there, monitoring what Brian said.
She then asked to speak with Congressman Ryan. The exchange they had would later come to have special meaning to her. In her opinion, Ryan was about to once again show her the depth of his concern for her well-being, and he very possibly may have saved her life. As Clare says, the congressman was “very upset with me” when he spoke to her, admonishing her, “Clare, I can’t tell you what to do, but how are you going to get out here?” Clare suggested that she would take a chartered flight to Port Kaituma, although she didn’t have a solid idea of how she would leave Jonestown once her visit with Brian was over. She was “terrified about the idea of being in Jonestown,” but her motherly instinct and her love for Brian overrode her fears. Ryan spoke even more forcefully, telling her, “Clare, I cannot tell you what to do, but you cannot get on that plane. That plane is chartered for us [to take the congressional group back to Georgetown]. I don’t want you on that plane. You cannot get on that plane.” Although disappointed, Clare relented and thanked Ryan for what he was doing. With her radio call finished, she left the Peoples Temple house and returned to the Pegasus hotel, praying that, somehow, everything would turn out all right.
The Tragedy of November 18, 1978
In the early evening of November 18, 1978, Clare and the Concerned Relatives in the Pegasus Hotel began to worry. The plane carrying Congressman Ryan and his party was overdue for their return to Georgetown. They also began to hear whispered rumors that something was going on in Jonestown. Clare remembers being in her hotel room speaking with Sherwin Harris after his visit with his daughter Liane, who lived in the Lamaha Gardens house with her mother, Sharon Amos. Sherwin had been “ecstatic after having seen Liane,” and told Clare that his daughter was “doing great.” As they talked, a police officer appeared at the door and asked to speak with the jubilant father. “They went out into the hallway to talk,” Clare remembers, as she stood at the door to her room, too far away to hear what was being discussed. Suddenly, Clare says, “Sherwin’s head dipped back like he had been punched,” and her heart went into her throat. The Guyanese policeman had just told Sherwin that his former wife Sharon Amos, his daughter Liane, and Sharon’s two younger children had been found dead in the Lamaha Gardens house with their throats cut.
On the heels of this news, the earlier whispers about a possible disaster at Jonestown took a more menacing form. Though facts were still lacking regarding exactly what had happened in the jungle community, the people in the hotel were hearing that there had been multiple deaths in Jonestown, even if there was no way at that time that the true scope of the tragedy could be understood or substantiated. Clare recalls that everyone was on edge as rumors swirled around them, and even the hotel staff were terrified by the news. Some of the Guyanese maids came into Clare’s room and “began to pray” with the relatives for the souls of those lost and those who would be spared. The maids wept with raw sadness, Clare says.
Reeling from the new information and in a state of shock, Clare went down to the building’s lobby to gather with the other relatives. There she found the Jonestown basketball team speaking in quiet tones with the group. Stephan Jones, who had also heard about the loss of life in Jonestown, let it slip that he and the rest of the team had been “ordered by Jim Jones himself to kill the Concerned Relatives at the Pegasus.” Awestruck, the relatives asked Stephan why hadn’t he tried to hurt them then? Stephan retorted, “because I’m not a killer. We’re not killers.” Clare has never really gotten to know Stephan Jones very well over the years, she says, but this moment stuck with her. “I feel sorry for Stephan, because he’s really nothing like his father.”
When the news arrived that Congressman Ryan had been killed on the Port Kaituma airstrip along with four others, and that it appeared that the people of Jonestown had also died, the overwhelming shock and horror of it all washed over Clare and the others. Their emotional pain was intense, but they were helpless to do anything even if they could’ve thought of something to do. Tragedy had struck.
Several days passed before the Concerned Relatives could leave Georgetown, until there was really nothing else for them to do but to fly out of Panama and back to the United States in the back of an Army transport plane. Clare remembers that “the back of the plane was wide open,” and that she was “sitting next to Grace Stoen.” The two women “clung to each other,” overwhelmed with the miserable feeling “that they were leaving their children behind.” The plane first landed in Los Angeles, and Clare and the relatives were immediately assigned two F.B.I. agents apiece for protection. “I tried to go to a newsstand to get a newspaper,” Clare remembers, “looking for any stories on what had happened, but one of my F.B.I. agents stopped me. He told me that he’d get me the paper, that I was to ‘stay put.’”
Finally, the relatives took a short flight to San Francisco. Wanting to cover every possibility – hoping against hope that somehow Brian and Claudia had gotten away from Jonestown and would emerge safely from the jungle – Clare left plane tickets at the American Embassy for the couple. But there was nothing left to do but await the outcome of the investigation of the event. The Guyanese Defense Force would be the first people to go into Jonestown after the deaths. Within a matter of days, the United States military would take on the solemn task of recovering the remains of the Jonestown dead for transport back home
The Immediate Aftermath of Jonestown for Clare
Even as Clare and the others returned to the United States, the full scope of how many people had died was not fully known yet. The murder of Congressman Ryan brought the F.B.I. into the investigation, which would soon seek to answer more immediate questions about the tragedy. Jim Jones and the Jonestown leadership had threatened numerous times over the years that if they were “destroyed,” there were assassins who would track down the Temple’s enemies and kill them in revenge. The F.B.I. didn’t know what was real and what was false, but the agency wasn’t taking anything for granted. The members of the Concerned Relatives who had flown back, the F.B.I. reasoned, should be kept in one place and watched over by agents. The home of the group’s founders, Jeannie and Al Mills, was chosen as the place.
Clare, however, wasn’t in the mood for protection in numbers. She still did not know Brian and Claudia’s fate in Jonestown, though she had the ominous feeling that the couple hadn’t made it out. She decided that she needed to sleep in her own bed. Others may have felt better having the F.B.I. around, but she didn’t. Despite numerous letters that she had sent to government agencies in the year before the tragedy, no one besides Congressmen Leo Ryan and Pete McClosky had replied to her. Clare had been debriefed by the authorities upon returning to the San Francisco Airport and given them a statement regarding her experience in Guyana. But as far as she was concerned, if the federal government hadn’t helped her before, it certainly wasn’t going to be of any help to her if a squad of Peoples Temple assassins was on the loose.
Back at her home, Clare heard from a policeman – he had been a liaison officer at the school where she taught, and was now a highway patrolman – who “told her that he was going to come over to my house and stay the night on my couch while I slept, just in case anything happened.” She accepted his gracious offer, but despite her relief, she couldn’t really sleep. There were also a couple of F.B.I. agents watching over her home from inside of a car parked nearby, but they didn’t interact with her. They simply kept watch.
Clare was exhausted and still fighting shock; her mind was reeling with multiple unknowns. Chief among them was, had Brian and Claudia somehow managed to escape the deaths all around them?
The Grief and Loss of Brian, Clare’s Beloved Son
The news that Clare feared finally came to her. The remains of those who had died in Jonestown were flown from Guyana to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, a journey of roughly 3000 miles, where they would be formally identified. The first flight arrived November 24, less than a week after the deaths, with the evacuation lasting for more than another agonizing week. It wasn’t until Christmastime that Clare received notification that Brian had been identified.
The reality engulfed Clare in intense grief and anger, not just at Jim Jones, but also at the U.S. government’s lack of response to the ever-growing danger that had been fomenting in Jonestown while the American State Department and Embassy had turned a blind eye to it. Clare reached out to members of her Catholic faith for comfort. Father Dempsey, a Jesuit priest from the University of San Francisco, came to be with her. Before heading out to Clare’s, Father Dempsey asked his colleague, Father Schallert in Los Angeles to call Clare, telling him that Clare needed him. Will Holsinger, the son of Ryan’s aide Joe Holsinger, was the first person to arrive at Clare’s house to console her, followed by Father Dempsey. “Father Dempsey sat with me until three in the morning,” Clare remembers. “That is a true friend and man of faith.” Father Dempsey would later officiate at both Brian and Claudia’s funerals. (The funerals were not held at the same time, because the two hadn’t been identified at the same time, but Clare made certain that they were buried next to each other.)
Brian’s funeral was emotionally intense for Clare. Her son had been only 25 years old. She found six of Brian’s high school friends to serve as his pallbearers. “It broke my heart to see his friends carrying his casket.” Many of Brian’s old classmates and neighbors turned out. Clare was amazed to see just how many people that Brian had affected with his kindness and compassion. Everyone had fond memories of Brian to share with her, of times that Brian had defended them from bullying, or times in which he had shown great compassion to them when they had been down. As painful as it was to bury Brian, Clare found her opinions of her sons’ qualities reaffirmed by what the mourners told her.
After Claudia was identified at Dover, Clare contacted Claudia’s brothers and sisters who hadn’t joined Peoples Temple, to discuss Claudia’s burial arrangements. Claudia’s family agreed to have her buried next to Brian, and Clare made the necessary arrangements. Tim Reiterman, the newspaper reporter who himself had survived the attack on the Port Kaituma airstrip and had been sympathetic to the plight of the Concerned Relatives, contacted Clare just before Claudia’s services to ask if he could be present at the funeral. “As a journalist?” Clare asked. Tim’s response was quick and to the point. “No, I want to be there as a friend to you and your family.” She agreed to his request.
As the ceremony ended at the grave site, Father Dempsey asked Clare and the members of Claudia’s family to all place their hands on top of Claudia’s casket in a sign of unity and mutual grief. They did as he asked, white hands next to black hands on the cold surface of the coffin.
What Father Dempsey said next struck Clare to the core and remains with Clare to this day. “Now, I want you to forgive Jim Jones,” Father Dempsey directed, citing the tenet of forgiveness in the Christian faith.
After the funeral, Tim Reiterman told Clare that he had been “very touched” to see the two families, one white and one black, “coming together to bury their people.”
In the midst of her own private grief over the loss of Brian and Claudia, Clare learned that a funeral was being held for Leo Ryan. Most of the members of the Concerned Relatives were worried that being present at the congressman’s funeral would endanger their lives. Obviously, Jim Jones had seen Ryan and his visit to Jonestown as an immense threat, and concern was still high that unknown assassins seeking vengeance might show up at Ryan’s funeral. In regard to the Concerned Relatives, Clare “understood their worry” and “doesn’t blame anyone for not going” based on their apprehension, and the worry of possible retribution was the same for her. Nevertheless, she felt compelled to go to the congressman’s funeral, to “honor his sacrifice” for his constituents. That “was worth the risk of any violence befalling me,” she says. He had died while acting in the capacity of a representative of the United States in a foreign country – the first and only time it has happened in U.S. history – which brought even more attention to his services. But as she saw it, “What more can you give than your life in trying to help people? He really lived his job.”
Clare grieved at the funeral for the only person who had been truly willing to listen to her concerns about her son, and who had done his best to try and investigate what was happening in Jonestown. She felt a certain amount of guilt that the congressman had died trying to help her and the other relatives when she approached his family to offer her condolences. She worried that the congressman’s mother might reject her out of hand for being the cause of her son’s death. But Mrs. Ryan acted as the lovely lady that she was, Clare says, telling her, “Dear, we have all suffered the same thing.” Clare was relieved and heartened by the poise that Mrs. Ryan conducted herself with, and understood where her son’s compassion and grace had come from. To this day, Clare is thankful for the “warmth and composure” that Mrs. Ryan showed her at the congressman’s funeral.
At long last, the burials and the funerary services were complete for Clare, at least those that she was needed to attend. Clare spoke with Jackie Speier, who herself had been shot at the Port Kaituma Airstrip and who had spent over 22 hours lying near the airstrip with five bullet wounds to her body. Although she had thought that she was literally dying from her wounds, Speier had spent her time encouraging the others stuck at the airstrip with her to hang on, that help was coming. Her story touched Clare deeply. In the aftermath of what happened in Jonestown, the two women formed a bond of friendship.
Clare and the 1980 Congressional Inquiry into the Deaths at Jonestown
On March 4, 1980, Clare spoke before the Congressional Subcommittee on Internal Operations of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, which was investigating the events in Guyana in the hopes of learning how better to handle any such future crisis where Americans were living abroad in such a large group.
Both the U.S. State Department and the American Embassy in Guyana hadn’t known how to handle the tense situation between the inhabitants of Jonestown and the Concerned Relatives. The two departments had tried to remain neutral in every dispute that had cropped up, including child custody cases. That neutrality had apparently included ignoring Clare’s own requests for assistance. Now, after having lost Brian and Claudia, as well as Leo Ryan, Clare was present to testify about her experiences.
“I believe I can speak for all of the people who have been drawn close to each other in this tragedy when I say, ‘Please hear us!’” she began. She praised Leo Ryan for his work on behalf of his constituents, then added, “I want to say that the people in Jonestown, I feel, were some of the best that we had as Americans… They went to Guyana looking for some sort of promised land and found themselves prisoners in hell.” Then – and most damningly – Clare testified, “The U.S. Embassy did not demonstrate adequate initiative, sensitive reaction to, and appreciation of progressively mounting indications of highly irregular and illegal activities in Jonestown.”
For the Congressional Record and the representatives before her, Clare detailed all the letters that she had written asking for help from the government, presented the numerous copies of Yolanda Crawford’s and Debbie Layton’s affidavits that she had sent to people which indicated something was amiss in Jonestown, and remarked how no one from the Embassy had gone to inquire about her concerns in Jonestown until November 7, 1978, shortly before Leo Ryan’s visit. The State Department had promised to do “quarterly visits” to Jonestown to check in on the people who lived there, and yet, as Clare testified, before November 7, “There had been no visit in six months.”
Clare ended her remarks by requesting that the subcommittee do one thing for those who were grieving, as well as for those who had lost their lives: “I ask this subcommittee to assist us in our pursuit of the whole truth of the story of Guyana.”
Forty-two years after that presentation, although we now have many more answers about the failures of the U.S. State Department and the American Embassy to properly interact with the inhabitants of Jonestown in Guyana, no one in either of the two agencies has been officially called out for their missteps or inaction.
The Lasting Impact of the Jonestown Tragedy on Clare
Clare is still haunted by what happened and what could have been. She will never know the man that her beloved son would have become. She was cheated out of being a part of Brian and Claudia’s life fully. And she cannot know if Brian and Claudia would have given her more grandchildren to love along with the grandchildren she has from her other three children.
There is, however, one thing that Clare is certain of after all of this time. “Leo Ryan is my hero,” she told me fiercely, “and he will be my hero for the rest of my life. He paid for his compassion with his life, and for that, he will always be my hero.” The second thing she will carry in her heart is her memory of the extreme graciousness of Leo Ryan’s mother at his funeral. It truly touched Clare, and she told me that she will never forget it.
“Jackie [Speier] is also a hero to me,” Clare continues. After recovering from her wounds and taking some time to heal mentally, Speier was elected to a seat on the San Mateo County Board in 1980. She would rise in the political ranks, becoming a state legislator in 1986, and in 2008, winning the seat that her former boss held in a special election, a seat from which she will retire at the end of the 2021-22 term. Clare has watched her friend’s career with great pride, and the two women still speak from time to time.
Tim Reiterman has also given Clare something that she appreciates. “I thank him for his continued friendship,” she says. “He is a true friend.”
Clare also speaks periodically with past members of the Concerned Relatives, including Grace Stoen. They “have an affinity for each other,” she says.
There are, indeed, a few good things that came from Clare’s experience with the losses in Jonestown.
When it comes to her thoughts on Jim Jones, however, that is a different matter. He was “evil,” she says. “I believe that he was possessed in some fashion… He was so evil that he was like a demon.” She wonders why more individuals in the Temple didn’t “question his claims that he was god” and is still shocked that the man was able to hold so much sway over so many people. Even more disturbing to Clare is that, knowing how much influence he had over his followers, Jones would use that to satisfy his ego and wants.
Clare has listened to Tape 042, the final tape recording Jim Jones made in Jonestown – often referred to as “the death tape” (how she does that, in my view, is testimony to her mental and emotional strength) – and says of it, “He scared them half to death. It was diabolical, I can’t believe how diabolical. He had them believing that the GDF was going to destroy them … Jones took everything they had, their property, their jewelry, even their souls… and then he murdered them.”
“The whole thing was a tragedy,” Clare concludes. “There were so many good, wonderful people in Peoples Temple who just wanted to make the world a better place.” For her son Brian, the idea of creating a world where people of all races and ethnicities could live in harmony was too tempting to ignore.
Asked whether the loss of life in Jonestown could have been avoided if Leo Ryan had not visited the settlement, Clare’s opinion is unwavering: “[The visit] didn’t go wrong. It went exactly the way that Jim Jones wanted it to go.”
Clare still remembers what Father Dempsey said in the final moments of Claudia’s funeral, when he implored of the black and white family members in attendance to “forgive Jim Jones.” All these years later, Clare says, “It’s kind of hard [to do that], even now.”