Galen Wright Holsinger – better known as “Joe” – was the Administrative Assistant to Rep. Leo Ryan when the congressman left for Guyana in November 1978. Within the first few days following his boss’ assassination, Joe Holsinger became a strong believer in some of the alternative theories as to what happened in Jonestown, and appeared in numerous forums to present those views.
According to an interview Holsinger gave to the FBI on November 21, 1978, three days after the tragedy, Ryan first became aware of Peoples Temple about 18 months to two years earlier. Holsinger assisted in preparations for the trip to Guyana, but the only congressional aides to accompany Ryan were Jackie Speier, Ryan’s Legislative Assistant, and James Schollaert, a staff member of the House International Relations Committee, of which Ryan was a member.
Within days of the assassination, Holsinger was already raising questions about whether the materials Ryan took with him had been tampered with. During two additional interviews with the FBI in early December, Holsinger said that when he received Ryan’s briefcase shortly after his boss’ death, he noticed that “The clasps on the briefcase were open and after going through its contents, Holsinger noted that a tape recorder carried by Congressman Ryan to Guyana was missing.”
Those questions soon developed into deeper questions as to what had really happened in Jonestown in the months leading up to November 18.
The December 2, 1978 edition of the Black Panther Party’s biweekly newspaper was one of the first to circulate rumors about the role of the Central Intelligence Agency in the tragedy, citing such unexplained factors as the discrepancies in the body count during the first week, the physical appearance of the bodies, and the similarity of drugs found in Jonestown with those used in the agency’s MK-ULTRA mind control experiments. Joe Holsinger gave a larger voice to those theories, and as Rebecca Moore writes in A Sympathetic History of Jonestown (p. 414), he added a few new ones.
Holsinger asserted that U.S. Embassy officials Richard Dwyer and Richard McCoy, Temple member Tim Carter, and Guy Spence, one of the pilots at the Port Kaituma airstrip, were agents or informants for the CIA. He also believed that the CIA set up Ryan’s assassination because the California Democrat co-sponsored the Hughes-Ryan Amendment — the law which requires prior Congressional approval of all CIA covert operations.
Holsinger claimed in testimony before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee that the CIA had conducted a covert operation in Guyana, and that Jonestown was part of it. Holsinger’s allegations included:
1. The contention that the CIA conducted a varied range of ‘activities’ in Guyana;
2. The contention that a CIA agent witnessed Representative Ryan’s assassination;
3. The contention that the CIA may have violated the Hughes-Ryan Act by failing to report a covert operation in Guyana;
4. The contention that the CIA made a conscious decision to allow the tragic events of November 18, 1978 to occur in order to avoid disclosure of CIA covert activities in Guyana;
5. The contention that this alleged reporting failure was conscious and calculated because Representative Ryan was a co-author of the Hughes-Ryan Act; and
6. The contention that the CIA was used to promote and protect American commercial interests in Guyana.
That hearing of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, including Holsinger’s testimony, appears here.
Holsinger was equally as harsh in his criticisms of the State Department. In press conferences as early as two days after the deaths in Jonestown, department spokesman John Bushnell was already called upon to defend his agency against charges that “the information coming from our embassy there was inadequate, that [Ryan] was getting less than the in-depth analysis that he was requesting.” Holsinger also chastised State over its assurances that “there was no cause for alarm [and that] everything was fine among the temple followers in Guyana.”
Within 18 months of the tragedy, Joe Holsinger was expounding upon his theories in public lectures and conferences outside of Congress. On May 23, 1980, for example, he spoke before a forum on the “Psycho-Social Implication of the Jonestown Phenomenon,” in which he repeated some of the same charges against State and the CIA.
During that appearance, he also distributed copies of “The Penal Colony,” a January 1979 article by a Berkeley psychologist “who has asked that his name be withheld.” Although Holsinger never identified the source for the article, it is almost certain that it is Richard Ofshe, a professor of social psychology at UC-Berkeley and an associate of Margaret Singer.
Holsinger gave an interview on the same day, the audio of which is here. It is likely, but not verified, that the interview was in conjunction with the forum to which he had been invited. Neither the interviewer nor the media outlet is identified in the audio or the accompanying transcript.
Holsinger maintained his beliefs in these claims throughout his life, although in an article published by the Chicago Tribune on the tenth anniversary in 1988, he “conceded he has no proof for his charges.”
Joe Holsinger left his job in the House in January 1979, and made an unsuccessful run for Ryan’s seat in 1979. He died on September 10, 2004.
FBI RYMUR Serials (search for “Holsinger” in text versions)
Review of the Implementation of Recommendations Relating to the Death of Representative Leo J. Ryan (See Holsinger testimony, pp. 7-15)
A Sympathetic History of Jonestown, p. 414.
Jonestown and CIA: Interview with an aide to Congressman Leo J. Ryan (with accompanying audio), May 23, 1980
10 Years Later, Jonestown Secrets Haunt Mourners,” The Chicago Tribune, November 13, 1988.
For an additional perspective on Joe Holsinger, see the 2018 article Who Silenced Joe Holsinger?, by Tom Whittle