16. Congressman Leo Ryan was assassinated whilst trying to rescue hundreds of people from a doomsday cult
Leo Joseph Ryan Jr. was the second sitting member of the US House of Representatives to be assassinated while in office. But still, his 1978 murder has been largely overshadowed by the events surrounding it. And understandably so. Ryan was killed in the build-up to the so-called Jonestown Massacre, when more than 900 people lost their lives in a suicide pact directed by infamous cult leader Jim Jones.
Prior to his trip to Jonestown, Ryan had a long history of trying to use his position for good. At the start of the 1970s, for example, he was a prominent campaigner for prison reform in California. He also campaigned against cruel seal hunting and was not afraid of criticizing the CIA. So it was hardly surprising that, when he learned that a large number of people, including children, were being held against their will by a cult holed-up in a temple in a South American jungle, Ryan set off to help.
Ryan travelled to Jonestown on November 1, 1978. He was accompanied by a news crew, journalists and embassy officials. At first, the cult members were cooperative but then things started turning ugly. Fearing for their safety, the visitors made a break for the airstrip. While they made it to the runway, cult members opened fire on the group. Ryan was killed, along with four others. Congresswoman Jackie Speer was seriously wounded and had to wait almost 24 hours for help to arrive.
For his actions that day, Ryan was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. A cult member, Larry Layton, was convicted of conspiracy to murder and served 18 years in a California prison. On the same evening that Ryan was killed, Jones ordered his group to drink a concoction laced with cyanide. In all, 918 people, including 276 children, died.