'Robot' Behavior of
Ryan Murder Suspect
San Francisco Chronicle - Nov. 28, 1978, p. 4
By Stephen Hall
Laurence Layton, the man charged with killing Congressman Leo Ryan and four members of his fact-finding party in South America, displayed increasingly peculiar behavior even before he left for Guyana last May, according to members of his family.
Three members of the Layton family discussed their decade-long association with the Peoples Temple this past weekend, and pondered last week's numbing events in Guyana.
The relatives said Larry, 32, acted as if he were in a "post-hypnotic trance" as he was drawn further into the Peoples Temple, which he joined in 1968. Shortly before he traveled to Guyana, his father recalled, Larry showed up at the family's East Bay home one afternoon dressed in a full surgical gown and promptly dived into the backyard swimming pool.
This close-knit Quaker family is now torn between the agony of losing Larry, in spirit and mind, to the sect, and the slim familial hope that his "very peaceful" nature rendered him incapable of participating in the Port Kaituma shootout.
There are no comfortable conclusions.
"The thing I wonder about," said Tom Layton, 36-year-old brother of the suspected gunman, "is if the Peoples Temple ordered Larry to do whatever he's done. I wonder if the Peoples Temple is in any way going to support his defense in court, since he was a loyal servant following orders. . . ."
"He was a robot," said father Laurence Layton, a flat distant timbre in his voice.
Larry's character became even more "rote," as family members describe it, when he arrived in Jonestown shortly after his sister Deborah, 25, fled the jungle outpost.
The conditions at Jonestown -- the beatings, the armed surveillance, the rehearsals for mass suicide -- were subsequently reported by Debbie.
From the very moment she entered the Peoples Temple agricultural mission in Jonestown last December, Debbie thought of plans to escape.
The day I got there, I knew I had to leave," she recalled, gently stroking the hand of her middle-aged father as she sat at his feet. "It was horrendous, all these people with all these guns, watching you while you worked. I knew I had to leave."
Debbie said she detected a "small initial paranoia" in the temple's San Francisco headquarters before sect leader Jim Jones shifted the group to Jonestown in 1977.
"But when you got into Guyana and then got into the interior, you had no contact with the outside world," she said. "The only thing you heard was what Jim Jones said over the loudspeakers.
"At night, you heard guns being shot in the jungle," she continued. "Jim told us it was mercenaries coming after us. He had you believing the whole world was against you."
Beyond the paranoia that poisoned the fate of the sect as surely as the cyanide that ultimately killed more than 900 disciples, Debbie Layton also realized that Jim Jones' egalitarian utopia was disintegrating in the jungle.
"Jim was the only one to have a king-sized bed, the only one to have a refrigerator," said Debbie. "He was even the only one to have a mosquito net."
She also said that church policy played favorites, "so certain pretty women were assigned to certain men."
And despite the temple's reputation as a champion of racial equality, Debbie admitted that "the people who made the rules were all upper-middle-class whites."
All three daily meals consisted almost solely of rice, with meat and vegetables served once every three weeks, she said. Temple members grew to relish visits since Jones put on a show on those occasions.
"Everyone was glad when a guest came because for once the work hours were shortened, you could wear clean clothes and the food was good," Layton recalled. "It was a relief."
When Debbie first arrived at Jonestown, she spent a month and a half working in the fields. Then Jones transferred her to 12-hour work days in the radio room, where she maintained contact with Georgetown headquarters of the Peoples Temple.
Her first step toward freedom came last March, when Jones appointed Debbie and several other temple members to chaperone a group of temple children for a trip to Georgetown, where they would present a cultural program for Guyanese officials.
She did not reveal her escape plans even to her mother, Lisa, who also lived at Jonestown.
"She didn't know I was going to leave," said Debbie, remembering their final farewell. "I hugged her good-bye. And she said, 'I know I'm never going to see you again.'"
"But thank God she didn't tell on you," whispered the elder Layton.
Debbie's able management of the Georgetown temple during the visit prompted Jones' wife, Marceline, to recommend her for a permanent post there. Once based in Georgetown, Debbie began placing clandestine telephone calls to brother Tom and sister Annalisa, 33, in Northern California.
Final departure plans were arranged with the U.S. Embassy in Guyana, which provided Debbie with an emergency passport and escorted her to the airport.
But there was a final nerve-wracking delay. Debbie was prepared to leave May 12, but a dispute with Guyanese officials at the airport delayed customs clearance and the Pan American World Airways jet took off without her. She threw off Peoples Temple members who spotted her at the airport by telling them she was on a special mission.
Debbie left Guyana for good the next day.
"When I went up the steps of the plane to leave," she said, "I couldn't believe I wasn't being shot in the back."
Upon arrival in the Bay Area, she immediately went into hiding.
The Layton family believes that son Larry was then whisked from the Peoples Temple in San Francisco to Guyana so that his defecting sister would have no chance to talk to him.
"I tried to get in touch with him at the temple," said Larry's father. "Well, hell, they'd already shipped him out."
Larry called up the family from Guyana several days later. His father recounts, "I said, 'Laurence, don't go into the interior! Don't go into the interior!" He'd never been in the interior, but he kept telling me how beautiful it was. Obviously they were telling him what to say. Since then, it was just insanity."
Debbie Layton has heard from temple survivors that Larry was further distressed when his mother, 63-year-old Lisa Layton, died at Jonestown about three months ago. Debbie believes her mother had falled out of favor with Jones because she expressed opposition to the violent beatings that marked jungle discipline.
"This is our only consolation in the whole thing," said Laurence Layton. "She didn't live to see the collapse of the whole thing, the end of all her hopes. They all believed they were doing good things."
Once repatriated, Debbie began informing the State Department and the press about conditions in Jonestown. A radio-phone call from Larry to his brother was an attempt to discredit his sister's revelations.
"But I could hear Laurence go into his rote," said Tom. "Everything he said was prepared as a response to everything negative in the press up here, whatever they were currently getting attacked for."
Suddenly, after Layton senior came on the line, the phone connection was cut off.