In 1981, a spiritual leader named “Rajneesh,” aka “Osho,” aka Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, an Indian mystic and guru who advocated open attitudes toward sexuality, rejected Mahatma Ghandi and Indian socialism founded an “intentional community,” aka commune, aka “cult” in rural Oregon. They originally wanted to found an agricultural cooperative, but it soon became apparent to residents of what is today Antelope, Oregon, the closest town to the cultists they were up to so much more than that.
They set up a six million dollar, 64,000-acre ranch near Antelope, complete with 93 Rolls-Royce automobiles and private jets, all with money donated by his followers. His disciples dressed in red, worked all day, did drugs at night, and had sex with and in front of their leader. Rajneesh claimed the sex he taught them could cure them of their phobias and give them spiritual enlightenment.
The followers, called “Rajneeshees” immediately entered conflict with the locals of Antelope over the use of the massive tract of land, but with only 50 people in the tiny town, compared to the Rajneeshees 7,000, they didn’t stand much of a chance. The townspeople tried to disincorporate themselves, but the measure was voted down, overwhelmed by Rajneesh’s registered voter corps. The cultists were very aggressive, initiating lawsuits, voting to change name the town to “Rajneesh,” and even allegedly attempting to murder state politicians.
The cult began flying people into the area via their series of private jets. The cult’s de facto leader, a woman named Ma Anand Sheela (aka Sheela Silverman) exacerbated the growing conflict with her crude and inflammatory rhetoric. She was dismissive of the townspeople’s complaints. Locals began to talk openly about hunting Rajneeshees in “turkey shoots.” Things were coming to a boiling point.
Antelope wasn’t the only town targeted by the Rajneeshees. In an attempt to pack the Wasco County government with Rajneesh’s followers, the cult targeted the voting population of The Dalles, Oregon.
In order to incapacitate The Dalles voting population so only cult members would be healthy enough to make it to the polls on voting day, the cultists spread Salmonella enterica Typhimurium on salad bars and in salad dressings throughout the city. 751 people picked up salmonellosis, 45 of those were hospitalized. No one died, but the locals were immediately suspicious of the rash of food poisonings. There were too many for it to be coincidental. Local leaders and citizen suspected the Rajneeshees. The evidence was purely circumstantial, however.
Rajneesh, who was in a self-imposed isolation the entire time, finally came out and spoke up as a governmental inter-agency task force was being assembled to take on the cult. He called a press conference to blame everything on Sheela, who had conveniently just fled the country.It was almost an entire year later, but once the task force was formed, search warrants were issued and the Rajneeshee ranch was raided. Law enforcement found copies of The Anarchists’ Cookbook as well as samples of the salmonella strain used in the attack.
Rajneesh blamed the running of the commune on Sheela and admitted his complicity by remaining in isolation. He was fined and given a suspended sentence before being deported.
Ma Anand Sheela and another woman were extradited to the U.S. from West Germany, while Rajneesh himself couldn’t find a country who would take him until he ultimately ending up back in India where he started. Sheela served 29 months of a twenty year sentence. Rajneesh died in 1990.
It was the only instance of bioterrorism on American soil until the 2001 Anthrax mailing attacks. The camp is now a Christian youth camp.
All cult photos © 2003 Samvado Gunnar Kossatz, used by permission