The History of the Rajneesh Cult
written by Amy Faust | feature photo courtesy of Oregon Live
On a September Sunday in 1984 in The Dalles, hundreds of people became horribly sick with salmonella poisoning after eating at restaurants in town. This outbreak turned out to be a deliberate poisoning which was part of a multiphased, violent (albeit amateurish) plot by the Rajneeshee leaders to take over the local government of the county where they had settled.
When the truth about the Rajneeshees eventually surfaced, reactions were mixed. Many people were surprised by the extensive rap sheet (arson, murder plots, wiretapping, poisonings) attached to this group which professed to be peace-loving and nonviolent. Residents of towns near the Rajneesh ranch, who had seen the group’s leaders morph from friendly neighbors into hostile, machine-gun-toting adversaries, were relieved that the truth had finally surfaced. In my house, the revelations confirmed something we had suspected for a while—that years before their bio-attack on The Dalles, the Rajneeshees had poisoned my dad.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, my dad, Jack Faust, hosted a public affairs show called Town Hall on KATU-TV in Portland. The show tackled the issues of the day in a town hall meeting format. Anyone passionate about a subject—from ballot measures to alien abductions—was invited to speak their minds in a live, uninterrupted hour of television. In an era when limited channels meant that a popular show could grab a quarter of the people watching TV, Town Hall, with its high ratings, could be a game-changer for controversial issues. Not surprisingly, when the Rajneeshees arrived in Oregon, the show was quick to cover the story.
Clothed in the warm colors of the sunrise, the first “sannyasins” began arriving in Oregon in 1981. They wouldn’t have stood out much in Portland—where the shaggy, Deadhead aesthetic of the 1970s still prevailed—if not for their identical, wood-beaded necklaces, each bearing the photograph of a grey-bearded guru, smiling benevolently. Polite, generally well-educated and quick to laugh or smile, these followers of the Indian spiritual leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh tended to radiate a similar benevolence, as if to say that we Oregonians had nothing to fear.
The leaders of this group would soon mastermind the biggest bioterrorism attack in American history.
Origins of the Rajneesh cult
First, some background. The Bhagwan (which means “lord” or “god” in Sanskrit) was a guru based in Puna, India, with thousands of followers worldwide who were drawn to his more permissive and hedonistic take on Eastern religious philosophy. The free-love atmosphere at his 1970s ashram soon earned him the nickname of the “sex guru,” and the highly physical—even reportedly violent—forms of therapy he espoused added to the controversy. In search of a fresh start, the Bhagwan bought 64,000 acres of mostly arid ranch land in Wasco County for $6 million in 1981.
Within just a few months of purchasing the land, the Rajneeshees received permission to incorporate and began creating what they called a “simple farming community.” Hundreds (and eventually thousands) of followers came from Puna and elsewhere to work around the clock, building what would be their spiritual home and the home of their guru.
One of their earliest victims was, likely, my father.
– Amy Faust
While some locals were wary of their new neighbors, most were tolerant, and many appreciated the Bhagwan’s buying power, which appeared to be unlimited. One county official, Rick Cantrell, was instrumental in the Rajneeshees gaining incorporation rights, and he had benefitted greatly from a lucrative cattle deal with the group, it was later revealed.
Foundation of Rancho Rajneesh
In the fall of 1981, my dad and the crew from Town Hall traveled to Antelope (population 47), the ranching town most affected by the new settlement, to host a gathering of locals and residents of “Rancho Rajneesh.” Sitting in the front row in an orchid-pink sweater and backed by dozens of similarly clad sanyassins, Sheela explained that “to find a piece of rangeland which has been abused and turn it into something beautiful just shows what love can do. Bhagwan stands for all the love that exists in the universe.”
While some locals voiced suspicion of the group’s real motives and practices, their only concrete complaint thus far was that the Bhagwan’s penchant for speeding recklessly along their rural roads in one of his dozens of Rolls Royces made him a “menace.” Other concerns, such as land-use violations, the effect of rising property taxes and a possible Rajneeshee voting block were literally laughed off by the sanyassins in attendance, who seemed to find abundant humor in things that weren’t obviously funny.
Six months later, I joined my dad for his second show on the Rajneeshees so that I could write a story about it for my high school paper (luckily for me and my writing career, this story has been lost in the intervening years).
By this time, most Oregonians—and most of the nation for that matter—had taken notice of the Rajneeshee invasion. A ranch full of educated, mostly white, middle-class men and women worshipping a “free love” guru with expensive taste drew media attention to a previously ignored part of a sleepy state in the Pacific Northwest.
Rancho Rajneesh becomes Rajneeshpuram
Just a year into their venture, the Rajneeshees had already planted more than 100 acres of crops and built dozens of homes and buildings at “Rajneeshpuram,” as the ranch was now called. Rolling into Antelope with my dad the day before the show, I saw Zorba the Buddha Cafe, formerly the Antelope Cafe—one sign that the Bhagwan’s followers were doing more than just farming. Many Antelope residents were already so burned out on media attention that they opted to stay home with their shutters drawn rather than appear on the show.
The Rajneesh Poisonings
One of the Rajneeshee’s public relations professionals, Ma Prem Sunshine, introduced me to sanyassins who all seemed happy, intelligent and able to clearly explain the appeal of life as a Rajneeshee. Sitting on a couch in her tastefully decorated mobile home, I also interviewed Ma Anand Sheela, who, as I recall, was not particularly intimidated by my investigative efforts. My impression at the time was that the Rajneeshees seemed educated and motivated, if a little starry-eyed when it came to explaining their love for their leader.
This second Town Hall show was more combative than the first, with Antelope Mayor Margaret Hill describing “unrelenting pressure” from the Rajneeshees, who “laughed at and ridiculed” the locals while taking over the city. Residents had taken to locking their doors for the first time ever, and were trying to disincorporate Antelope to keep the Rajneeshees from taking over the local government.
Rajneesh in Portland
Six months later, the impact of the Rajneeshees had spread beyond Antelope and Rajneeshpuram. Downtown Portland hosted a Rajneeshee bakery and café with fresh-baked goods trucked in from the ranch each morning. The transportation cost was offset by the Bhagwan’s followers, who were working for free. The Hotel Rajneesh welcomed international visitors arriving in Portland on their way to pay respects to the Bhagwan. A nightclub, also called Zorba the Buddha, would open just a few months later, complete with a disco ball and wallpaper depicting a pattern of thousands of Bhagwan faces. Thanks to the club’s relaxed attitude about the drinking age, my high school friends and I visited quite a few times.
By this time, tensions were high in Wasco County. As my dad prepared to do a third show on location in Antelope, his producers began to get some resistance from Sheela and the Rajneesh leaders, who clearly did not want the show to happen. Then, just one day before the scheduled taping, they reversed their stance, sending my dad an apology and a boxed lunch from Zorba the Buddha. While my dad remembers his receptionist, Jeannine Marks, saying, “I wouldn’t eat that if I were you,” like a good, waste-not child of the Great Depression, he wolfed it down. “What are they going to do,” he replied, “poison me?”
The next day, his producer, India Simmons, got an odd phone call from Ma Prem Sunshine, asking simply, “How’s Jack today?” Sunshine’s tone of voice prompted Simmons to call my dad, who was in fact at home in bed with a fever of 103, horribly sick for the first time since age 5. Not wanting to miss the show, he recruited my mom to drive him to Antelope, feeling nauseous the whole way.
After a heavy dose of Tylenol, he hosted the show, which was indeed more damaging to the Rajneeshee reputation than the previous episodes. In the face of criticism from detractors, the Rajneeshees often broke into loud, disconcerting laughter, and at one point responded to an angry local by bursting into song.
At the time, no one (except perhaps his receptionist) suspected that my dad’s illness had anything to do with foul play. While tensions between the Rajneeshees and the local government were rising, most people never dreamed that the group would resort to violence in what was essentially a land-use battle. How wrong we were.
Rajneesh takeover: The Adolph Hitler Recycling Center
By the end of 1982, after several thwarted attempts to zone Rajneeshpuram as a city, the Rajneeshees took control of the Antelope City Council. The voting block and high taxes so feared by locals became a reality, and soon an armed Rajneeshee “Peace Force” was patrolling the area, arresting several adversaries for “menacing.” Main Street became “Melvana Bhagwan,” and the local landfill, astonishingly, was renamed the “Adolph Hitler Recycling Center.” Having gained full control of the city, Sheela and her gang set their sights on controlling the county.
Eyewitness Reports from the days of Rajneesh
Dan Durow was a county planner in The Dalles who witnessed the change in Rajneeshee tactics firsthand. While his first dealings with their leaders were quite “friendly, personable, open and honest,” he said, “once they began to sense that I wasn’t just going to give them everything they asked for, they started to treat me differently.” At one hearing, the Rajneeshees across the table from him passed a note from one to the next, with each one reading it, looking at Durow and giggling. “It was strange to deal with people who looked like adults, but acted like kids,” he said.
In the fall of 1984, as tensions over an upcoming election mounted, residents of The Dalles went about their routines. For furniture store owner Turner, Sunday brunch at the Portage Inn was a family tradition. “Back then, I wasn’t so disciplined,” he said, “My basic plan was, ‘how many plates at the buffet can we do before we waddle out of here?’”
The next day Turner was completely incapacitated by violent gastric distress, and his young daughter was vomiting as well. When he made it to his doctor a few days later, he was met by a nurse at the door with a clipboard asking where he had eaten recently. That and the crowded waiting room full of miserable people with similar symptoms convinced him that he was a part of something bigger than just a random case of the flu. In the two weeks after that Sunday meal, Turner lost fifty-four pounds.
Dave Lutgens owned Dave’s Hometown Pizza, a restaurant in The Dalles that typically served about 350 people at the Sunday buffet and salad bar. After dining at his own place one afternoon, he and his wife went home and were so sick they became delirious. Several of his employees were also ill that day, but Lutgens didn’t know what could have happened. He kept his restaurant open, though with word spreading through town about widespread illness, his revenues instantly plunged more than 80 percent.
Between late August and early October 1984, more than 700 people contracted salmonella from eating in ten different restaurants in The Dalles. No one died, but hundreds were hospitalized, and one infant born to a sickened mother almost didn’t survive. While some locals privately suspected Rajneeshee involvement, no one could imagine a motive. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chalked it up to the kitchen workers being somehow contaminated, and with the exception of Dave’s Hometown Pizza, every affected restaurant lost so much business that they were eventually forced to close.
Turning the tables on the Rajneeshees
One man refused to accept the findings of the C.D.C. Congressman Jim Weaver, a Democrat from Eugene, had become suspicious of the Rajneeshees after dealing with them on government land negotiations. When he heard about the outbreak in The Dalles, he launched his own personal investigation, poring over data, interviewing medical experts and ultimately crafting a compelling speech that he delivered on the House floor. Laying out his theory that someone cultivated salmonella and sprinkled it onto food in buffets all over town, Weaver was the first person to publicly suggest that what happened in The Dalles was actually bioterrorism.
Weaver’s charge that the Bhagwan’s people were responsible for a “massive assault,” prompted some to brand him a bigot. “People on the University of Oregon campus would spit on me,” he recalls. “My staff begged me to stop talking about it. Even my own daughter told me I’d gone off my rocker.”
The Disintegration of the Rajneesh Cult
A year later, when an internal power struggle caused Sheela and her allies to flee the ranch, the Bhagwan broke his vow of silence to tell the world that his former mouthpiece and her “gang” had committed a series of crimes. When the truth came out later in court testimony, it was far worse than even the most paranoid of detractors could have imagined. Weaver’s accusations were proven correct, yet they were only the tip of the iceberg.
Frustration had driven an already combative Sheela to develop violent plans against the people who stood in her way, inside her group and beyond. By 1984, the Rajneeshee inner circle was meeting regularly to discuss who they would kill and how they would do it. The mass poisoning in The Dalles was one step in a trial run of a larger plan to incapacitate enough voters on election day that the Rajneesh candidates could take over the county.
Sheela and her longtime ally, a nurse named Ma Anand Puja, had begun ordering salmonella pathogens from out-of-state medical labs. Working in isolation in a cabin laboratory, Puja generated dozens of vials of brownish liquid. Trusted insiders were dispatched to The Dalles on several runs, wiping the liquid on bathroom door handles, urinals and in one case shaking a man’s hand to try to pass on traces of the poison. At one point, Sheela told Puja, “Let’s have some fun,” and they took a small team to a grocery store to sprinkle the liquid—or “salsa” as they called it—over the produce section.
When no one got sick, Sheela and Puja weighed a few more options, including poisoning the water supply of the county with salmonella-infected beaver caracasses. Their first success came when Puja gave glasses of salmonella-contaminated water to two Wasco County officials who were touring Rajneeshpuram in the summer heat. One of them, Bill Hulse, became so sick that he would have died without medical intervention, doctors told him. Weeks later, small groups of Rajneeshees dressed in plain clothes visited the salad bars and buffets of The Dalles and discreetly dumped their vials of “salsa” into salad dressings and fresh lettuce.
Fortunately, none of Sheela’s other deadly plans were carried out as successfully. An amateurish effort of committing arson caused damage to Durow’s county planning office, but failed to harm anyone. Attempts to murder other Bhagwan confidants were thwarted, as well as plots to kill Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer and U.S. Attorney Charles Turner, among others. Plans to crash a bomb-laden plane into the Wasco County courthouse—eerily foreshadowing 9/11—never happened.
The Aftermath of the Rajneesh Cult
As for my dad, when he learned about Sheela’s penchant for salmonella, he thought back to that boxed lunch he had eaten back in 1982, but he never publicly pursued answers. As the state was sifting through confiscated documents to prepare its cases against the Rajneeshees, my dad learned from then-Secretary of State Norma Paulus that she had seen minutes of discussions about how to stop Town Hall from doing the third show. At one meeting, she told him, someone said that there was no need to worry because “Jack took the sandwich.”
Thirty years have passed since this four-year battle. Sheela and her associates all served prison time, and the Bhagwan was deported as part of a plea bargain and died in India in 1990. Some followers, who now call him Osho, still worship him, separating the deeds of Sheela from the reputation of their guru. Rajneeshpuram is now a Christian Young Life camp, and in Antelope, the only trace of the Rajneesh takeover is a plaque at the post office, commemorating those who resisted the “invasion.”
The Wasco County people most affected felt their lives return to normal, though some were deeply shaken. “It was a real awakening for me,” said Durow. “I tend to be pretty trusting, but I had to change my whole mindset. In fact, when I saw your message, I thought, hmmmm … Amy Faust. I wonder if that’s her real name or if she’s really a Rajnesshee?”