That Time an Oregon Free-Love Cult Launched the Largest Bioterror Attack in US History
On September 18, 2001, one week after the 9/11 attacks, mysterious envelopes began appearing at the offices of major American news outlets including ABC, CBS, and NBC, as well as Democratic Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. The envelopes contained a strange brown powder, which quickly caused those who came into contact with it to fall seriously ill. That powder was Anthrax, a deadly biological weapon. By the time the FBI located and impounded all the envelopes, 22 people had contracted the disease, 5 of whom eventually died. Despite a 9-year investigation, the case has never definitively been solved, though the bulk of the FBI’s suspicion fell on Bruce Edwards Ivins, a vaccine expert at the bioweapons facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland, who committed suicide in 2008 before he could be questioned.
While the 2001 “Amerithrax” event is the most well-remembered bioterror attack in US history, it was not the first or even the largest. That dubious honour belongs to a largely forgotten incident in 1984 when a Hindu-inspired free-love cult called the Rajneeshees attempted to take over a small Oregon town by poisoning local salad bars with salmonella bacteria. It is a story truly stranger than fiction.
The Rajneesh movement was founded in 1970 by Rajneesh Chandra Mohan, an Indian philosophy professor and spiritualist better known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh or later simply as “Osho.” In 1974 Rajneesh founded an ashram, or commune, outside the Indian city of Poona, which soon began attracting thousands of mainly young, middle and upper-class followers from Europe and North America. His teachings, an eclectic mixture of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and even western psychotherapy and capitalism, denied the existence of God and promoted casual nudity and sexual freedom, placing him at odds with the more conservative Indian population. Nonetheless, the movement grew rapidly, and by the late 1970s Rajneesh had amassed over 200,000 followers in 600 meditation centres worldwide and enough personal wealth to maintain a fleet of 90 Rolls-Royces.
By the early 1980s, however, the Rajneeshees faced increasing pressure from the Indian government to leave, and in 1981 at the urging of his right-hand woman, Ma Anand Sheela – real name Sheela Silverman – Rajneesh moved his ashram to Montclair, New Jersey. After an extensive search for a larger territory in which to build his spiritualist utopia, Rajneesh purchased 65,000 acres of land called “The Big Muddy Ranch” outside the town of The Dalles in Wasco County, rural Oregon. More than 7000 followers would eventually settle in the new compound, which was incorporated later that year as Rajneeshpuram. The settlement quickly grew into a self-contained commune featuring its own communal farms, 4,200-foot airstrip, fire department, public transit system, sewage plant, and even zip code. The organizational structure of Rajneeshpuram was equally unusual. While Rajneesh was nominally in charge, upon arrival in Oregon he had taken a four-year vow of silence and rarely appeared in public outside his daily drive-throughs of the commune in his Rolls-Royce. Daily decision-making was thus left to Ma Anand Sheela and an inner circle of high-ranking women who became known as “Big Moms.” Ruthless against anyone who challenged their authority, the “Big Moms” became known among disaffected Rajneeshees as the “Dowager Duchesses.”
While the Rajneeshees initially enjoyed friendly relations with the residents of Wasco county, contributing some $35 million to the local economy, these relations soon soured as the group attempted to further expand Rajneeshpuram. Oregon zoning laws at the time placed severe restrictions on land use, and the Wasco County Commission, wary of the group’s growing population and political power, began denying them land-use permits and citing them for numerous building code violations. According to former Commission member Dan Eriksen, the Rajneeshees reacted violently to such challenges, threatening local government officials with libel suits and even death. The Commission’s fears were confirmed in early 1984 when the Rajneeshees took control of the nearby small town of Antelope by overwhelming its 75 residents in a local election. They then renamed the town “Rajneesh”, raised taxes, and carried out strange initiatives such as turning the town’s only business into a vegetarian restaurant called “Zorba the Buddha” and renaming the local recycling center the“Adolf Hitler Recycling Center.” No, really. Furthermore, this coup, along with the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram itself, gave the Rajneeshees the legal right to not only form their own police department, but also to patrol county roads and access State police training programs and even crime data networks. Rajneeshpuram thus organized a “Peace Force” of 60 officers who patrolled the roads around the commune with machine-gun armed jeeps.
Despite all this, however, attempts to expand the commune continued to be stymied by the Wasco County Commission. Furthermore, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland had begun an investigation into the immigration status of many of the cult members and the legal status of Rajneeshpuram itself, threatening the commune’s very existence. Sheela and the other “Big Moms” thus realized that the only way for the commune to gain complete autonomy was to take control of the Commission itself. Fortuitously, two of the three seats on the Commission were coming up for reelection in November 1984, and so the Rajneeshees set to work trying to secure them. At first the cult attempted to find sympathetic politicians to run against the hostile commissioners, but when they failed to get enough signatures to get their preferred candidates on the ballot, they turned instead to straight-up voter fraud.
As the 15,000 registered voters in Wasco County outnumbered the Rajneeshees more than two-to-one, the cult initially planned to send members into The Dalles, the largest population centre in the County, under false names in order to vote twice. But this plan was quickly abandoned due to the high risk of discovery. Instead, the Rajneeshees launched a scheme called “Share-a-Home,” an ostensibly humanitarian venture in which some 2,300 homeless people from around the State were brought to Rajneeshpuram and given shelter and food on the condition that they vote for the Rajhneeshee candidate in the upcoming election. However, on October 10 the Wasco County clerk countered this tactic by evoking an emergency rule requiring all new voters to appear in person at eligibility hearings and present their qualifications – including a minimum 20-day residency requirement to vote. The Rajneeshees filed an injunction, but this was quickly struck down. Meanwhile, those the commune quickly discovered that housing and caring for more than 2,000 homeless people – many of whom were suffering from untreated mental illnesses – was rather more than they had bargained for, and there are reports of “guests” being blindfolded and forced to listen to hours of religious chanting or being drugged to keep them under control.
With their attempts to stuff the ballot box thwarted, the Rajneeshees turned to ever more drastic measures, even plotting to assassinate Oregon District Attorney Charles Taylor in Portland. Taylor was stalked, firearms purchased, and an assassin even chosen, but the hit was never carried out. Another abortive plot involved crashing a small plane packed with explosives into the Wasco County courthouse. In the end, however, the Rajneeshees settled on an even more sinister option: biological warfare.
What would become the largest bioterror attack in US history was masterminded by Ma Anand Puja, a native of the Philippines who had worked as a nurse in California and Indonesia before moving to India in 1979 to join the Rajneeshees. Wielding power in the cult nearly equal to Ma Sheela, Ma Puja served as the Secretary and Treasurer of the Rajneesh Medical Corporation and the commune’s Pythagoras Clinic and Pharmacy. But she was far from the caring, benevolent nurse her responsibilities would suggest. According to one former cult member: “There was something about Puja that sent shivers of revulsion up and down my spine the moment I met her. There was nothing I could put my finger on beyond her phony, sickeningly sweet smile; it was years before she became widely-known as the Dr. Mengele of the [Rajneeshee] community, the alleged perpetrator of sadistic medical practices that verged on the criminal; my reaction to her seemed irrational [but] Sheela trusted her implicitly.”
Indeed, the mayor of Rajneeshpuram, David Knapp – then known as Swami Krishna Deva – later testified that: “[Sheela] had talked with [Rajneesh] about the plot to decrease voter turnout in The Dalles by making people sick. Sheela said that [Rajneesh] commented that it was best not to hurt people, but if a few died not to worry.”
In concocting the bioterror plan, Ma Puja reasoned that if the Rajneeshees couldn’t inflate their own voter numbers, they could suppress everyone else’s, and this she planned to do by infecting The Dalles’ water supply with bacteria and forcing large groups of voters to stay home on election day. To accomplish this, Ma Puja considered a number of different different diseases inclyding Typhoid Fever, Tularemia, and Beaver Fever, before finally settling on Salmonella typhimurium. A common cause of food poisoning spread through poor food-preparation hygiene, Salmonella was perfect for the Rajneeshees’ purposes as it causes severe vomiting and diarrhea for 4-7 days but is very rarely fatal, killing only around 600 Americans every year. If successful, an attack would incapacitate much of the town on election day while being likely to be dismissed as a natural outbreak.
Ma Puja ordered cultures of Salmonella from a Seattle-based medical supply company called VWR Scientific, along with industrial incubators and freeze-driers in which to grow and store the cultured bacteria. As the Rajneeshee Medical Corporation was an accredited medical facility, acquiring this equipment was straightforward and attracted little suspicion. Ma Puja also ordered cultures of Typhoid, Tularemia, and Shigella Dysentery and reportedly expressed interest in cultivating and spreading the HIV virus, but none of these other plans ever came to fruition.
The Salmonella bacteria were cultured and packaged in a secret lab at Rajneeshpuram, and by August were ready for small-scale field trials. On August 29, 1984, two members of the Wasco County Commission, Judge William Hulse and Ray Matthew, visited Rajneeshpuram on a fact-finding mission. During their visit the men were given glasses of water spiked with Salmonella, causing both to fall severely ill. Judge Hulse had to be hospitalized, and likely would have died without treatment. Whether this was intended to intimidate the Commission or simply to test the potency of the bacteria is unknown, but whatever the case soon after Ma Puja decided to move on to the next phase of testing. While selecting targets in The Dalles, she and other conspirators entered a local supermarket and contaminated some of the fresh produce by pouring Salmonella liquid over it. They also spread the agent on urinal handles and doorknobs in the Wasco County Courthouse. However, nobody reported falling ill from this attack.
Two attempts were also made to contaminate the town water supply, but on one occasion a police car arrived and scared off the conspirators, while on another they realized that they did not have enough Salmonella to effectively infect the entire town. Undeterred, Ma Puja suggested infecting the town with Giardia or “Beaver Fever” by trapping local beavers, pulverizing them, and pouring the remains into the water supply. For one reason or another, this plan was also never carried out. But in September 1984, five weeks before the election, Ma Puja and eleven others decided to carry out a full-scale dress rehearsal of their planned attack. Targeting the salad and salsa bars of 10 local restaurants, they poured Salmonella liquid from concealed plastic bags into the lettuce, salad dressing, salsa, coffee creamer, and any other communal food or condiment they could find.
The effects were dramatic. By September 24, more than 150 people had fallen violently ill with bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, chills, and abdominal pain, with lab tests confirming infection with Salmonella. By the end of the month a total of 751 people would develop confirmed cases of salmonellosis, though as The Dalles lies on a major thoroughfare it is likely that many more were infected while passing through the town. The victims ranged in age from two days to 87 years old, with 45 patients requiring hospitalization. Miraculously, however, not one person died in the attack.
Yet despite these promising results, the attack did not have the effect the Rajneeshees had hoped for. Being the largest outbreak of food poisoning in the country that year, the attack attracted the attention of the Oregon public health authorities, who immediately launched an investigation. This increased scrutiny meant that the Rajneeshees were unable to launch a follow-up attack when election day finally rolled around. Furthermore, local voters, annoyed by the cult’s antics, showed up to the polls in record numbers and soundly defeated the Rajneeshee candidate, rendering the whole exercise moot. Incredibly, though many including Oregon Democratic Congressman James H. Weaver suspected that the Rajneeshees were responsible, the official Oregon Department of Health investigation concluded that the outbreak had been natural, caused by the restaurant workers’ poor hygiene.
And there the story might have ended. While Congressman Weaver continued to pressure the CDC to investigate the Rajneeshees and gave a speech in the House of Representatives accusing the cult of starting the outbreak, it would be a full year before the truth was finally revealed. On September 15, 1985, Rajneesh emerged from his four-year vow of silence to hold a press conference, in which he announced that 19 high-ranking cult members including Ma Sheela and Ma Puja had fled to Europe, and accused them of having planned and carried out numerous criminal acts including the Salmonella attack without his knowledge or consent. In response, Oregon Attorney David B. Frohnmayer formed an emergency task force composed of Oregon State Police and FBI personnel and obtained search warrants for Rajneeshpuram. On October 2, 1985, 50 investigators raided the compound. According to Frohnmeyer, they discovered evidence of extensive crimes perpetrated by the cult:
“The Rajneeshees committed the most significant crimes of their kind in the history of the United States … The largest single incident of fraudulent marriages, the most massive scheme of wiretapping and bugging, and the largest mass poisoning.”
The investigators also found evidence of previous bioterror attacks on a nursing home and medical centre, that Ma Sheela had tried to murder Rajneesh’s personal physician, and that Ma Puja had been involved in the death of Sheela’s first husband and the attempted assassination of Oregon politician James Comni in a Portland hospital.
Rajneesh fled Oregon by plane on October 27, 1985, only to be arrested when he landed in Charlotte, North Carolina and charged with 35 counts of deliberate violation of immigration law. He plead guilty to two counts, received a ten-year suspended sentence and a fine of $400,000, and was deported and barred from entering the United States for five years. Baghwan Shri Rajneesh returned to India and died on January 19, 1990 at the age of 58, having never been prosecuted for the bioterror attack in Dulles. Soon after the Rajneeshpuram Commune collapsed as disaffected members began leaving en masse to testify for the prosecution. Ma Sheela and Ma Puja were arrested in West Germany on October 28, 1985 and extradited to the United States, where they were charged with one count of attempted murder, two counts of assault, product tampering, wiretapping, and immigration offences. Ma Sheela and Ma Puja were given prison sentences of 55 and 42 years respectively, though both were released on good behaviour after serving only 29 months. Sheela later moved to Switzerland where she ran two nursing homes.
The 1984 Salmonella attack on The Dulles has gone down as one of the most bizarre terrorist attacks in US history, and an unintentional demonstration of just how difficult it really is to commit voter fraud in America. But to Leslie Zaitz, the investigative reporter from The Oregonian newspaper who wrote the first detailed account of the attack, the real lesson of the Salmonella incident is how lax media coverage allowed the attack to go undetected for so long, and might have allowed further attacks to take place:
“If anything, the local news media were restrained and conservative in their coverage of the salmonella episode. There was nothing alarmist, nothing to trigger a public panic. More aggressive coverage perhaps would have heated up already tense community relations with the commune. Yet the benign treatment also gave the Rajneeshees comfort that they could get away with it . Fortunately, the commune collapsed before that could happen. But consider this: if they knew reporters were watching closely, would they have even tried?”
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Thuras, Dylan: The Secret’s in the Sauce: Bioterror at the Salsa Bar, Arlas Obscura, January 9, 2014, http://www.slate.com/blogs/atlas_obscura/2014/01/09/the_largest_bioterror_attack_in_us_history_began_at_taco_time_in_the_dalles.html
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