Anand Sheela tends patients in Switzerland

The former spokeswoman for Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh works in two private nursing homes

The Oregonian/December 26, 1999
By Jeanie Senior

Former Rajneeshee leader Anand Sheela -- once notorious in Oregon as the spokeswoman for Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh -- now takes care of frail and elderly patients in two private nursing homes in Switzerland. Sheela, who turn 50 on Tuesday, has been in Switzerland since late 1988, when she was released from federal prison after serving 29 months for assault, attempted murder, arson, wiretapping and causing a food poisoning epidemic in The Dalles that made about 750 people ill.

She is known as Sheela Birnstiel these days, and according to her, she is greatly respected in her field.

"My work is being acknowledged all over Europe and in Switzerland, very highly," Sheela said in a telephone interview from Maisprach, where she lives in one of the nursing homes. "What I had in Rajneeshpuram pretty much," she said, referring to her living situation. "The difference is here, I live with the patients."

From 1981 to 1985, she was the highly visible and very vocal spokeswoman for the guru from India and his followers. The sect had its world commune on the 64,000-acre Rancho Rajneesh, which sprawls across Wasco and Jefferson counties.

The commune collapsed in 1985, after Sheela and several other leaders decamped and revelations of a web of crimes involving sect members began to emerge. The guru, who later renamed himself Osho and died in 1990 in his native India, was convicted of immigration fraud in 1985 and deported. Sheela, who was wanted by state and federal authorities, was extradited from Germany in 1986.

Sheela said her nursing homes, which employ 17 people, offer an atmosphere that is "friendly, warm, nonthreatening," where patients are required to shower daily and no aggression is tolerated.

The homes are in Maisprach and Liestal, villages about 20 minutes apart that are near the city of Basel. The 21 patients, both mentally and physically handicapped, range in age from 24 to 90 years old. "My preference is to work with Alzheimer's patients," Sheela said. "I do not lock up my Alzheimer's patients; they require a minimum amount of medicine to calm them down." She said she is expanding the nursing homes.

Wasco officials blast her

The news of Sheela's new occupation surprised two Wasco County officials who don't remember her fondly.

"We know that she's a conniving, evil woman," said Wasco County Judge John Mabrey, whose predecessor, William Hulse, was hospitalized after he was poisoned by Sheela and her cohorts on a visit to the Rancho Rajneesh. "I wouldn't want her responsible for the care of anybody I know," he said. "She hasn't had much punishment for the grief that she brought to Wasco County, but it's beyond my comprehension to imagine her managing employees or less fortunate people in a humane way," County Clerk Karen LeBreton said.

Sheela risks arrest and extradition if she ventures across the Swiss border, because she still is wanted by federal law enforcement for her alleged role in a 1985 conspiracy to assassinate Charles Turner, then the U.S. Attorney for Oregon.

A native of India whose first marriage was to a U.S. citizen, Sheela now has a Swiss passport because of her marriage to Swiss Rajneeshee Urs Birnstiel, who died of AIDS in 1992. The Birnstiels, according to court accounts, spent very little time together, but her status as the widow of a Swiss citizen protects her from arrest because there is no extradition treaty between Switzerland and the United States.

The conspiracy case remains active. Two British women, Sally-Anne Croft and Susan Hagan, were extradited from England in 1994 and convicted in 1995 for their part in the conspiracy to murder Turner. Croft and Hagan were released from prison and returned to England in April 1998.

Sheela said she has cut her ties to the guru's followers, who now call themselves "Oshoites" and worship at centers around the world and at a Pune, India, ashram that offers meditation in a sumptuous resort setting. She said, however, that she entertains a "constant stream of journalists," some of them wanting to inquire about her past, others interested in her present occupation. "I'm still very much in public life," she said.

Still owes Oregon, Wasco County.

Sheela also has walked away from an outstanding $269,000 debt to the state of Oregon and Wasco County.

An "anonymous benefactor" paid $200,000 of the $469,000 fine that was part of Sheela's 1986 plea bargain. Her remaining obligation expired in 1996. Peter Cogswell, spokesman for the Oregon attorney general's office, said it was unfortunate that the judgment wasn't renewed for another 10 years. "We'd be more disappointed, I guess, if we'd thought we had any chance of obtaining that money somehow," he said.

Her release from federal prison caught Oregon justice officials by surprise; they were expecting her to remain incarcerated another month, and federal officials didn't notify the state before she left the prison and flew to Europe.

"Really, when she was released early we lost the only real lever that we had to get her to tell us anything," Cogswell said. Of the unpaid total, $69,000 was intended as restitution to Wasco County for an arson that damaged the county planning office.

"I'll tell you what, $69,000 right now would be really wonderful," said LeBreton, who as the county's budget officer is struggling to deal with the effect of tax limitation measures by cutting about $1 million from a $10 million general fund budget.

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