25 years after Rajneeshee commune collapsed, truth spills out

The Oregonian/April 14, 2011

In a nearly unbelievable chapter of Oregon history, a guru from India gathered 2,000 followers to live on a remote eastern Oregon ranch. The dream collapsed 25 years ago amid attempted murders, criminal charges and deportations.

But the whole story was never made public. With first-ever access to government files, and some participants willing to talk for the first time, it's clear things were far worse than we realized.

What follows is an inside look - based on witness statements, grand jury transcripts, police reports, court records and fresh interviews -- at how Rajneesh leaders tried to skirt land-use and immigration laws only to have their schemes collapse to the point they decided killing Oregonians was the only way to save their religious utopia.

Ma Anand Puja stepped into St. Vincent Hospital on a summer night in 1985, hunting for James Comini.

The Filipino nurse was there to kill the rural Oregon politician, who was recuperating from ear surgery at the Portland hospital. She carried a syringe to inject a mixture into Comini's intravenous tube that would stop his heart.

But once inside Comini's seventh-floor isolation room, Puja discovered her target wasn't on an IV. Flustered, she hurried from the hospital to a getaway car, and her assassination team started the long drive home.

Their destination: Rancho Rajneesh, a spiritual encampment 200 miles away in eastern Oregon. It was base for Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a guru from India, and 2,000 of his worshippers.

The murder scheme was just one of many increasingly desperate attempts to save the guru's empire.

The Rajneeshees had been making headlines in Oregon for four years. Thousands dressed in red, worked without pay and idolized a wispy-haired man who sat silent before them. They had taken over a worn-out cattle ranch to build a religious utopia. They formed a city, and took over another. They bought one Rolls-Royce after another for the guru -- 93 in all.

Along the way, they made plenty of enemies, often deliberately. Rajneeshee leaders were less than gracious in demanding government and community favors. Usually tolerant Oregonians pushed back, sometimes in threatening ways. Both sides stewed, often publicly, before matters escalated far beyond verbal taunts and nasty press releases.

Three months after the aborted Comini plot, the commune collapsed and the Rajneeshees' darkest secrets tumbled out.

Hand-picked teams of Rajneeshees had executed the largest biological terrorism attack in U.S. history, poisoning at least 700 people. They ran the largest illegal wiretapping operation ever uncovered. And their immigration fraud to harbor foreigners remains unrivaled in scope. The revelations brought criminal charges, defections, global manhunts and prison time.

But there was much more.

Long-secret government files obtained by The Oregonian, and fresh interviews with ex-Rajneeshees and others now willing to talk, yield chilling insight into what went on inside Rancho Rajneesh a quarter-century ago.

It's long been known they had marked Oregon's chief federal prosecutor for murder, but now it's clear the Rajneeshees also stalked the state attorney general, lining him up for death.

They contaminated salad bars at numerous restaurants, but The Oregonian's examination reveals for the first time that they just as eagerly spread dangerous bacteria at a grocery store, a public building and a political rally.

To strike at government authority, Rajneeshee leaders considered flying a bomb-laden plane into the county courthouse in The Dalles -- 16 years before al-Qaida used planes as weapons.

And power struggles within Rajneeshee leadership spawned plans to murder even some of their own. The guru's caretaker was to be killed in her bed, spared only by a simple mistake.

Strangely, most of these stunning crimes were in rebellion against that most mundane of government regulations, land-use law. The Rajneeshees turned the yawner of comprehensive plans into a page-turning thriller of brazen crimes.

A new start

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh needed a new place to build his worldwide commune.

In India, he worked as a small-town philosophy professor until he found enlightenment paid better. He built a thriving enterprise attracting Westerners to his lectures and group therapies. They sought meaning in their lives, escaping the remains of the Vietnam War and a crashing world economy. And Rajneesh mixed in plenty of sexual freedom, ensuring publicity to build his brand.

Government authorities in India, weary of the Rajneesh's growing notoriety, cracked down on his group's unseemly and illegal behavior, including smuggling and tax fraud. The guru ran, ending up half a globe away at the Big Muddy Ranch, 100 square miles of rangeland an hour's drive north of Madras.

The first contingent of Rajneeshees quietly moved to Oregon in summer 1981, but they couldn't escape notice for long. Part of the guru's brand was clothing in reddish hues. Such dress was out of place in the blue denim reaches of Oregon. Followers, known as sannyasins, also displayed their devotion to the guru by wearing malas, wood bead necklaces holding a photo of Rajneesh.

Resettling in Oregon was the work of his chief of staff, Ma Anand Sheela, then 31 years old. She was a native of India, born to a privileged family as Sheela Patel. She wasn't after enlightenment. She was quick-witted and hungry for power, the perfect instrument for the guru's ambition.

Initially soft-spoken and engaging, Sheela charmed Oregon ranchers and politicians. Early on, she hosted a dance in Madras where cowboys partied until dawn. She curried favor, buying 50 head of cattle from a Wasco County commissioner, even though the commune was vegetarian.

She assured the guru that the commune of his dreams would soon rise on the Big Muddy. She expected to put up housing compounds, warehouses and support buildings. Business enterprises, once based in India, would move to the ranch.

In short, Sheela intended to do as she wished on their remote 64,000 acres.

Anxious to move ahead, she closed the property deal without understanding Oregon law -- a pivotal mistake. She didn't know the state severely limited how many people and buildings could be jammed onto ranch land.

Already it was too late. The money was paid, the guru packed and hundreds of sannyasins were expecting to be housed and fed. Sheela and the guru were undeterred. In India, trickery and bribery got results. Why would Oregon be any different?

The Rajneeshees found that the law did allow some new homes, but only for farmworkers and their families. Sheela homed in on that exemption when she met with Wasco County planners in summer 1981.

She was joined by her husband, a former New York banker named John Shelfer who was known on the ranch as Swami Jay, and David Knapp, a California therapist known as Swami Krishna Deva. For the meeting, they shed any sign of affiliation with the sect. They wore plain clothes, stowed their malas and introduced themselves by their given, not sannyasin, names.

They told the assembled officials they planned to operate a farm commune. Workers would be brought in to restore abused rangeland. They needed dwellings to house the workers.

Attending the meeting was Dan Durow, a young planner who had been with Wasco County less than a month. He had a trusting nature from his Midwestern upbringing and was intrigued by the idea of a farm commune. They discussed how the ranch could legally house perhaps 150 workers.

But the three visitors were vague about whom they represented.

"Are you a religious organization?" Durow finally asked.

"No," came Sheela's quick answer. "We celebrate life and laughter. We are simple farmers."

In the ensuing months, Durow repeatedly traveled to the ranch to monitor developments. He discovered that four-bedroom modular houses were in fact dorms with no kitchen, no living room. The Rajneeshees, on alert for his visits, routinely hid extra mattresses to disguise the true population at the ranch.

Making enemies

To legally stretch the limits, the Rajneeshees moved to form their own city.

Their private Portland lawyers advised they needed to befriend 1000 Friends of Oregon. The environmental group was a watchdog over land use, especially guarding farmland from development.

In late 1981, Sheela, Krishna Deva -- better known as KD -- and others from the commune met with two lawyers from 1000 Friends. They explained they needed to erect a city to tend to the thousands who would be moving there. They explained that remaking the ranch into a working farm was a bigger task than expected.

The environmental lawyers applauded the desire to restore the land, but they saw no need for a city. Plopping an urban area into the middle of an agricultural operation didn't make sense. As their resistance became apparent, Sheela asked whether their opposition would dissolve if the Rajneeshees joined 1000 Friends with a substantial contribution.

The bribe was brushed off. Sheela turned snide. Observing the modest furnishings in the Portland office, Sheela said she wasn't surprised by "shabby" work being done by people working in "shabby" surroundings. The crack was needless, but it was trademark Sheela.

From then on, 1000 Friends and the Rajneeshees battled. The organization launched an aggressive, but not always successful, legal campaign to blunt creation of the city. Its fundraising literature soon bore the picture of Sheela, and donations and membership soared.

In turn, the Rajneeshees portrayed 1000 Friends as a pawn of powerful political interests. They considered the environmental group an enemy, more interested in crushing a religion than protecting land. They named their sewage lagoon after the group's executive director.

Their fight would rage on for years.

Much of it played out in Oregon courtrooms and in the media. Coached by the Bhagwan, Sheela became adept at using the press to her advantage. She could be counted on for outrageous news conferences, where her sharp tongue cut into the enemy of the day. She seemed to spit insults with every breath.

But her conduct troubled other Rajneesh leaders.

KD complained in a letter to the guru that the insults were impairing efforts to build the commune. The guru's response was blunt: You're a coward. KD swallowed the insult and kept his place at the inner circle of the ranch. Later, he used his insider knowledge to get a lenient plea deal for himself -- and to help send Sheela to prison.

Another insider, Ma Yoga Vidya, a mathematician then also known as Ann McCarthy, tried her hand at reeling in Sheela. In a private meeting with the guru, she described Sheela's conduct as "outrageous" and harmful to the commune. The guru nodded as he listened, but otherwise made no reply.

Her end run enraged Sheela. The next day, Sheela dragged herself out of a sick bed and, with an intravenous drip line in tow, took Vidya back to see the guru. This time he had plenty to say. He unloaded on Vidya, who was the commune president. He said Sheela was his agent, and when she spoke, she was talking for him. He told Vidya to never challenge Sheela and to share that instruction with other commune members.

Most Rajneeshees would have been surprised to learn the guru provided such intimate oversight. They believed the guru was a spiritual master, a rare enlightened man untouched by daily events at the ranch. To this day, some former sannyasins hold the view that he knew next to nothing about what was happening at his commune.

Sannyasins well understood, though, that Sheela acted with the guru's authority. She wasn't to be questioned on any decision or directive. She wielded the authority without restraint, sharing it with an elite team of other women leaders, called "moms" by their underlings, who kept the Rajneeshees in line both with favors and punishment.

Cliques and cracks

Not everyone could be so readily controlled, such as the guru's personal doctor, dentist and caretaker.

They and a handful of other sannyasins served Rajneesh in his fenced compound called Lao Tzu. Their independence irritated commune leaders, but especially peeved Sheela.

A group of wealthy California donors also proved challenging to control once they moved to the Oregon ranch in 1984. The most notable were Francoise Ruddy, whose former husband produced "The Godfather," and John Wally, a physician who made a fortune in emergency room medicine. She became Ma Prem Hasya; he was Swami Dhyan John.

They had no zeal for the lifestyle of seven-day workweeks, shared meals or rudimentary sleeping quarters. Instead, the Californians set up a home for themselves apart from the usual housing. They brought in expensive furnishings, artwork and even their own car, a Jaguar. Almost daily, they drove to Madras for groceries to avoid the ranch's staid meals.

That was bad enough, but they also attracted the guru's attention. They obliged him with diamond-studded watches and Rolls-Royces. Before long, Hasya married the guru's doctor.

The Hollywood group and the guru's personal staff soon made Sheela's list of people on and off the ranch considered a threat to the commune and the guru. She split up the Hollywood group, scattering them to separate homes around the ranch. She tried to replace the guru's doctor.

To keep tabs on what was going on inside the guru's compound, she had the place laced with hidden microphones and recording equipment. One bug was placed on a table leg next to the guru's favorite chair. He was told it was a panic button. Trusted sannyasins monitored the eavesdropping equipment, reporting information to the commune's top four leaders.

Eventually the chasm between the commune's leaders and the guru's chosen insiders became too much even for him. On a spring evening in 1984, he summoned both sides to his house and, in front of them all, lectured Sheela. He told her his house, not hers, was the center of the commune.

He turned to the others with a warning.

"Anyone who is close to me inevitably becomes a target of Sheela," the guru said.

He proved prophetic.

Two of those sitting at the guru's feet that day were later marked for death.

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