Unbearable stomach pain roused Bill Hulse from sleep.
The Wasco County commissioner ran for the bathroom, vomiting. His worried wife insisted he go to the hospital, where doctors admitted him as they tried to diagnose what was wrong.
Two hundred miles away in a mountain cabin at Camp Sherman, a second Wasco County commissioner awoke, ill. Ray Matthew stayed in bed, alone, for two days, unsure what was causing his violent sickness.
But a handful of Rajneeshees knew. The men had been poisoned the day before as they toured the religious sect's ranch, drinking down potent bacteria stirred into their water.
Hulse remained in the hospital four days, with doctors telling him he would have died without treatment. As he recovered at home later, Hulse concluded the Rajneeshees poisoned him. He said so publicly.
Rajneeshees reacted indignantly to his claim, saying there was nothing wrong with the water. "It was a simple act of human kindness on that sweltering day," a Rajneeshee PR person wrote to Hulse. "Now you are making a hysterical accusation that you were poisoned."
It wasn't until the commune collapsed a year later that Rajneeshee operatives admitted Hulse was right.
The poisoning was revenge for Wasco County's restricting growth at Rancho Rajneesh. The sect's leaders hoped sickening public officials would deter future decisions against their operation.
Yet the guru they worshiped, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, pushed for even more extreme acts.
His chief of staff, Ma Anand Sheela, shared with her inner circle that the guru was fed up with Wasco County's attitude. He wanted his people to get a seat on, or even get control of, the county's board of commissioners. That would at least give the commune a direct voice in its fate.
City under siege
Sheela conspired to make it happen. One Rajneeshee, shedding any trace she was affiliated with the ranch, moved to The Dalles intending to run for county office.
To elect her, the Rajneeshees hit upon two schemes. One was to depress the turnout by traditional Wasco County residents by making them sick. The second was to pack the rolls with new voters loyal to the Rajneeshees.
They first considered contaminating The Dalles' water supply. Operatives obtained maps of the water system and scouted reservoirs. But no one could figure a way to introduce enough contaminant to sicken people.
They decided instead to attack people where they ate: the restaurants of The Dalles. A young woman named Ma Anand Ava, one of Sheela's most reliable associates, was ferried to town by a driver who had no idea of her mission. She ordered him to stop at one restaurant after another, having him wait while she went in for a few moments at each stop.
Wearing a wig and dressed in street clothes, Ma Anand Puja -- who oversaw the commune's medical operations -- went on a separate mission, settling into a restaurant for lunch. Her companion helped himself to the salad bar and then watched, horrified, as Puja poured a liquid onto salad greens. She returned to her seat, calmly finishing her own lunch.
For residents and travelers exiting Interstate 84, going to any of 10 restaurants was routine.
Terry Turner, a local furniture store owner, took his wife and 2-year-old to Sunday brunch at a restaurant on the banks of the Columbia River. They enjoyed a casual meal, opting for the salad bar.
Across town, state Trooper Rick Carlton had the day off. He took his wife, 3-year-old son and 4-month-old baby to a downtown restaurant. After a meal that included a trip through the salad bar, they drove home.
By the next morning, both men were violently ill. So were Turner's young daughter and Carlton's son. Turner headed to a medical clinic, only to discover a waiting room filled with people just as ill.
"Where did you eat?" a nurse asked Turner.
"What?" he asked, confused by the question.
The nurse asked again, and when Turner told her, she said, "We've heard that several times."
Carlton tried going to work despite not feeling well, but soon clocked out for home, nauseated and weak. At home, he found his wife and son as sick as him. His mother-in-law drove up the Columbia River Gorge from Portland to tend the sick family.
Such scenes played out up and down the gorge. Soon, it was evident hundreds were sick. Hospital emergency rooms and medical clinics overflowed with people suffering nausea, diarrhea and enduring weakness.
"Rajneeshees," some whispered, but there was no proof.
A state health official famously concluded that restaurant workers in different restaurants had all ignored proper hygiene at the same time. Evidence of the Rajneeshees' true role wouldn't come out until the commune collapsed.
Using the homeless
Rancho Rajneesh faced an unfolding disaster of its own.
Using Sheela's American Express card, Rajneeshees had chartered buses in cities coast to coast, filling them with homeless people, mostly men. They said hauling them to Rancho Rajneesh was a humanitarian initiative. Those lured to the buses were promised food, beer and rest.
In truth, this was the second prong of the election scheme.
As the homeless rolled onto the ranch, they were obliged to register to vote. They were expected to vote the party ticket, as it were, when it came time to pick the new county commissioners.
But Rajneeshees quickly discovered many of the homeless had serious mental problems. A remote ranch founded on love and freedom was no place for an unruly mob. Fights broke out. To regain control, Rajneeshees injected the tranquilizer Haldol into beer kegs used to serve the homeless.
Eavesdroppers monitoring the ranch's bugged public pay phones recorded one of the homeless men apparently planning to kidnap the guru.
Sannyasins identified him as Felton Walker and took him to the Rajneeshee medical clinic, supposedly to be tested for tuberculosis. But the clinic had been emptied of all other patients by the time he arrived.
Walker changed into a hospital gown and lay on an examining room gurney. Someone taped Walker's arm to the gurney rail, and Puja put him to sleep with an injection. Then a Rajneeshee doctor administered sodium pentothal, the so-called "truth serum." Sheela and at least six other commune insiders gathered around Walker, slapping him awake to endure questioning about the plot. A tape of the call was played for him over and over. Walker kept dropping off to sleep, and his interrogators kept rousing him.
The episode went on for hours. About 3 a.m., the interrogators gave up after learning little of use. They kept Walker sedated for two more days before booting him off the ranch.
Soon, scores of homeless followed Walker. At first, they got bus tickets to return to their home cities. The Rajneeshees soon stopped that. Instead, they ferried the homeless to small towns around the commune and left them. Streets in towns such as Madras filled with penniless people far from home.
The spectacle deeply worried state and local authorities. They feared locals would be so angered by the callous act that they would strike out at the commune. The Oregon State Police and the National Guard devised contingency plans, with Guard commanders promising the governor they could mobilize 10,000 soldiers if necessary.
Sheela saw opportunity in the crisis and decided to negotiate for what she wasn't getting through the courts or crime. She sought meetings with Gov. Vic Atiyeh and Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, inviting the governor to the ranch.
Neither man agreed, but when Sheela persisted, Atiyeh agreed to let his staff meet with her. The commune was dominating ever more of his time. And now the impending flood of homeless people into Oregon communities was pressing the tolerance of the state and its people to the breaking point.
Atiyeh hoped conversation would calm the charged atmosphere.
Sheela needed less than an hour to crush that hope.