Thwarted Rajneeshee leaders attack enemies, neighbors with poison

Rajneeshees in Oregon - The Untold Story: As land rules keep Rajneeshees from building the utopia they envision in the 1980s, they go from dirty tricks to biological warfare.

The Oregonian/April 14, 2011

The call from home jolted Bill Hulse, a Wasco County commissioner and wheat rancher.

His wife, Rose, was panicked. Two Rajneeshees had driven up their dead-end street in Dufur, parked across from their house and sat there. One hour. Two hours. Four hours.

Hulse called police but was told their hands were tied. Parking on a public street wasn't illegal.

Such intimidation no longer surprised local officials, and leaders of the religious sect made no apologies.

The Rajneeshees wanted to be left alone to build their global commune. That ambition was being thwarted by regulators, politicians and nearby residents. Commune leaders fought back in ways large and small, public and clandestine. They did so in the name of their spiritual master, the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

Public opinion was initially divided as Gov. Vic Atiyeh tried to counsel tolerance.

From the time the group arrived in 1981, Atiyeh fielded scores of letters from Oregonians alarmed by the commune's development. Other citizens wrote their governor that the state should be more welcoming of a religious order.

Atiyeh responded to all with reserve. Typical was one letter to a Portlander: "Regardless of the religious beliefs or practices of this group, they are entitled to every right afforded under our Constitution." His duty, he said, was to protect those rights.

Retaliation grows

Dan Durow, the Wasco County planning director, was closer to the front lines, deciding almost daily what the Rajneeshees could and couldn't do on their land.

He was suspicious, since they had lied about their intentions in their first meeting with him. Still, he knew his every act would be closely watched, both by sharp Rajneeshee lawyers and their equally attentive legal opponents. He decided to administer land-use rules to the letter of the law, giving up the sometimes informal way rural counties handled such matters.

That strict compliance riled Rajneeshees, who felt Durow was deliberately impeding their efforts. They belittled him in meetings and in letters. On two occasions when he arrived for inspections, ranch equipment blocked the way, disabled by contrived breakdowns. Packs of Rajneeshees came to his office in The Dalles, disrupting work by scattering throughout workstations off-limits to the public.

Their aggressiveness alarmed Durow, and he worried for his safety. Uncertain what was coming, he sent his three young children to live out of town with their mother, his ex-wife.

At the commune, Rajneeshee leaders cast any resistance to their needs as oppression or religious discrimination.

They retaliated in petty ways. One Rajneeshee put a nail under the tire of a Wasco County planner while he attended a conference in Eugene. Ma Anand Sheela, the guru's top aide, held a courthouse door open for the state's deputy attorney general, his arms full of legal books. As he passed, she stuck out her foot, sending him sprawling to the ground to laughter from the Rajneeshees.

Such tactics, of course, didn't slow the growing government reaction to what was happening at Rancho Rajneesh. Durow and others held up, or denied, permission for some buildings, including a hospital. Then-Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer pressed his case to have the sect's city declared illegal.

Those obstacles undermined Sheela's power in the sect, derived in large measure from her promise to build a sprawling utopia. The guru pressed her relentlessly to sweep the hurdles away. Millions of dollars were at risk if their American dream failed.

Impatient with court action and petty pranks, Sheela set up secret squads to strike at the commune's enemies. These were disciples who accepted Sheela's view that the commune and their guru were in danger. Sheela, effective as any spy master, compartmentalized her minions. They operated alone, or in small teams, often unaware of one another's assignments.

Brewing trouble

Poison was the primary weapon, crafted by Ma Anand Puja, a nurse also known then as Diane Onang.

She was Sheela's shadow. The two had been close since their days in India, and Puja now supervised the ranch's medical department. She managed routine medical care but also ordered renegade Rajneeshees into isolation on trumped-up diagnoses and routinely overruled the sect's physicians. Daily, she medicated Sheela for stress.

From time to time, Puja retreated to a laboratory hidden in a cabin up a canyon on the ranch to secretly experiment with viruses and bacteria. Sheela wanted something to sicken people.

In summer 1984, Puja field-tested her work, handing unlabeled vials to those on the secret teams.

The operatives knew, or suspected, the brown liquid was salmonella, which produces severe diarrhea and other symptoms. Over months, they were dispatched to spread the poison in The Dalles. They initially hoped to sicken public officials standing in their way, but then pursued a grander scheme to attack innocent citizens.

Swami Krishna Deva, mayor of Rajneeshpuram, smeared Puja's mixture onto fixtures in the men's restroom at the Wasco County Courthouse in The Dalles.

Ma Dhyan Yogini, also known as Alma Peralta, went to town with vials in her purse. She stepped into a local political rally and took a seat. She secreted some of the contaminant on her hand, turned to an elderly man sitting next to her and shook hands. She also made her way into a nursing home in The Dalles, but her plan to contaminate food was disrupted by a suspicious kitchen worker.

Sheela tried her hand at contamination as well, taking a half-dozen Rajneeshees, including Puja, to a grocery store in The Dalles.

"Let's have some fun," Sheela said.

The group spread across the store with Sheela targeting the produce section, pouring brownish liquid from the vial she had hidden up her sleeve.

When there were no public reports of anyone getting sick, Sheela pushed Puja to find a more toxic solution.

About that time, Hulse and two other Wasco County commissioners arrived at the ranch for a tour. They parked Hulse's car outside the commune's welcome center and loaded into a commune van for their visit. When they got back, Hulse's car had a flat. The Rajneeshees arranged a repair on the spot that would cost Hulse $12.

As the commissioners waited in the hot August sun, Puja approached, offering each a glass of water. Her gesture was odd, for Puja was in her medical whites and had no role as a greeter.

The thirsty men took the water.

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