Ma Anand Sheela: Rajneeshees' public face left Oregon but holds onto blame, bitterness

The Oregonian/April 14, 2011

Maisprach, Switzerland - The middle-aged man, his hair tousled, shuffles across the living room in his pajamas.

Sheela Birnstiel rises from her chair, takes him by the hand and guides him back to a seat. He beams at her attention.

This is the new world of Ma Anand Sheela.

Long gone from Oregon and the Rajneeshee commune, Birnstiel remade herself into a successful Swiss businesswoman.

With a compassionate yet direct demeanor, she operates two homes for the mentally disabled. Spite and outrage, her trademarks in Oregon, aren't evident.

Now 62, Sheela appears almost dowdy, dressed in sandals, an unadorned sweatshirt and casual slacks. Her graying hair frames a face plumped by age. Gold-rimmed glasses perch on her nose. She wears no makeup, no jewelry.

Her headquarters is a three-story house on a hillside above the small village of Maisprach, about an hour's drive from Zurich. She and her staff tend to 22 mentally disabled Swiss, ranging from middle age to seniors. The place is spotless, fresh smelling. She cares for another 12 patients in a modified bank building in a nearby village.

Over two days of interviews, Birnstiel -- who remarried in 1984 and was widowed in 1993 -- recounted how she got into the business and how her life unfolded after leaving Rancho Rajneesh. She spoke precisely and openly, until questioned about the darker events in Oregon, including murder plots and arson.

Birnstiel said Oregon shares the blame for the troubles between its residents and the worshipers who believed in the guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. "We had done nothing to them. We legally bought a ranch. We legally went about our work."

She said bigots and corrupt politicians oppressed the sect.

"Have they really followed their Constitution? This is the question I would like answered," Birnstiel said.

She claims criminal acts against the sect went unpunished. As proof, she cited a time in 1983 when a bomb tore into the sect's hotel in downtown Portland. The perpetrator, she said, was let go on $2,000 bail and never tried.

She is wrong.

A radical Muslim was arrested after a bomb went off in his room at the hotel. He skipped out on $20,000 bail but was caught, returned to Oregon and convicted as the commune was collapsing. He served five years in prison, longer than any sentence handed out to Rajneeshees convicted of more serious crimes.

Birnstiel blamed her outrageous conduct on the guru. She only did his bidding. She is candid that she had no interest in spiritual enlightenment, the key draw of the guru. She was instead in love with the man.

"My own personal conflict with Bhagwan was a bigger issue," she said. "My love for Bhagwan had a priority over all problems."

That conflict became irreconcilable in 1985, Birnstiel explained. She said she was told of an order for 400 Valium tablets and learned they were for the guru. She said she was stunned. She had no idea he was taking drugs. He had always preached the need to face life without being intoxicated.

When she confronted him, he got angry, she said. He told her to stay out of it.

She said that same summer, the guru demanded she buy him a $1 million watch. She told him the commune couldn't divert money for that, but he persisted.

Birnstiel said that was the breaking point for her.

"I looked into my soul to see my responsibility," she said. "I decided I cannot compromise."

She said the conflicts between her and Rajneesh, and those with Oregonians, entrapped the women who were her key leaders.

"They were all good people. They wanted to do something for themselves. There were no criminals there," she said. Yet nearly everyone was later convicted of a crime.

Sheela pleaded guilty in the salad bar poisoning case under a so-called Alford plea, where she didn't admit guilt but conceded the evidence could convict her. Sheela took the plea, she said, because she didn't have the $2 million her lawyers said it would cost to fight the charges. She insists she got the better of the bargaining, with prosecutors agreeing to a two-year sentence when they wanted 20.

After prison, Sheela went to Europe, running restaurants in Germany and then Portugal. She fled back to Switzerland and its safety from extradition when she was tipped that American authorities wanted her on new charges.

That was in 1990, and she arrived in the Swiss town of Basel with no money.

The only job a local employment agency could offer was walking a retired man's dog for 10 Swiss francs an hour. She said she took the job and soon became the man's caretaker. That led her to taking three elderly ladies into her own home, the start of her care business.

Sheela appears to have done well. Her staff was respectful, even adoring. Yet Sheela's controlling nature flashed alive, as she directed a couch be moved a couple of inches to make passage easier, and that a nick in wainscoting be attended.

She has published a book about care home management and intends to write another.

Clearly, she remains bitter about Oregon, buttressing her refusal to talk about her own conduct.

"I am labeled a criminal. It is stamped on my forehead," she said. "I have been punished. Leave me alone."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.