750 sickened in Oregon restaurants as cult known as the Rajneeshees spread salmonella in town of The Dalles

Salad-bar attack by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was the largest act of bioterrorism on U.S. soil

The New York Daily News/June 15, 2013

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh breezed into rural Oregon in the early 1980s to spread love, enlightenment and, for those who did not believe, a little bit of salmonella.

On Sept. 17, 1984, the Wasco County health department fielded what seemed a routine call, a case of food poisoning after dinner at a restaurant in the town of The Dalles. It was nothing out of the ordinary; from time to time some bacterium makes its way into someone's salad.

But this was different. The phones kept ringing with reports of people falling ill after eating in local restaurants. Within a week, the Centers for Disease Control pinpointed salmonella typhimurium. By then there were more than 750 cases in a town of 10,000.

CDC sleuths determined that the mass poisoning was not the result of poor food handling, but a deliberate attack by an invading army, clad in red, that had set up a base in Oregon three years earlier. They were known as the Rajneeshees, followers of the charismatic spiritual leader from India.

The man who would become known to the world as the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain in 1931, son of a cloth merchant from central India. When he was 7, the death of his grandfather traumatized him. As he grew up, he prided himself on never establishing attachments, which gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted to anyone.

While he was in college his behavior became so bizarre that his parents tried to get him psychiatric help. Instead, in 1953, he became enlightened and found his life's work - guru.

After graduating with a degree in philosophy, he traveled around the country, lecturing on religion and spiritualism. In 1960, a group of his admirers established the Life Awakening Center. He gave himself the honorific "Bhagwan," which translates to "god," and a cult was born.

His first commune, in Pune, India, attracted 6,000 upper-crust worshipers. It fell apart in 1980 over tax evasion, drugs, smuggling and violence. Rajneesh vanished, surfacing in New York. In July 1981, his followers spent $6 million on 64,000 acres in Oregon.

There, on a place formerly known as the Big Muddy ranch, the Baghwan built his American empire. It would eventually attract about 2,000 followers, dubbed "sannyasins," all draped in the signature color of the cult - red - and wearing beaded necklaces with a picture pendant of their guru. Followers came from wealthy and elite circles, including Hollywood heavyweights and heiresses from such companies as Learjet and Baskin Robbins.

They paid generously for their path to fulfillment. The Bhagwan lived like a maharaja, with a fleet of 93 Rolls-Royces and piles of jewelry, mostly diamond-encrusted Rolex watches.

He lived in seclusion, emerging every so often to ride in one of his cars, and spoke to only one person, his trusted aide Ma Anand Sheela, 31.

There was meditation and prayer, but also lots of sex, drugs and money-making schemes, like a mail-order catalog offering Bhagwan pillowcases, bottle openers and guru tchotchkes.

None of this was particularly disturbing to the few residents of Antelope, Ore., the nearest town. It was all live-and-let-live at the start. Then, the Rajneeshees started building - greenhouses, roads, dairy barns, malls, hotels, cafeterias and medical clinics. A city rose on the ranch, flying in the face of local laws designed to maintain the region for agriculture.

Goodwill evaporated when the people of Antelope started seeing red at town council meetings, with cult members seeking seats in local government. Locals pushed back, with such desperate measures as the attempt to disincorporate Antelope when a Rajneeshee takeover seemed inevitable.

To boost political clout, the commune started the Share-A-Home program, aimed, on the surface, at giving the homeless a place to live, offering bus tickets to Rancho Rajneeshee and room, board and beer, all free. The catch: The street people had to vote for the cult candidate.

But it wasn't enough for the Bhagwan's followers to simply swing the vote. The Rajneeshees needed to destroy the competition. They declared germ warfare.

First to fall ill were Wasco County executive William Hulse and commissioner Raymond Matthew. They were conducting a late-August inspection of the ranch when they got a flat tire. While waiting for repairs, they accepted some ice water. A few hours later, they were sick, wrote journalist Win McCormack in his compilation of Oregon Magazine stories, The Rajneesh Chronicles. Hulse ended up in the hospital with a nearly fatal case of salmonella.

Those poisonings were a prelude to the salmonella-in-the-salad-bar attack, the largest act of bioterrorism on U.S. soil. That scheme was a practice run for a massive attempt to incapacitate Oregon voters by slipping bacteria into the water supply.

The bugs were brewed in the laboratories of the Rajneesh Medical Corp., where scientists were attempting to develop, among other tools of mass persuasion, a more deadly strain of typhoid and an easily transmissible version of the AIDS virus.

The Bhagwan insisted he had nothing to do with the litany of criminal activities going on at the ranch. He called Sheela a fascist, pinning the blame on her and her "gang."

Sheela fled the country and was tracked down in Germany. She was sentenced to 10 years, but served less than three, and was deported.

The Bhagwan was also deported. He died in 1990, at 58, of heart disease.

The commune collapsed. Today, the ranch is a Christian youth camp.

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