Reporter reveals ‘luckiest break’ in investigation of cult behind Netflix’s Wild Wild Country

Columbia Journalism Review/April 6, 2018

By Alexandria Neason

Netflix has been pumpting out non-fiction documentary work at warp speed. One of their latest,  Wild Wild Country, is a six-part series, directed by brothers Chapman and Maclain Way, that chronicles the frankly nutty tale of the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and thousands of his devotees living on a ranch in rural Oregon. Bhagwan arrived in 1981, inaugurating years of clashes with local residents, claims of religious persecution and bigotry, election fraud, arranged marriages and immigration fraud, wiretapping, assassination plots, mass poisoning, and attempts to silence the local press as it investigated the group’s murky origins.

Led by the guru’s controversial, media-obsessed personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela—The Oregonian called her the “tigress of the two-minute interview” in 1985—thousands of Rajneeshees, also called sannyasins, moved to Antelope, Oregon, a rural community southeast of Portland. They purchased the massive Big Muddy Ranch under the pretense of reviving agricultural land and creating a utopia in the desert. For a while, the locals observed them from a guarded distance. As more members flooded onto the ranch, dressed in varying shades of red and wearing mala beads that bore the face of Bhagwan, local media took note. The group had controversial beliefs and methods–particularly about sex and group therapy–and when they moved to incorporate the ranch as a new town, called Rajneeshpuram, the townspeople, accustomed to Oregon’s notoriously strict land use laws, lawyered up. Then, in 1983, a Rajneeshee hotel in Portland was bombed. This started an incredible, sometimes violent, chain reaction involving (a heavily armed) Rajneeshee insurgency.

It was several years before the group came on the radar of Les Zaitz and his colleagues Jim Long and Scotta Callister, who at the time were reporters for The Oregonian’s investigative team. It had become clear that the operation was spending enormous amounts of money and gaining municipal control of the town. Who were they? Where was the money coming from? And why had they left India? The trio would spend 18 months working full-time to find out. During the course of their investigation, Rajneeshees snuck into the newspaper’s headquarters in an attempt to destroy the reporters’ hard drives, and targeted Zaitz on a hit list.

Still, in 1985, The Oregonian ran the team’s 20-part series over 20 consecutive days, telling the story of Bhagwan’s ascent to the the helm of a wealthy international cult, of the group’s clashes with Indian authorities and tracing their arrival in Oregon. Twenty-five years later, in 2011, Zaitz published a five-part update that featured new documents, and he appears in the Netflix series.

CJR talked to Zaitz, who is retired and now publishes a weekly newspaper, about the collapse of the Rajneeshee commune and what it was like to cover such a strange moment in Oregon history. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity and includes spoilers.

When did the Rajneeshees become a topic of interest for the investigative team at The Oregonian?

As the Rajneeshees came into the state, we were busy on a number of other fairly intense projects and so the day-to-day coverage was being handled either by the newsroom or by a correspondent we had that lived in The Dalles, roughly 90 miles from this place. So neither my partner Jim Long nor I  had any direct involvement. We just sort of watched like everybody else, eating popcorn and wondering what the hell is going on out there.

When you have a group like this parachute into what is cowboy country, that makes for great stories. And that was the flavor of the coverage for quite a long time. As it became apparent they were making substantial investments and more and more people were coming, that’s when it moved onto our radar. We were guided by some pretty foundational questions. Number one: Where in fact did these people come from? The short story was that they had moved from India. Well, nobody had done any reporting to find out what they did in India and why they left. Second was: There’s millions of dollars flowing into this. Where is that money coming from? And then the third question, what do they really intend to do out there?

[Their attempt to turn the ranch into a city] was a high-profile event that drew considerable attention. It raised questions not only for people that lived around what was turning into a commune but to the rest of the state. This religious organization is trying to become a city? Oregon is renowned for its land use laws and it was pretty restrictive about what you could and couldn’t do on agricultural land. People were asking questions. Why are they getting to do that when I can’t even put up a workhouse to house a worker on my farm? So, as the scale of their operation grew, so did public interest within Oregon. 

What were the biggest challenges in reporting on a group that had proven itself at best dishonest and at worst dangerous?

One of the early, immediate challenges was, as people came into this organization they took new names, and there would be several people with that same name within the organization. So for an investigative reporter, the key was, how are we going to keep these people straight so that if we see a person is suspicious we don’t get diverted chasing another person with the same name? One of the ways they brought foreigners into the state is that they staged a lot of marriages between Americans and foreign born citizens. They filed their marriage licenses in The Dalles in Wasco County. So we went to the courthouse and spent three or four days going through every single marriage license going back like three years. We knew what addresses they’d used, so we got a portable copier. We copied every one of those. They were invaluable because they gave you dates of birth and their real names.

They were operating in the US under tax-exempt organizations so we got their federal tax filings to look at what they were listing as far as cash flow and investment. We started to get a handle on how much money they had and where the money was going. We spent a great deal of time tracking down anyone that was involved with the real estate deal that led to the acquisition of the Big Muddy Ranch. That included tracking down real estate brokers in Alabama and Texas to piece together how they found this ranch. They had originally started in New Jersey, so Jim Long and Scotta Callister went to pick up the trail from the day they got into the US to the day they came to Oregon. And of course one of the main questions we had was, Who is this guy? This Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. And why are they no longer in India? I spent literally a month in India chasing that question. 

Your reporting in India found that the group had faced major issues with authorities there, including legal challenges over unpaid taxes. What was it like navigating the Indian government bureaucracy as you looked for public records?

I’d never been out of the country when I went to India. The luckiest break I got was in Bombay [now called Mumbai]. I managed to get in to see the head of the state police. I’ll never forget, this guy had a huge, ornate office in a colonial-style building with all these medals. He was very straight and very quiet. I’m in there explaining who I am and what I’m there for and he was completely impassive. I thought, well, this is going nowhere. I stopped talking and without saying a word he turned and picked up the phone and called somebody and spoke in a local language. I didn’t know what he was doing. I thought maybe I was going to get escorted out of there. He hangs up the phone and says “I just talked with the commander of our station in Pune, they will be expecting you and they have been directed to cooperate with you in every way possible.” It was like getting a key to the front door. It was amazing.

I went to Pune to the local police station there and they assigned a commander and a detective to me and I was there at least a full week. I explained to them what I needed and they started pulling case file after case file after case file, literally. They put me in a room with stacks of paper. It was a gold mine for an investigative reporter. Then they made contacts for me with local immigration officials, customs officials. Those folks were amazingly cooperative. It’s through all that that I learned about their tax issues. In India, at that time, everything was done on paper. Filing systems were haphazard at best. I would go to a sales tax office and it would take me a half a day for them to understand what I wanted and find the material, but they ultimately would. The sect had made enough enemies, had angered enough people that these government officials couldn’t have been more helpful. It was completely unexpected and deeply rewarding for our work. 

Did you meet Bhagwan’s family?

I traced him from his birth village to Bombay. I went back to central India, a small little village called Gadarwara and showed up unannounced. Pretty quickly I was told that his two uncles run this shop. They were wearing malas of their nephew. As best we could tell—I had a photographer with me—they had rarely seen Westerners in this remote village in the middle of the plains. They were very excited to tell me his life story. Then I spun forward to the next big city, Dalapur, where he became a college professor. I talked with the people at the school who knew him and followed his trail through India to Bombay, to Pune, and then on to the United States. And I did the same with Sheela. I went to the city where she grew up, Baroda, which is north of what is now Mumbai and dropped in, unannounced, on her parents who were very proud of her and had no idea that I was a persona non grata at the ranch. They took me down to their club and spent an evening talking to me about Sheela. I imagine when Sheela discovered that I had gone to her folks without her knowledge, she would have been mighty unhappy about that. 

In the Netflix series, Sheela comes across as an outrageous character who very much feeds off of media attention. Once you got back from India, what interactions did you have with her?

During the course of the investigation, we went down to the ranch half a dozen times. We didn’t have much exposure to Sheela. As things ramped up, my most distinct memory of Sheela was this: I was down there by myself for some reason, maybe just to pick up some records. I was told by their press officer that Sheela wants to see me. They led me to her office compound and into a dining room. All of her lieutenants were seated at this long dinner table, probably 8 or 9 people. They had two different camera men there with Sheela listening at the head of the table and I thought, “What the hell is this all about?” She proceeds to lace into me, saying that I had a negative attitude, that I was bringing bad feelings to the ranch, that I was rude, that I was this and that. And she said, “You are no longer welcome on the ranch, you are banished from the ranch.” The TV lights are on and all the leadership is being smug.

But I’m young, I’m brash. To me, this is just a bit of a lark. I tried to keep a straight face but it frankly amused me. They could keep me off the ranch property, but there were public roads going through the ranch, particularly a county highway. And they themselves had created government buildings. There was a City Hall, a fire department, a police department—they couldn’t keep me out of public buildings and that’s where we needed to be for the most part in any event. 

What was public reception like when the story ran? Did you hear from the upper management of the Rajneeshees?

We had the entire series prepared before the first story published. It was a tremendous amount of work to write a 20-part series and have it all in hand, edited, with graphics and photos ready to go. At the end, we worked more than two months without a day off. They were long, tough, hard days. We had massive amounts of information, tremendous challenges organizing the stories. I just found an old CJR piece they did on us back in 1986 I think, and at the time, Oregonian management told CJR that just the expenses alone at that time were a quarter of a million dollars. When the series ran, it quickly became the talk of the state because we were answering questions many people had for a long time. And we also heard that sannyasins were sneaking off the ranch to find a copy and they were finding out things that they had no idea had been going on. So there was a pretty discernible shift in public attention when this came out. 

There’s one story in the series that is about whether it was a cult or a religion, and it talks about Rajneeshee claims of religious persecution. Did you ever ask yourself, is this a cult, or is this a religion?

I’m sure we had all those conversations, I just don’t remember how that evolved or how we elected to use whatever phrases we used. I did very little of the writing. Scotta Callister, who is now my wife, did the bulk and my partner Jim Long did some. I wrote one or two or the pieces.

I didn’t do any of the reporting [on the series installment on defining cults], I was more focused on the money and India and all that. And frankly, I wasn’t too worried about what we labeled them. What you called them generically wasn’t a big issue for me. I was focused on the conduct, the movement of money, the threats, the manipulation, on the lies. It didn’t matter what label you wanted to put on them, that didn’t change the conduct. Whether it was a cult or a religion did not change the core questions that we had, or the reporting. 

How did the Rajneeshees try to disrupt the team’s reporting before the series ran?

The Rajneeshpuram mayor had come into The Oregonian on the pretext of taking a tour, but his mission was to find where we were located. Then they had a couple of their sannyasins find out who the cleaning company was, an outside contractor for The Oregonian. They got garb for the cleaning company and literally were in the building with electronic equipment they thought would destroy our hard drives. The night cleaning supervisor, a really tough gal, caught them coming out of the elevator and didn’t recognize them, of course. She said, Who the hell are you? They said they’d just started working and were obviously in the wrong building and they got out of there. It was a fairly developed, and nearly executed, scheme. 

Can you tell me about how you found out you’d been targeted for murder?

As the commune collapsed they had a couple of key people who decided to strike deals with prosecutors and become informants in exchange for immunity for a wide range of crimes. It emerged, among many jaw dropping disclosures, that they had plans to assassinate people. There had been a hit list put together of about 10 people. The US Attorney Charles Turner was number one, the Oregon attorney general who had sued to disrupt the city was number two. I was number three.

Two state police detectives came to The Oregonian and asked to speak with me. They took me into one of our small interview rooms and said, “You’re on a hit list for assassination. We think the threat has passed but we can’t be sure until we finish this investigation.” They said they were going to arrange some protection—at the time, I had a wife and two small children. It was a pretty unusual day in the office, to have police come to you and say, just so you know, these folks would like to kill you. But it also underscored for me that I win by just doing my job. If I overreact or flame out or panic, then they’ve won. But if I stay on course, I do my job, I do it fair, I do it accurately, that was the best antidote. 

Are there questions that were never answered that you’re still curious about?

I’ve had it on my bucket list to produce a really detailed non-fiction account of that time in Oregon because there are many details that have yet to come out. Details that I know, details that I know people are waiting to share with me, and details I want to find out. Although after the 1985 series, if I never heard the name Rajneesh again I was going to be a happy reporter. It was just exhausting. But particularly now with the new Netflix series out, I feel a duty to history and to the state to move it up in my bucket list and lay out the story even more fully than it’s ever been told.

I’ve always been struck by just how dangerous and evil some of these people were. I’m not sure the Netflix series has accurately captured that. This was not just a group of people that lost their way. This was a very dangerous group that put a lot of lives at risk.

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