Inside 'sex cult' whose brainwashed members poisoned salad bars in huge bioterror attack

Sex guru Rajneesh Osho set up a peace community that turned into a terror cell which plotted to kill a White House lawyer and infected hundreds of voters to rig an election

Daily Star, UK/June 15, 2021

By Adam Solomons

From the Jesse James gang to the Manson Family, America has had its fair share of powerful - and dangerous - cults.

But in the bizarre stakes, the Rajneeshpuram, surely takes some beating.

A supposedly 'peaceful' group led by 'sex guru' Osho Rajneesh, some members ended up conspiring to kill a US Attorney and poison 10 salad bars to rig an election and control city government.

The staggeringly bonkers yet incredibly fascinating tale of the 7,000-strong Oregon community is the subject of hit Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country.

It all started in 1981 when Indian Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, aka Osho, flew to the US to establish a new commune.

Though well-known in India, Osho became highly controversial for his permissive attitude to sex, anti-establishment approach to organised religion and willingness to criticise the powers that be.

All that made him popular in America, where Rajneeshee communities began to flourish.

Young hippies from all walks of life were intrigued by the spiritual leader's lofty ideas and aspirations.

He called himself "the rich man's guru", in contrast to prudish counterparts like the Maharishi who shunned material possessions.

This may have been informed by Rajneesh's own upbringing. The eldest son in a wealthy Indian family, he became a philosophy professor before founding a hugely popular community ('ashram') in Poona, India.

Tax bills and political difficulties forced him to leave with only 10 followers, but $1.5 million to his name.

One of the his group's most prominent American members was Ma Amrita Pritam (formerly Shannon Jo Ryan), the daughter of murdered congressman Leo Ryan who investigated the serial killing Jonestown cult before its infamous massacre.

Shannon told Newsweek in 1984: "Trying to explain the experience of being here with Bhagwan is like trying to explain what it's like to be in love."

Yet Osho's own arrival in the States took it to another level.

The community bought one of the biggest ranches in the northwestern US for almost $6million, renaming it "Rancho Rajneesh".

Sixty-four thousand acres in size, the desert commune was 200 miles north of the state's largest city, Portland.

The sex guru himself arrived in August, with locals expressing concern that the Rajneeshee were up to no good.

Part of that was well-founded - and ultimately vindicated - but some was racist too.

Osho developed a taste for Rolls-Royces, spending millions on the luxury cars and exploding his collection to 93.

Some members of the Rajneeshee hoped their leader could one day have a different Rolls for each day of the year.

A key turning point came in 1982, when the community decided to convert the ranch into a functioning city called Rajneeshpuram.

This took conflict with the locals up a notch, with the 1000 Friends of Oregon campaign fighting to kill the community's sewage system and ban any further developments.

Fights between Rajneeshpuram and Oregon townspeople escalated, with the religious community shipping in homeless people to vote in local elections - and giving city authorities the responsibility to house the new homeless population.

Such tactics were masterminded by the glamorous and formidable but sociopathic spokeswoman Ma Anand Sheela.

An Indian-born Swiss woman who went to university in America, Sheela's banker second husband John Shelfer paid for the ranch and oversaw much of the community's finances.

Sheela herself became Osho's right-hand woman after the Poona commune failed and he picked up sticks to move to the US.

But she soon became more than just an assistant, masterminding Rajneeshpuram's careful public relations operation and essentially running the place.

Sheela was also the most important figure in the cult's infamous September 1984 plot to poison neighbouring town The Dalles in order to disable voters and swing a city election in their favour.

A lab was even set up within Rajneeshpuram to concoct undetectable disabling poisons to be deployed against political enemies and the general population.

The audacious bioterror attack began with the poisoning of two visiting officials' cups of water with salmonella.

Both men became sick, with one hospitalised.

After expanding the efforts to attack the entire city, salad bars in ten local restaurants were contaminated with the same bacteria.

It was hidden in a secret "salsa" solution spilled at the restaurants and added to salad dressings.

Soon enough 150 people were found to have become sick, with a mass outbreak of salmonella feared and restaurants' hygiene practices under scrutiny.

Victims of the attack included a heavily pregnant woman whose baby was given a 5% chance of survival.

Symptoms of the sickness included diarrhoea, temperatures, severe headaches and bloody stools.

A shocking 751 people were ultimately infected and 45 were forced to enter hospital. Thankfully, no one died.

Sheela's plans remain the biggest bioterror attack ever carried out on US soil.

Needless to say, the plot failed. Voters immediately suspected the Rajneeshee and turned out in their masses to stop the Bhagwan's chosen candidate.

The community withdrew their candidate and only 239 of the group's 7,000 members turned out to vote, with most of those ineligible as they were not citizens.

Shortly after the debacle an investigation began into the poisonings, with local law enforcement and the FBI cooperating to find the perpetrators.

In early 1985, Oregon congressman James Weaver escalated events further by directly accusing the Rajneeshee of a calculated attack in a speech to the US House of Representatives.

One of the investigators was Charles H Turner, a Reagan White House-appointed lawyer tasked with looking into the attacks.

The Rajneeshee responded to his presence by trying to tap his phone, keeping watch on his house and even plotting to assassinate him.

Turner was terrified and later wrote: "This was a lying-in-wait conspiracy to murder me, a presidential appointee, and for a long time I slept with a loaded gun beside my bed."

As the investigation into the attacks continued, Osho finally reemerged from a long silence to directly accuse Sheela and a gang of "fascist" collaborators of the salad bar attacks and numerous other crimes.

This brought Rajneeshpuram to instant national notoriety - and all its ambitious plans to an immediate halt.

The settlement collapsed and the community quickly disappeared. The land was sold for a small price to a life insurance firm in 1988.

Rajneeshee mayor Swami Krishna Deva said Sheela had been in charge of the campaign, but Rajneesh knew about it too.

Luckily for the cult leader there was no evidence of his involvement, so he got off scot-free - and Sheela became the fall guy.

Osho was deported soon later for immigration-related offences, but never imprisoned or punished for the salmonella attacks.

In 1986, Sheela pleaded guilty to attempted murder and assault for her role in the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack

She was handed a 20-year prison sentence, leaving prison early for good behaviour.

Her green card was evoked and she was forced to leave America, moving to Switzerland, where she wouldn't be extradited to the US for other crimes. She went on to run a pair of nursing homes.

Osho died in mysterious circumstances in 1990, aged 58. It has been alleged he was poisoned or assassinated, though the official cause of death was heart failure.

Now 71, Sheela has made many public appearances to discuss Rajneeshpuram and to try to clear her name, including Wild Wild Country.

She is also getting the Hollywood treatment in the form of a movie about her, with Priyanka Chopra Jones set to star and produce 'Sheela'.

Though Sheela herself wrote to the Indian actress to express her disagreement with the project, the film is likely to bolster Sheela's reputation with a sympathetic - if not positive - portrayal.

Even still, controversy remains about Sheela's role in significant amounts of sexual and child abuse which took place at Rajneeshpuram during the 1980s.

Ex-Rajneeshee Jane Stork wrote a book about her children's abuse at the hands of cult members, also appearing on the Netflix series.

But despite worldwide fame now, the darker sides of the Rajneeshee's everyday lives remain shrouded in mystery.

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