The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was an Attempt to Swing an Election

By Matt Novak on at

In September of 1984, at least 751 people got violently sick in Dalles, Oregon. At first, no one in the town could figure out why. Those sickened had all eaten at 10 different restaurants in the area, but local health officials couldn’t find a common food that may have caused their illness. A year later, they finally figured it out: A local cult was trying to swing an election in its favour. The event remains the single largest bioterrorism attack on US soil.

Rajneeshpuram is largely forgotten today, but back in the early 1980s, the utopian community in Central Oregon became a national media fascination. Founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, a spiritual leader from India with outposts around the world, Rajneeshpuram in Oregon sprung up almost overnight in 1981 when the cult bought 64,000 acres of rural land in Wasco County. At its peak, the community swelled to almost 4,000 people and hosted an annual month-long religious festival with over 15,000 more.

The locals weren’t terribly happy about having a cult in their area, so the Rajneeshees (who preferred the term Sannyasins or "seekers of truth") started getting pushback on things like zoning permits for the residential structures that were supposed to house thousands of people. The solution? Members of the fringe community ran for public office and started to win. In early September 1984, they had enough control to rename the nearby town of Antelope (population: 40) to Rajneesh, Oregon.

But they weren’t content to play fair and square when it came to politics. They wanted more control at the county level, and that required more people. The cult, whose members all wore red and followed the free love teachings of Rajneesh, decided that they’d need to keep the people who opposed them at home by poisoning local restaurants. It was only discovered later that the September 1984 attacks, in which members of the cult sprayed salad bars with salmonella, were just a trial run for that November’s elections.

The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was An Attempt to Swing An ElectionBhagwan Shree Rajneesh (right) speaks to his followers in Oregon in the early 1980s (AP Photo/Jack Smith)

Oregon has a long tradition of utopian communities, most thoroughly and broadly described in the book Eden Within Eden: Oregon’s Utopian Heritage by the late James J. Kopp. The state saw utopian experiments in the 1960s and 70s, like the Great Pumpkin Commune in Tillamook, which believed in organic farming and only used electricity to plug in guitars, and the Human Dance Company in Ashland, a community that preached “androgynous consciousness” and communicated through dance. All of this is to say nothing of the 19th century and early 20th century cults of Oregon, which all saw the territory/state as “virgin” land, despite the displacement of its native peoples. But even if the Rajneeshee’s weren’t the most eccentric cult to hit Oregon, they were probably the most well-financed.

Unlike many religious practices that promote spiritual fulfillment over material and earthly goods, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s teachings embraced materialism, money, and sex — anything that allowed one to find happiness and enlightenment. Surrendering all your earthly possessions to the cult and working for free was still the cost of entry, but you were paid back through the hedonism of the free love movement. And those possessions being surrendered were substantial. Most of the people who found their way to Rajneesh were college educated and had money in the bank.

The Rajneeshees set up thriving businesses, including a hotel in Portland and numerous restaurants, which allowed them to finance the cult’s state-of-the-art facilities. By 1984, operating costs at the compound alone were reportedly $2 million (at the time, about £1.4 million) a month. But the profits weren’t just going to keep the lights on. The money also helped fund the leader’s lifestyle. Rajneesh was a big fan of Rolls Royce automobiles, so in fitting with his philosophies, he owned a lot of them. How many is a lot? He bought himself 93.

The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was An Attempt to Swing An ElectionBhagwan Shree Rajneesh drives his Rolls Royce as cult members throw flowers on his car in July of 1984 (AP Photo/Bill Miller)

But Rajneesh was insulated from the rest of his followers in many ways. Ma Anand Sheela (born Sheela Silverman) was Rajneesh’s second in command. And because he had taken a vow of silence shortly before coming to Oregon, Sheela was seen as running the show. Rajneesh only talked to a handful of trusted people for the majority of his time in Oregon, though he would sit and meditate with enormous crowds in complete silence.

Ma Anand Sheela was the supposed mastermind behind the movement to exert political influence in the area. At first, her plan included bussing in over 4,000 homeless people from across the country to live in Rajneeshpuram, many of them Vietnam War veterans. Sheela said that it was about building the community, but the motive became clear: She wanted voters.

After local outcry, Oregon officials stepped in and halted new voter registrations for the county, forcing each of the new members of the cult to sit for hearings about whether they were truly residents. If they wanted to vote in the local elections, they had to testify that they had been in the state for over 20 days and intended to stay.

Most couldn’t register and afterward it became clear that Sheela had no intention of keeping the formerly homeless people around. She put them all on busses and dropped them off in Portland, much to the consternation of some people who felt like they’d found a home at Rajneeshpuram; a home where they could work and enjoy life. Unlike the other predominantly white, middle-class residents of the cult, the new homeless converts didn’t have anything to offer in the way of money.

It’s unclear why the Rajneeshees didn’t commit a follow-up attack in the county after successfully sickening 751 people in 1984. Perhaps Sheela knew that they simply wouldn’t have much of an electoral force after her failed stunt to bus in homeless people, only to ditch them again after it became clear that they wouldn’t be allowed to vote in that district. At the very least Sheela must’ve known she’d lost on the public relations front.

The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was An Attempt to Swing An ElectionMa Anand Sheela, second in command of the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon during the early 1980s (Screenshot from Oregon Public Broadcasting)

How much did Rajneesh know about the plans to poison the restaurants and swing the election? That’s still unclear. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI for documents that it has on Rajneesh, who would later become known as Osho before his death in 1990.

The files lay out many of the concerns of the FBI about the community, including unconventional “therapies” that used violence, and reports of “broken bones, rapes, and suicides” that were all allegedly covered up by members of the community.

The FBI documents also note that perhaps two murders had been covered up on the compound. The thing that finally got Rajneesh deported is also noted: his promotion of over 300 sham marriages for immigration purposes. His own immigration status was often in question, since he entered the country on a tourist visa but applied for permanent residency. The government contended that Rajneesh entered the country with the full intention of staying indefinitely, which violates US immigration laws.

The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was An Attempt to Swing An ElectionExcerpt from the FBi file on Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh obtained by Gizmodo through a FOIA request (FBI)

Oregon state officials became increasingly concerned about what the followers of Rajneesh might do after Election Day if they didn’t win on 6th November 1984. Some believed they might even get violent. This wasn’t an unfounded fear, as the Rajneeshees had established its own security force in the community armed to the teeth with assault weapons.

The utopian community got its own share of threats, so the Rajneeshees bought an enormous cache of guns. There was reportedly a Ku Klux Klan presence not far from the compound in Metolius, Oregon, that had threatened the cult. The group was overwhelmingly white, but had attracted people from all over the world to move there, and was led by a man of Indian descent. The Klan was no stranger to Oregon and still has a presence in rural parts of the state today.

The cult also got plenty of hate mail that was forwarded to the FBI, including the letter below which was postmarked from Long Beach, California and signed “KKK.”

The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was An Attempt to Swing An ElectionA hand written death threat made to the Rajneeshee cult in Oregon in November of 1982 and forwarded to the FBI for review (FBI)

The cult also received “certificates of death”, one of which was made out for Rajneesh and another made out to “Marxist-Occult-Queers”. They were postmarked Hollywood, California and had a Christian message. The return address on the envelope was, strangely enough, the Screen Actors Guild.

The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was An Attempt to Swing An ElectionDeath threat sent to the Rajneeshpuram compound, presumably by a Christian group in Hollywood, California (FBI)

The FBI tracked down the sender of the death certificates, who was a former stuntman turned religious fanatic, in North Hollywood. It’s unclear if any charges were filed.

The FBI file notes that there was an attempt to bomb the cult’s hotel in Portland, but the bomber only seriously injured himself. The man lost several fingers and damaged his own vision and hearing. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Other threats included a dead coyote, which had been shot in the head and left on the steps of a Rajneeshee-owned disco called Zorba the Buddha. All of this tension, naturally, put the Rajneeshees on the defensive in the relatively short time they had a presence in Oregon, and forced them to become even more isolated than they already were.

In 1984 the Rajneesh security force showed off for local TV news cameras by shooting automatic weapons at targets, believing that it was a demonstration of force that would let the outside world that they’ll take any threat seriously. But it turned out to be another bungled PR move on Sheela’s part that simply made outsiders terrified and cemented the idea that this wasn’t some harmless hippie commune in the middle of nowhere: this was a threat to the region.

The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was An Attempt to Swing An ElectionMembers of the Rajneeshee security force (Screenshot from Oregon Public Broadcasting)

Both local and federal agencies were becoming increasingly interested in the cult, and by Autumn 1985 things were about to come to a head. Through tips, the law enforcement officials learned that the restaurant poisonings a year earlier had been the work of the Rajneeshees.

Sheela fled to Switzerland by September 1985, and Rajneesh started openly accusing her of crimes. Breaking his vow of silence to testify to the INS, he also started talking directly to his followers. He told them that it was Sheela who had poisoned the community and even told of other plans to blow up the Wasco County Courthouse and wiretap virtually every building in the compound. There were also allegations about her plans to assassinate US District Attorney Charles H. Turner. Rajneesh claimed to be completely in the dark about all of it.

When the FBI was allowed into the Rajneeshpuram compound following these admissions, officers didn’t just find a lot of guns. They also found chemicals, gas masks, and literature on how to kill. Law enforcement were also shocked to discover that practically every room in every building was bugged, including hotel rooms, rental cabins, and even Rajneesh’s private residence. Police also found 36 voice-activated audio recorders that tapped almost every phone in the community. Where did all of these microphones lead, according to authorities? Two places: A secret room in Sheela’s home where she could monitor everything whenever she wanted, and an administration building staffed 15 hours a day.

Sheela, along with an on-site doctor, were the ones who took the blame for poisoning the town. They had stolen the salmonella cultures from a Seattle lab. By the time it had been revealed that members of the Rajneeshees had been responsible for the poisoning, Sheela had already fled to West Germany. She was extradited to the US and sentenced to 20 years. She served just 2.5 years. Sheela currently lives in Switzerland and owns two nursing homes.

Rajneesh was charged in November of 1985 with lying to the INS about his intentions to move to the United States and pleaded guilty. He paid a cash payment of $400,000 and immediately left the country.

The Largest Bioterrorism Attack in US History Was An Attempt to Swing An ElectionAbout 250 Rajneeshees march through downtown Portland on 1st November 1985 to protest the incarceration of their leader (AP Photo/Jack Smith)

It didn’t take long after Rajneesh left for everything else to fall apart. In December 1985, a US District Court judge in Portland ruled that the incorporation of Rajneesh, Oregon violated church and state separation and was ordered disbanded. The followers left, some collecting money from the sale of Rajneesh’s Rolls Royces to start a new life. Ironically, the judgement against the incorporation of Rajneesh was later overturned on appeal.

No other charges were ever pursued against Rajneesh before he died. You can still find plenty of videos online of Sheela talking about her former spiritual leader. Her scheme remains the single largest bioterrorism attack on US soil. With any luck, it will remain that way.

I’ve uploaded all 591 pages of the files I got from the FBI here.

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