The Story Behind The Largest Bioterrorist Attack In U.S. History

Some people might remember the Rajneesh movement as that thing their parents' friends were into during the 70s and 80s. Others might now know them from their fateful appearance in Netflix's Wild Wild Country docuseries. But in 1984, few would have imagined that the cult that preached free love and meditation would be responsible for a bioterrorism attack in Oregon, all for the purposes of carrying out election fraud.

Thankfully, no one died as a result of the subsequent outbreak, but it took over a year to figure out that the cult was responsible. And when police finally raided Rajneeshpuram, they discovered that the cult had a lot of other dangerous plans in the works.

Despite the cult's reckless and violent history, during the 1990s it rebranded itself as a meditation resort and continues to operate in various countries around the world. Here's the story behind the largest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history.

What was the Rajneesh movement?

Founded by Osho, the Rajneesh movement, also known as sannyasin, was a cult that combined aspects of Eastern and Western spirituality into a belief system that focused on indulgence. According to "Revisiting Rajneeshpuram," their ideology was based around "a doctrine of self-fulfillment without and beyond constricting rules and narrow morality." At one point, his followers were also known as "the Orange People," according to The Guardian, though later they also started dressing in red.

Although Osho preached enlightenment and living in harmony with their surroundings, he enforced a mentality which led to "an isolated community that kept tight control over its members," writes The Verge. The cult would also extract donations from its members, sometimes telling them to call their parents to ask for upwards of $20,000.

While the Rajneeshee were in India, Osho often found himself at odds with Indian officials, who responded in kind by "blocking expansion plans for his ashram, denying visas to Westerners, and opening criminal investigations." As a result, in 1981, he made the decision to move his cult to the United States.

Who was Osho?

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, also known as Osho, was born Chandra Mohan Jain in Kuchwada, India on December 11th, 1931. After taking time off from school "to soul search and mediate," Osho returned to school after claiming to have found enlightenment, according to Biography.

While teaching philosophy at University of Jabalpur, Osho traveled around India spreading his teachings about spirituality and free sex. By the mid-1960s, he was leading "meditation camps" and soon he'd resigned from teaching to focus on being a guru full time. It was around this time that he got the nickname "the sex guru." The Wire writes that Osho would later become known as "the Rolls-Royce guru" as well, due to the 74 Rolls-Royces he collected.

Osho preached "dynamic meditation" to all who came to his six-acre ashram and many ended up staying for extended periods of time. Then the ashram became too crowded and the local government made it difficult to find a new place to relocate to, which is part of what led Osho and his followers to the United States.

Who was Ma Anand Sheela?

Ma Anand Sheela was born Sheela Ambalal Patel in 1950 in Baroda, India. Elle Magazine writes that Sheela was introduced to Osho when she was 16-years-old, and "she became instantly devoted." Although she soon left India to go attend university in the United States, where she studied architecture, in 1972, Sheela returned to India and began working closely with Osho. 

Sheela became Osho's personal secretary and was soon working on "market[ing the guru] as a truly global brand." She figured out their move to the United States and was instrumental towards creating the mini-city of Rajneeshpuram. But according to Film Daily, Sheela was the mastermind behind a number of other campaigns as well. After moving the cult to Oregon, Sheela reportedly came up with the plan to inflate the number of votes from Rajneeshpuram. And when that plan failed, she was part of the group that concocted the bioterror attack.

In 1985, Sheela said during an interview, "[Osho] had the dream, the vision, and I had the ability to put it into practice." And according to Food Safety News, when Osho was in isolation, Sheela was his "only contact with the outside world."

Abuses of the cult

Despite preaching love and harmony, the Rajneeshees were responsible for a number of abuses. Bustle writes that the cult claimed to maintain free love as a tenant, but there are reports of "sessions" at Osho's ashram in India "in which participants were beaten severely and encouraged to act out their most violent fantasies, including rape, to cleanse themselves of aggression."

And The New Republic reports that although "free" love was supposedly encouraged, any children that might result out of such love were not: "If a woman got pregnant at the Pune ashram in India or Rajneeshpuram in Oregon, she was given a stark choice: Agree to have an abortion, or leave the property forthwith. There were zero children born in Oregon to Rajneesh cult members during the time the commune was extant." Sterilization was also encouraged for women, and was considered mandatory for Osho's "top women officials." Any children who were brought to the commune when their parents joined were considered to belong to the commune and many children suffered abuse or neglect.

However, according to The Conversation, "no matter how shocked or damaged they were, devotees did not quickly abandon the close friends or spiritual practices that had transformed their lives."

The creation of Rajneeshpuram

Initially, the Rajneesh movement was based out of Osho's ashram in Pune, India during the 1970s, but in the 1980s, almost 700 followers moved to Oregon in the United States. "Revisiting Rajneeshpuram" explains that after purchasing land in southern Wasco County and Jefferson County, the Rajneeshees started creating a planned community. Initially called Rancho Rajneesh, Rajneeshpuram "housed or hosted 15,000 followers" at its height, although other sources place the number closer to 2,000.

The cult purchased over 60,000 acres and created their own town, which included "an airstrip, restaurants, and a fire department," writes Willamette Week. By 1982, they applied to become the City of Rajneeshpuram and Wasco County approved their incorporation. However, State Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer filed a suit against the incorporation, claiming that "it violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state clause."

Before long, the Rajneeshees also encroached upon the neighboring town of Antelope. And by February 1983, the Rajneeshees had won control of the Antelope City Council and before long they'd changed the name of the town to Rajneesh and raised property taxes in order to drive the remaining residents out. Their next step involved trying to "gain control of the three-member governing board of Wasco County" in 1984.

Attempting to influence an election

In the summer of 1984, the cult decided that the only way to get the building permits that they wanted was to take over Wasco County in the 1984 election. According to The Atlantic, they would have to replace at least two out of the three sitting commissioners, which unfortunately would prove difficult considering that the Rajneeshees "accounted for less than 10 percent of the county's population."

So they came up with a two-step plan. They would increase the population of their cities, and they would incapacitate and "depress turnout" among those who might vote against them. According to "Revisiting Rajneeshpuram," initially the sannyasins "vigorously encouraged non-resident sannyasins and sympathizers to move to the city for the fall and register to vote in Wasco County." But when they realized that their population numbers were still too low, the Rajneeshees came up with the Share-a-Home program, where they targeted homeless people and bussed them into Rajneeshpuram.

The Share-a-Home program

In the summer of 1984, homeless people were bussed into Rajneeshpuram by the hundreds as part of the Share-a-Home program. According to Willamette Week, it's estimated that upwards of 3,000 homeless people were brought to Rajneeshpuram.

The New Republic reports that the Rajneesh public relations person Ma Prem Isabel claimed that the purpose for the program was "to share with some people who have been less fortunate than we have." However, there was an incredibly deliberate motive behind the Rajneeshees' actions. The Oregonian reports that everyone who was brought into Rajneeshpuram was expected to "register to vote" and "to vote the party ticket, as it were, when it came time to pick the new county commissioners." However, the cult hadn't considered the fact that many of the homeless people that they'd brought to Rajneeshpuram also suffered from untreated mental illnesses: "Fights broke out. To regain control, Rajneeshees injected the tranquilizer Haldol into beer kegs used to serve the homeless."

The cult also discovered, through the bugged public pay phones, that Felton Walker, one of the homeless people brought to the commune, was planning to kidnap Osho. He was injected with sodium pentothal and interrogated for hours. Several days later he was kicked off the ranch and, abandoning their plan, the cult forced all the homeless people back off Rajneeshpuram. In the end, the newly registered voters were required to attend a hearing due to suspicions of vote fraud and many of the new registrations were rejected.

Trial runs at the salad bar

The second part of the sannyasins plan involved poisoning people with Salmonella enterica, a bacterium that causes salmonellosis in people. First, two county commissioners who visited the commune were given water laced with Salmonella. Both became incredibly ill and one spent four days in the hospital. However, the Rajneeshees were still unable to get the building permits they wanted, so they decided to run a trial poisoning on a larger scale.

According to The Atlantic, the Rajneeshees went to 10 restaurants in The Dalles around September and October in 1984 "and, when nobody was looking, poured Salmonella-tainted liquid on items in the salad bar" or the salsa station. Over 750 people were affected, making it the largest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history. Fortunately, no one died as a result of the bioterror attack, but before long emergency rooms were seeing waves of infected people.

The CDC writes that there were two waves of outbreaks, "September 9th through 19th and September 19th through October 10th." According to The Oregonian, around the same time the Rajneeshees were also "eagerly spread[ing] dangerous bacteria at a grocery store, a public building, and a political rally."

Suspicions towards the Rajneeshpuram

Although no one was certain, many residents of Wasco County believed that the Rajneeshees were responsible for the poisoning. But initially, "even the CDC felt that the food handlers were the most likely source for introduction of the bacteria into the salad bars," according to OUPblog. Food handlers were blamed and Vice reports that it took a year for the CDC to finally attribute the attack to the Rajneeshees.

Residents of Wasco County maintained their suspicions, but without any hard evidence, there was little to incriminate Osho's followers. However, this didn't stop people from speaking out. According to The New Republic, Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver gave a speech to the U.S. House of Representatives on February 28th, 1985, "indirectly accused the Rajneeshees of having caused the salmonella outbreaks in The Dalles the previous fall." Congressman Weaver even went on to accuse the cult of having a laboratory in Rajneeshpuram, but his speech was written off as "a rambling and incoherent speech delivered to a nearly empty chamber."

Slate writes that in the original plan, the Rajneeshees were going to use Salmonella typhi, which causes typhoid fever and "surely would have resulted in numerous fatalities." And the salad-bar attacks were meant to simply be a trial run for a larger poisoning right before the election, likely through the town's water supply. Apparently at one point, "Rajneeshee leaders [even] considered flying a bomb-laden plane into the county courthouse in The Dalles."

Osho comes out of isolation

Around the time that all of this was going on, in the fall of 1984, Osho was coming out of a self-imposed "vow of silence" that had lasted roughly three-and-a-half-years. However, until the following summer, speaking "in public" just meant speaking "to a small group of disciples called 'the Chosen Ones.'"

In the summer of 1985, Osho set out to fix the Rajneeshees' public image. In addition to holding interviews and a press conference, the Rajneeshees sued Oregon state officials, accusing them of trying to push them out of Oregon. But according to "Revisiting Rajneeshpuram," after Sheela and several other high-ranking sannyasins "abruptly left Rajneeshpuram" on September 14th, 1985, Osho quickly changed his tune. Two days later, Osho held a press conference and accused Sheela and other Rajneeshee officials of creating a salmonella outbreak and conspiring to murder numerous people. At one point, Osho also claimed that Sheela was trying to murder him as well.

According to Food Safety News, Osho "invited state and federal officials to come to the ranch to investigate" his accusations, and on October 2nd, a state-federal task force raided the commune.

The FBI enters the ranch

Upon entering the commune, the FBI discovered "a fully fledged bioterrorism lab." According to The New Republic, in addition to the laboratory, officials discovered an arsenal of guns, "evidence of an extensive wiretapping operation," and "evidence of a top-secret research project by the Rajneesh Medical Corporation to develop a live AIDS virus in the laboratory."

"The laboratory was found to contain such books as Deadly Substances, Handbook for Poisoning, The Perfect Crime and How to Commit It, and Let Me Die Before I Wake, as well as numerous articles on assassinations, explosives, and terrorism." The Rajneeshees connection to the salmonella outbreak was also confirmed when state laboratory director Mihael Skeels noticed "an open vial containing a strain of Salmonella enterica Typhimurium that CDC matched to the outbreak strain."

Despite having invited the authorities in, Osho was soon complaining that investigators were simply out to destroy him. However, investigators weren't deterred and by the end of October had issued an indictment against Osho.

Arresting Osho and Sheela

Osho tried to flee, but he was arrested in North Carolina after landing to refuel. However, the only thing that Osho was charged with was "violating immigration law." Meanwhile, according to Gizmodo, Sheela was already in West Germany, where she'd fled in September with Ma Anand Puja, but she and Puja were soon captured and extradited to the United States.

The Associated Press reports that Puja and Sheela were charged with "attempted murder, electronic eavesdropping, immigration fraud, and engineering a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 750 people." They both plead no contest. After receiving multiple sentences ranging from 4.5 years to 20 years, and both ended up being released after 29 months. Sheela was also fined $469,000. And according to The New Republic, several other Rajneeshee officials and members were also indicted and sentenced, the majority of whom were women. After her release, Sheela was deported to Switzerland.

Osho ended up pleading guilty to the immigration charges in 1985, and after being given a suspended sentence and a $400,000 fine, he was ordered to leave the United States. He returned to India and continued to claim until his death in 1990 that "Sheela was behind it all."

The plot to kill Charles Turner

During the raid and subsequent investigation into the Rajneeshee, officials discovered that at one point the cult had been entertaining a plan to murder Charles Turner, the United States Attorney for the District of Oregon. According to the Associated Press, members of the cult, including Sheela, "picked an assassination team from among themselves and used commune money and a false birth certificate to buy guns." They apparently also "practiced different ways of killing Turner" and kept track of his movements.

Turner was a target due to the fact that he was investigating whether or not the cult was "conducting sham marriages to circumvent immigration law," writes the Los Angeles Times. Which, they were. It's estimated that the cult set up over 400 sham marriages. However, thankfully no attempt on Turner's life was actually ever made. However, Turner claims to have felt "a sense of peril" a couple of times in 1985.

By 1995, seven people, including Sheela, were convicted as part of the conspiracy to murder Turner, receiving sentences ranging from one to five years.

The legacy of Rajneeshpuram

After Osho left the country, Rajneeshpuram began to crumble as well. According to Gizmodo, "a US District Court judge in Portland ruled that the incorporation of Rajneesh, Oregon violated church and state separation and was ordered disbanded" by the end of 1985. And even though this was later overturned, by this point many followers had left, and some had even sold Osho's Rolls Royces in order to raise money to start their lives over.

Good writes that some members left the cult to rejoin their families or continued to travel "searching for purpose." Some found themselves absolutely lost and/or penniless: "They had identity crises, unsure of what to think after following the guru so closely. They had fully committed to Rajneesh as their life's purpose — so what was next for them?"

Others maintained their affiliation with the Rajneeshee and simply moved to another commune elsewhere in the world. Rolling Stone reports that Osho's followers in India renamed his commune the Osho International Meditation Resort, and today "there are also hundreds of Osho Meditation Centers in 80 countries."