The Rajneesh Cult, Oregon, 1985
William R. Clark is Professor and Chair Emeritus of Immunology at the University of California, Los Angeles. His new book, Bracing For Armageddon?: The Science and Politics of Bioterrorism in America, provides a reassuring overview of what we really need to worry about – and what we don’t. In the excerpt below we learn about one early bioterrorism attack in America.
In 1981, the Rajneesh cult, founded by a displaced Indian mystic named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, purchased a 60,000-plus-acre ranch in north central Oregon, not far from the city of The Dalles (population 11,000). The Rajneesh commune soon grew to several thousand souls, who enjoyed various degrees of success in their search for peace and enlightenment, in an atmosphere of easy drugs and sex. But the Bhagwan clearly flourished. He accumulated ninety Rolls Royces, five private jets, and a helicopter.
Not content with having built a thriving community on their own land, cult members gained electoral control of the nearby small (population 75) town of Antelope in Wasco County. They named their new town Rajneesh and quickly converted it to their own needs and ends, to the utter disgust of the mostly retired locals. Soon, perhaps growing weary of life in such a small town, Rajneeshees began vying for seats on Wasco County boards and commissions. Reaction at the county level was mixed, but mostly negative. A few saw potential downstream benefits from the influx of money and reasonably educated people, but most shared the views of their compatriots in Antelope.
In mid-September 1984, a dozen people who worked in or had recently eaten in several restaurants in The Dalles became ill from food poisoning. One of the restaurants, a Shakey’s Pizza franchise, was co-owned by a member of the Wasco County land-use board, but this raised no particular flags at the time. The number of victims grew over the following week, and the biological culprit behind it was soon identified by public health officials: Salmonella enterica typhimurium, a bacterium commonly causing food poisoning. Everyone was treated with appropriate antibiotics, no one died, and the incident seemed to have subsided.
But a week later it was back. This time ten restaurants were involved. Local health services, including medical laboratories, were overwhelmed. The only hospital in The Dalles quickly ran out of beds. The number of persons who became ill soon exceeded 700, considerably beyond what might be expected in a community of this size for a normal outbreak of salmonella poisoning. The city called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) in Atlanta for help. By the time help arrived, local health officials determined that most or all of the affected people had eaten at salad bars, and restaurants were immediately advised to stop serving salad. They did.
There followed an exhaustive investigation of all suppliers of salad vegetables and dressings to local restaurants. Everything came up clean; even the local water. Preliminary reports from state and federal health investigators stated that the poisonings were most likely caused by accidental incursions of salmonella into the food supply of the restaurants involved. Even the CDC felt that the food handlers were the most likely source for introduction of the bacteria into the salad bars. Some locals, in particular another member of the Wasco County land committee, believed the Rajneesh cult was somehow involved, but lacking any hard evidence or direction from health authorities, investigations into this possibility eventually fizzled out.
The involvement of the Rajneeshees became clear only as the result, a year or so later, of internal squabbles within the cult. The Bhagwan himself implicated some of his lieutenants in the affair, and called for a government investigation, after which he beat a hasty retreat to India. Authorities found abundant evidence at the commune of not only S. enterica typhimurium but a fairly sophisticated medical research laboratory and evidence that the cult had considered employing other deadly pathogens, including HIV – the AIDS virus. They had purchased salmonella essentially over the counter, from a Seattle scientific supply house. Among their intended victims, in addition to various county officials, was U.S. Attorney Charles Turner, the top federal prosecutor in Oregon. He was to be spared infection with salmonella. Cult members planned to shoot him. They failed. But they also intended to use their cultured salmonella to poison the Dalles water supply in the days before an upcoming election. The grand plan, as it turned out, was to reduce the number of Wasco County citizens able to vote, thereby increasing the influence of Rajneeshees. For various reasons, this never came about.
Probably no more than a dozen Rajneeshee leaders were fully aware of our involved in the salmonella poisonings. Seven cult members were ultimately indicted in various murder or attempted conspiracies. The cases against the conspirators came to a close only in 2005, when the last of these returned from self-imposed exile in Germany and surrendered to authorities.
While the Rajneesh incident gained national and international attention among those who had been predicting bioterrorism in America, it could be argued that what happened in Oregon was not so much a form of bioterrorism as a simple criminal attempt to manipulate a specific civilian population and its various civil agencies through malicious intimidation – a biocrime. There was no discernible political aim beyond an attempt by a few members to influence a single election and to expand their power and influence within the cult, and perhaps the intimidation or possible elimination of some individuals. Still, many of the features of bioterrorism were there: preparation and crude weaponization of a human pathogen, delivery of the pathogen to intended victims, and serious social and psychological disruptions in the targeted population.