OUPblog > History > America > Bioterrorism Beginnings:
The Rajneesh Cult, Oregon, 1985

Bioterrorism Beginnings:
The Rajneesh Cult, Oregon, 1985

medical-mondays

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.

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7 Responses to “Bioterrorism Beginnings:
The Rajneesh Cult, Oregon, 1985”
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  2. exOsho says:

    It is rumoured that after the poisoning many British members of the Rajneesh Ranch were imprisoned by the US authorities. After release they returned to the UK where they used to run Osho-based schools until these were closed down, Osho-based communes which are still functioning, and AUM Meditations. They have also infiltrated and contaminated the Tantra scene with the tenets of the Rajneesh / Osho cult. ‘Osho’ is now a huge multi-media business based in New York, USA.

  3. exOsho says:

    Happenings at the Ranch, and later at the commune schools are well described by Tim Guest in ‘My Life in Orange.’

    http://www.wnyc.org/books/44690

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/jan/11/india.biography

    Medina Commune (UK) “As time went by, we kids settled on each other as the source of the comfort we needed. In the dormitories at night we borrowed each other’s blankets; there was a lively trade in stolen soft toys. The older girls tucked the younger kids into bed. Some of the older boys started to get girlfriends, and beds were swapped in the middle of the night.”

    “‘The attraction of someone who said, “Do whatever you want, because that can be the path to enlightenment” was enormous. A lot of it was sexual.’ There was no monogamy for Bhagwan’s followers, although Guest’s mother had a long relationship with a sannyasi known as Sujan – before and afterwards called Martin – to whom she is now married.”

    “At the beginning, sex was promoted as celebratory, joyful. (Later, as the movement became more paranoid, Bhagwan decreed that Aids had been sent to wipe out two-thirds of the human population: sannyasi mothers must stop kissing their children, while commune kids who sucked their thumbs must wear rubber gloves at night). All this exploration of sexual energy was bound to have a darker side. Watching your lover borrowed by someone else might offer an opportunity to practise your detachment, but what if the detachment didn’t kick in? There were many injuries in the encounter groups.”

    “Fourteen- and 15-year-old girls were often initiated into sex by visiting group leaders. This was, of course, undertaken lovingly, with the best intentions because, as one victim explained after being raped again in order to confront her terrors, how could anything that happened to you in the ashram be bad?”

    “Now, Guest says carefully, he thinks the Medina children ‘would say that the sex, at the time, was a thrill. But looking back, they feel that if not wholly abusive, it was at times a little inappropriate.’ When the worldwide movement was summoned to headquarters in Oregon for a celebration lasting several weeks, all the children were left to their own devices, as usual. Inevitably, with so much sex around, many of them decided to explore their own sexual energy.”

  4. exOsho says:

    Another quote from Tim Guest:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2004/jan/11/india.biography

    “Not long after, the worldwide movement (there were now 126 sannyasi centres in Europe, including 22 in the UK and 43 in West Germany) began to implode. There were allegations of fraud, mass poisonings, assassination attempts. A plot was uncovered to fly an aircraft into a building in the US.”

    Does the last sentence sound familiar?

  5. Osho Lover says:

    Osho, Bhagwan Rajneesh is one of the most rebellious and intelligent enlightened Master ever walked on this planet. Evil minded people are intentionally dragging the name of Osho or Bhagwan Rajneesh and associating it with poisonous incident in which thank God not even a single person died. It shows how much Osho hate is still strong in orthodox minded people including journalist and politicians.
    Will you put the Mayor of a City in prison for the crimes of the secretary of that Mayor?
    Will you put the President of a country in Prison for killing hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children of another country for the false accusation of WMD. That seems even more justified than above Mayor example.
    Crimes of Ma Anand Sheels are not the crimes of Osho Bhagwan Rajneesh. Bhagwan Rajneesh cannot make a person better. It does not matter how much physically close a person is to Bhagwan if that person(Ma Sheela) is not ready to learn good things.
    Jesus Christ could not make Judas a good person even when Judas was one of the closest disciples of Him.

    Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had millions of good things to give to this world. Just creating and concentrating on negative aspects cannot drive humanity in better direction.
    Oregon is one of the blessed pieces of Earth where Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh put His feet.
    Love to Osho.

  6. 2012 end says:

    The only alignment that will take place in December 2012 will be that of the Earth and the Galactic Equator.

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