Mara Bovsun of the New York Daily News recounts the story of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who breezed into rural Oregon in the early 1980s to spread love, enlightenment and, for those who did not believe, a little bit of salmonella.
On Sept. 17, 1984, the Wasco County health department fielded what seemed a routine call, a case of food poisoning after dinner at a restaurant in the town of The Dalles. It was nothing out of the ordinary; from time to time some bacterium makes its way into someone’s salad.
But this was different. The phones kept ringing with reports of people falling ill after eating in local restaurants. Within a week, the Centers for Disease Control pinpointed salmonella typhimurium. By then there were more than 750 cases in a town of 10,000.
CDC sleuths determined that the mass poisoning was not the result of poor food handling, but a deliberate attack by an invading army, clad in red, that had set up a base in Oregon three years earlier. They were known as the Rajneeshees, followers of the charismatic spiritual leader from India.
The man who would become known to the world as the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was born Chandra Mohan Jain in 1931, son of a cloth merchant from central India. When he was 7, the death of his grandfather traumatized him. As he grew up, he prided himself on never establishing attachments, which gave him the freedom to do whatever he wanted to anyone.
While he was in college his behavior became so bizarre that his parents tried to get him psychiatric help. Instead, in 1953, he became enlightened and found his life’s work — guru.
There, on a place formerly known as the Big Muddy ranch, the Baghwan built his American empire. It would eventually attract about 2,000 followers, dubbed “sannyasins,” all draped in the signature color of the cult — red — and wearing beaded necklaces with a picture pendant of their guru. Followers came from wealthy and elite circles, including Hollywood heavyweights and heiresses from such companies as Learjet and Baskin Robbins.
They paid generously for their path to fulfillment. The Bhagwan lived like a maharaja, with a fleet of 93 Rolls-Royces and piles of jewelry, mostly diamond-encrusted Rolex watches.
He lived in seclusion, emerging every so often to ride in one of his cars, and spoke to only one person, his trusted aide Ma Anand Sheela, 31.
The salmonella-in-the-salad-bar attack, is the largest act of bioterrorism on U.S. soil. That scheme was a practice run for a massive attempt to incapacitate Oregon voters by slipping bacteria into the water supply.