Rajneeshpuram: Did it almost turn into an Oregon Jonestown?
Unlikely as it sounds, law-enforcement people who worked the case think it easily could have ended in a “bloody mess” if they had had to actually invade the commune to take the Bhagwan into custody.
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By Finn J.D. John — May 30, 2010
The story of a small and secretive “cult” group of people deciding to go out in a blaze of glory rather than submitting to outside authority is a familiar one these days, harking back to the infamous story of Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Familiar, but outrageous enough that most people think it can’t happen here.
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh's
booking photo from 1985.
Yet if you ask certain law-enforcement people who were on duty in the mid-1980s, they’ll disagree with that. Some might even tell you that in their opinion, it almost did.
Bhagwan invites police in
In late 1985, after the public split between the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his erstwhile spokeswoman, “Ma Anand” Sheela Silverman, the Bhagwan invited police to enter Rajneeshpuram to gather evidence against her. What they found was chilling enough, but in the context of the Rajneesh group’s earlier predictions of catastrophe and armaggedon, became truly frightening. They found two laboratories set up to produce biological and chemical agents that could certainly be used as weapons.
Handbooks on poisoning, biological weapons found
Ma Anand Sheela's booking
photo, also from 1985.
They also found some books detailing how that might be done: “Deadly Substances,” “Handbook for Poisoning,” “The Perfect Crime and How to Commit It” and “Let Me Die Before I Wake” were some of the titles.
Bhagwan backs off
A few days later, the Bhagwan started getting less cooperative. Newspaper and T.V. people poured in from all over the world. Law enforcement people started to complain that they weren’t being allowed to do the job the Bhagwan had invited them to do.
Indictment: Arrest the Bhagwan
Then came the spark that could have blown the whole thing up: A court in Portland issued a sealed indictment against the Bhagwan on immigration-violation charges.
But would he go quietly?
This presented law enforcement officers with a serious problem. It was now their duty to go and get him. But for some time, the Rajneesh “Peace Patrol” had been furnished with particularly warlike equipment, including the Colt AR-15 rifles that were the civilian equivalent of the U.S. Army’s main weapon. Officers had been there long enough, working on the Sheela investigation, to know the place was well armed and arranged for defense. A few weeks before, the Bhagwan had announced that his followers no longer had to wear the distinctive red robes that would, in a worst-case scenario, mark them as members. Police in the compound – both investigators invited in by the Bhagwan and undercover agents posing as followers – warned darkly that any attempt to serve a warrant on the Bhagwan at the compound would probably turn into a bloody mess.
Bhagwan tries to flee to Bermuda
Luckily, the Bhagwan solved the problem for them by chartering a Learjet and trying to flee to Bermuda. Thus, instead of having to invade a heavily armed compound with an enormous SWAT team, authorities simply had to dispatch two U.S. Marshals to intercept him in North Carolina during a stop for fuel, and pick him up.
A bloody contingency plan
Authorities later learned, according to Pintarch’s account, that the Peace Patrol did in fact have a contingency plan for how to respond to an attempt to arrest the Bhagwan. It involved encircling the leader with a human shield of women and children while security forces shot to kill. Again, this is according to Pintarich, who makes no secret of his hostility to the sect. But if it's true, and if all the participants cooperated, it would be hard to imagine something like this ending well for anyone.
Rajneesh leaders prosecuted
The Bhagwan’s arrest was the end of Oregon’s Rajneesh experience – well, sort of. Sheela, arrested in Germany and extradited, pleaded guilty to several poisoning and arson attempts and was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to leave the country immediately after serving her time. The Bhagwan was simply deported, with a prison sentence suspended on condition that he leave immediately.
The mystery of the missing $57 million
Sheela, after being represented by powerful and expensive legal teams both in Germany and in the U.S., suddenly became unable to afford to pay $270,000 of her fine. There had been $57 million in cash and hard portable assets (mostly jewelry) on the Bhagwan’s books; now there was no sign of it, and to this day authorities have no idea what happened to it.
Maybe it was quietly embezzled by one of the sannyassins. Perhaps the Bhagwan managed somehow to smuggle it out of the country for later use in building his luxurious meditation resort in India. Or maybe it’s simply buried somewhere out there in the high country of north-central Oregon, waiting for someone to come back and dig it up.
We’ll probably never know.
(Sources: Gulick, Bill. “A Roadside History of Oregon.” Bozeman, MT: Mountain Press, 1991; McCormack, Win. “The Rajneesh Story,” Great Moments in Oregon History: A Collection of Articles from Oregon Magazine. Portland: New Oregon, 1987)
Afterword: Sheela's husband's death
Sheela was released from federal prison in 1988, after serving 29 months of her sentence. She immediately married a sannyassin from Switzerland, Urs Birnstiel, and left for Switzerland with him, leaving Oregon authorities in the lurch for more than $60,000 in court-ordered fees and restitution. As a spouse of a Swiss citizen, Sheela was eligible for residency and, after three years of marriage, she'd be eligible for citizenship. And Switzerland in particular very seldom cooperates with other nations' attempts to prosecute its citizens.
Sheela had been originally arrested in late 1985. So the marriage would have taken place in late 1988 or early 1989.
In 1992, Birnstiel died of AIDS, which Sheela told Willamette Week magazine he contracted after the two of them became separated. Thus, Birnstiel apparently, in the course of three or four years, got married, got separated, contracted the HIV virus, developed full-blown AIDS and died — a timetable without parallel, so far as I know, in the history of human experience with this disease when it is naturally acquired. I have been unable to find any explanation of, or even reference to, the fact that a disease that usually takes a decade to even manifest itself killed Birnstiel in less than three years.
It should also be pointed out, here, that Sheela had a particular fear of the AIDS virus, stemming from Rajneeshpuram's experience with the "Share-a-Home Program," in which great numbers of hard-living homeless men were invited into the compound in an attempt to take over Wasco County. Sheela also had a history of dabbling in harmful biological agents — most especially, the cultured salmonella bacteria with which the salad bar in The Dalles was doped.
So far as I know, there is no evidence that Sheela or anyone associated with her had anything to do with her late husband's death. But the pattern of facts in this case, when laid out like this, point to the possibility of something remarkably dark.
TAGS: #BiologicalWarfare #PoisonLaboratories #Compound #Jonestown #Waco #RubyRidge #Immigration #PoisonersHandbook #Theft #Fugitive #Deported #PeacePatrol #HumanShield #AIDS #UrsBirnstiel #Switzerland
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