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However, when Sheela and her operatives started scheming to seize power at the county level, disenfranchising thousands of Wasco County residents — and doing so in such a transparent and intelligence-insulting way, obviously thinking their plan was too clever and subtle for the local rubes to catch onto — they lost any claim they might have had on the moral high ground.
From that point on, the story of Rajneeshpuram would be a series of increasingly desperate and petulant rear-guard actions and acts of open spitefulness that quickly escalated to crime.
THE STATE’S RESPONSE to Share-a-Home was a fairly obvious one: Secretary of State Norma Paulus stopped all voter registration in Wasco County and assigned a fleet of attorneys from her staff to travel to the county and interview each new registrant, to make sure that person actually intended to live in the county.
This, as far as the takeover plan was concerned, was checkmate. But Sheela and her lieutenants tried to play through it. If they couldn’t pack the voter rolls to achieve a winning majority, maybe they could depress voter turnout enough to win …
And so it was that, in the summer of 1984, Sheela and her cronies — most notably Ma Anand Puja, a.k.a. Diane Omang, the director of the commune’s medical service — started poisoning people, testing formulas and seeing what might work.
First they poisoned two Wasco County Commissioners with cultured bacteria stirred into glasses of water offered to them while they were on a visit to the site. Then Sheela and Puja led a team into The Dalles to dribble cultured salmonella bacteria on the salad bars in several restaurants near the freeway.
Hundreds of people got sick — the official count is about 750, but likely there were many more, minor cases involving people who didn’t bother to seek medical attention. It was the biggest biological-warfare attack in U.S. history.
The attack is still baffling today, because it was carried out a month and a half before the elections. Was it supposed to be a trial run, to test the poisons in advance to make sure they would be effective? If so, it was a really stupid move, as it put Wasco County on notice; the salad bars were shut down, and people became very serious about handwashing and other hygienic preventions. Was it supposed to actually kill people, thereby removing them from the voter rolls? If so, it was even stupider. Either way, it was not exactly a 4-D chess move.
At the time, nobody really knew the source of the food poisoning. But almost everyone suspected the Rajneeshees, and that was enough to put the stink of criminality on the commune — all of them, not just Sheela and her gang. This was a bigger deal than it has later been made out to be. Rank-and-file Rajneeshees were not the kind of nasty monsters that some of their leaders were turning out to be. They were mostly goodhearted, normal people who had found a new vision for life under the charismatic spell of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. They were there to bask in his wisdom, dissolve themselves into his movement, and be a part of something that was creating (as they saw it) good things in the world.
Poisoning people, stockpiling and brandishing automatic weapons, ghosting ex-members, harassing former Antelope residents with cameras — these were all very off-brand actions for them. But more and more, these were coming to characterize life in Rajneeshpuram.
A creeping demoralization started percolating into the ranks of the sannyasins, and a sort of bunker mentality — a sense similar to that of a people at war. But, remember, these were people who had sold everything to start a new life in Rajneeshpuram. This was their home now; they had burned their boats. They had little choice other than to hunker down and hope for the best.
“Hope for the best and be prepared for the worst,” wrote poet Maya Angelou in her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The sannyasins living at Rajneeshpuram in 1985 would have benefited from this advice, because the worst was, as the saying goes, yet to come ... as we'll discuss next, in Part 4 of this series.