On our Sortable Master Directory you can search by keywords, locations, or historical timeframes. Hover your mouse over the headlines to read the first few paragraphs (or a summary of the story) in a pop-up box.
Note: Audio version of this article (Part 5) has been combined with the audio from Part 4.
By Finn J.D. John August 1, 2023
This is the final instalment of a five-part story, telling the absolutely-bonkers-but-widely-misunderstood story of Rajneeshpuram, the commune founded by Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers in the early 1980s. Here are links to Parts One, Two, Three, and Four.
Part Five: Aftermath.
AND, THAT WAS the end of it. Germany extradited Sheela to the U.S. for trial on various charges including arson, poisoning, and assault. She worked out a deal that included a few years in federal prison, from which she was released in 1988, after which she immediately married a Swiss sannyasin named Urs Birnstiel and left for Switzerland with him, slipping through the fingers of prosecutors from the state of Oregon, who had been waiting for her release from federal prison to arrest her on state charges.
Rajneesh was simply deported after receiving a prison sentence for immigration violations, suspended on condition that he leave immediately and not return. By this time, he was happy to comply.
Several other members of Rajneeshpuram’s leadership also drew prison time for their various escapades. And the rank-and-file sannyasins were left to piece their lives back together as best they could. This was no small thing for most of them; many had actually sold everything they had and contributed all the proceeds to Rajneeshpuram.
And they probably wouldn’t be getting any of it back. The organization had more than $57 million on its books at the start of 1985; by the time of Sheela’s flight, nearly all of it had disappeared somewhere. Sheela claimed to be unable to pay $270,000 of her fine to the state of Oregon. Where had the money gone? Nobody ever figured that out.
AS OF THE time of this writing, Sheela is still alive and living in Switzerland. Her marriage to Urs Birnstiel came about in the nick of time for her, as it made her eligible for Swiss residency and subsequently citizenship. Fresh from the slammer, she skipped out two steps ahead of the law, which wanted her to face trial for attempted murder in some of the assassination schemes she’d participated in.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: In "reader view" some phone browsers truncate the story here, algorithmically "assuming" that the second column is advertising. (Most browsers do not recognize this page as mobile-device-friendly; it is designed to be browsed on any device without reflowing, by taking advantage of the "double-tap-to-zoom" function.) If the story ends here on your device, you may have to exit "reader view" (sometimes labeled "Make This Page Mobile Friendly Mode") to continue reading. We apologize for the inconvenience.]
Birnstiel died of AIDS in 1992, leaving Sheela a widow and a Swiss citizen by marriage. Switzerland does not extradite its citizens to face charges in foreign courts, so she is quite safe so long as she stays there in country. The Rajneeshees were well known for having members marry each other for citizenship reasons, going back to the Pune ashram days; chances are pretty good Sheela’s marriage was at least partly motivated by desire to get her safely out of the U.S. and beyond the reach of extradition. If so, it worked, and just in time too.
And as for Rajneesh, after moving back to India and changing his name to Osho, he died in 1990 of a sudden heart attack at age 58. He left behind more than 650 books — transcriptions of his lectures and discourses — which have since been translated into more than four dozen languages. His stock as a guru has never been higher, and hundreds of thousands of people come to his “Osho International Meditation Resort” in Pune every year.
In Oregon, though, his name is still mud — after all these years.
(Sources: “Rajneeshpuram,” an episode of Oregon Experience produced by Eric Cain and Nadine Jelsing and aired Nov. 19, 2012, by Oregon Public Broadcasting; “Beyond the Ranch: Rajneesh Revisited,” a three-part series by Cory Frye published July 8, 2018, in the Corvallis Gazette-Times; the Portland Oregonian’s 20-part series on Rajneeshpuram, published June 30 through July 19, 1985, and 5-part series by reporter Les Zaitz published April 14, 2011; correspondence with Bill Lundun of Radio KPNW of Eugene)