It starts with property, some 64,000 acres of Eastern Oregon terrain.
The Muddy Ranch — or the Big Muddy Ranch, as it’s often called now — came to be in the late 1800s via two merchants, Henry Hahn and Leo Fried, partnered as the Prineville Land and Livestock Co. It was once a prosperous concern, with up to 800 herds of cattle and 12,000 head of sheep. But it had foundered by the mid-20th century and staggered to market, where it lingered for a time, courting and shedding suitors.
Then, a buyer, in 1981: the curiously named Chidvilas Rajneesh Meditation Center, a New Jersey-based nonprofit established by the late Marc Harris Silverman and his wife, the Indian-born Sheela Patel. Despite its vague moniker, its purpose was to extol the teachings of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the United States.
The Bhagwan’s ideas found purchase in the Western world — not so much in his homeland, where the former Chandra Mohan Jain (“Rajneesh” was a childhood nickname) was a notoriously brilliant, rebellious provocateur. He taught at two universities. Both asked him to leave. A corrupting force, they called him.
His philosophies were derided as self-serving patchworks, salient scraps from multiple hemispheres. He in turn lambasted his peers' rigid traditionalism. A captivating orator, he commanded attention for hours. Long, calibrated silences, hands to lips as if deep in thought. Then suddenly, pronouncements would come, soft as air but firm with conviction, often with remarkable comic timing.
He endorsed sexual liberation, earning him the “sex guru” title, and science over belief. He preached of the “new man” and the “materialist spiritualist,” suggesting that religion’s embrace of poverty sparked similar diminishment within. Wealth, he believed, wasn’t a sin. An aspiration, maybe. As a result, his Rajneesh movement attracted self-styled radicals, academics, scientists, professionals, restless seekers across the world. They flocked by the thousands to his ashram in Pune (formerly Poona), India, seeking their truth.
Devout Rajneeshees themselves, the Silvermans had adopted other names. Until succumbing to Hodgkin’s disease in 1980, Marc answered to Prem Chinmaya. His wife, who had known the Bhagwan half her life, became Ma Anand Sheela. By 1981, she was his personal secretary and most trusted adviser. It was she who spearheaded the movement’s foray to the United States. It was she who led the team that brokered the Oregon deal: $5.75 million to transform dead space into Rancho Rajneesh, upon which was built Rajneeshpuram, a proposed agrarian paradise.
Albany resident Rob Blickensderfer watched its development from a comfortable distance. Every year he kayaked the John Day River as it cut along the emerging community. He noted the large fence that lined the riverbank’s edge. It was impressive, easily 12 feet high, crowned by woven wire. “You can’t get over it without killing yourself,” he cracked. From the water he saw its buildings and vistas, its red-clad bustle sprawling toward the distance.
For years this marked the closest he’d come. He didn't meet an actual Rajneeshee for a very long time. By then the commune-city was no more, its denizens scattered worldwide. Ma Anand Sheela had gone into exile. The Bhagwan was almost 20 years dead. What happened had happened, and enough generations had passed to bury the memory.
The people of (and in) the path
“This is the meaning of a commune:
We pool our consciousness into one space
and then each affects the other.”
— Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, “Sufis: The People of the Path, Vol. II”
The Rajneeshpuram story is textbook Oregon: cultures warring for identity and preservation, in a conflict disguised as a land-use issue. It’s also very much a metaphor for its era, the 1980s, when ambition was simultaneously venerated and vilified. If it clashed with expectations, things could turn nasty.
Instead of Wall Street, however, this fracas exploded on a more expansive battlefield when it became apparent that the ranch and the nearby town of Antelope had separate understandings of the word “commune.” Ma Anand Sheela presented the Rajneeshees as simple farmers but harbored larger plans, as evidenced by caravans of building materials and manufactured homes, more than any “farm” required.
And who were all these people? They were everywhere, these disciples, or “sannyasins,” clad in aggressive crimsons. How many residents did a farm commune need?
Antelope itself held a modest population of about 40. Conversely, there were hundreds of Rajneeshees, and more were coming. Some looked to buy property in town. Some hoped to become involved in civic affairs. They were taxpayers, after all; shouldn’t they have voices too? Still others hawked literature, often to the horror of locals, mostly ranchers, who had no truck with Indian gurus and found a lot of their concepts odious — pornographic, even. Rajneeshees may have imagined themselves proactive citizens. To Antelopians, however, they were an invasion of sex-mad heteroclites.
This was no commune, they felt, but the beginning of a city — one with a massive appetite.
Les Zaitz knew few equals at a journalist. At retirement, though, he stinks. He allegedly called it quits in 2016 after a 40-year career, but bedevils the powerful still, this time as editor/publisher of the Malheur Enterprise.
In early April, his three-man weekly won the Investigative Reporters and Editors FOI award for holding the state Psychiatric Security Review Board accountable after it released from the Oregon State Hospital a patient deemed dangerous by health experts. When that man, Anthony Montwheeler, killed two people and injured another in separate incidents only weeks later, the board tried to quash the paper's requests for files, issuing threats instead and ignoring an order from the state attorney general.
Bad idea. Zaitz cranked up the public heat. Eventually, Gov. Kate Brown got involved, and the Enterprise got its story.
Zaitz began his career at the Oregonian in 1976. Within a half-decade, he’d covered such milestones at the Mount St. Helens eruption. When the Portland paper’s longtime competitor, the Oregon Journal, finally dissolved in 1982, greater powers merged the staffs, and Zaitz joined ex-rival Jim Long in an investigative team under assistant Oregonian managing editor Dick Thomas. Together they roared through gambling scandals, bank imbroglios — anything that fell in their crosshairs.
In the spring of 1984, they trained their focus on the Rajneeshees.
“We were quite busy on other investigations as that story began developing,” Zaitz recalled. “But we watched them like everyone else. As the scale of development unfolded, it became apparent that this wasn’t a commune of folks cooking bean sprouts and singing songs around the fire at night.
“We realized, too, as they became more high-profile, we didn’t know much about them. A lot of the coverage then was episodic: You’d go to the ranch for a day and do a story on these interesting people, for the most part. So, after wrapping up a couple of projects, we decided to bore in and ask questions.”
The resulting investigation, to which assistant city editor Scotta Callister also contributed, spanned 18 months and culminated in a 20-part series published in the Oregonian in 1985. According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the undertaking produced 2,300 column inches of text at a cost of $250,000, a sum that included Zaitz’s December 1984 sojourn to India, where he learned through volunteered paper trails (the authorities were most cooperative) that the Rajneesh movement had problems at home. It wasn’t just ambition that compelled them to the United States. They ran, chased by allegations of money smuggling, drug trafficking, sham marriages, immigration fraud and more.
“It shows the benefit of getting out of the office, so to speak,” Zaitz said. He would call this trip a career highlight, despite spending that Christmas at the Two Star Jackson Hotel in Bombay (now Mumbai) with only a small, management-provided cake to help him celebrate.
While Zaitz and Long plumbed the past, the story in real time grew weirder. The Rajneeshees had brought Antelope’s greatest nightmare to pass, using votes and money to seize control of the town and rechristen it Rajneesh, home to their corporate headquarters. The Antelope Store & Cafe, with its meat-friendly menu, became the strictly vegetarian Zorba the Buddha Restaurant. There was even a Rajneeshee police force.
Ma Anand Sheela bugged Rajneeshpuram itself to monitor law enforcement presence and weed out potential dissidents. Security personnel now carried assault rifles — some claimed for protection after the July 29, 1983 bombing of the Hotel Rajneesh in Portland, others for sheer intimidation. Schemes were hatched to affect elections. Enemies were identified for termination. Hostilities flared on all sides, and not all sides were completely without blame.
For good or ill, everyone in Oregon felt the Rajneeshee effect. Its city became a popular tourist attraction. The former desert was lush again. Wildlife and color had returned. The Rajneeshees were decades ahead of the country in terms of solar power and recycling. They had an airport, a post office and even their own zip code: 97741. Their buildings were sound, activities abundant. Guests could visit bookstores, a dairy, a disco, a shopping mall (where clothing racks specialized in garments of a particular color), an ice cream shop and more — all under the Bhagwan’s watchful countenance, posted everywhere, along with the occasional openly armed guard.
But you didn’t have to live in Wasco or Jefferson counties; sometimes the experience found you. Like it did with Loren Wagener of Albany’s A&A Towing, summoned down to Wasco County Road 130 early one November 1984 morning to rescue three of the Bhagwan’s damaged Rolls Royces (he'd eventually own nearly 100) from an equally valuable custom-built trailer after a delivery truck tipped over late one night. He brought the cars to his shop, where reporters and gawkers gaped at the damaged grills, awed by their chance proximity to one of America’s most notorious figures.
Even the word “Rajneesh” could hurt. When a rumor circulated through Albany that the sect owned the Takeena Lodge restaurant, manager Bob Williamson tore its usual promotion from the outside reader board and replaced it with “CONTRARY TO POPULAR BELIEF NO WE ARE NOT.” Everyone knew what he meant. (Williamson could not be located for comment; Wagener died in 2007.)
According to then-Albany Democrat-Herald editor Hasso Hering, it was suggested that the newspaper send correspondents to Rajneeshpuram. No thanks; there was enough local news to keep his staff busy. Wire coverage, he felt, was sufficient. Judging from the amount produced daily — sometimes even hourly — there was plenty to go around.
However, what he said wasn’t entirely true.
Someone from his staff did make the trip.
Not for a story. But for answers.
To a question that began some six years earlier.
“Please help us get out of Jonestown.”
— Note passed from Vernon Gosney to NBC’s Don Harris, Nov. 17, 1978
Vernon Gosney’s plea made its way to Leo Ryan. The Congressman from California had landed in Georgetown, Guyana, three days earlier, flanked — not at his request — by a television news crew, reporters and photographers, delegates and select representatives of the group Concerned Relatives. Over the last few months, he’d become their champion, a politician with the clout to reunite them at last with family they’d feared lost for good.
Ryan sought an audience with Jim Jones, the charismatic Svengali behind the Peoples Temple, affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Before becoming a global pariah, Jones was a respected progressive thinker, integrating his flock at the height of segregation and establishing assistance programs for the poor. But beneath the altruism brewed darker tendencies. Even in the Temple’s earliest years, Jones promoted an “us vs. them” dynamic, presenting his church as the only family a patron required.
Twenty years later, it reached its fated apex. The Peoples Temple by then had crossed from Indiana to California and then off the continent completely. Jonestown was erected in its leader’s name in Guyana, east of Venezuela, in the mid-1970s. For Jones, it was a sanctuary from stateside interference and the media, which had defamed him with exposes on defectors and threats to silent dissent. Here he controlled the flow of information.
Maybe no one in Jonestown saw such headlines. America was a different story. Scrutiny had increased over Jones’ reported treatment of acolytes, his own deteriorating physical and mental health, and the unreasonable gulf he’d staked between his followers and the outside world.
Leo Ryan joined the cause through a friend, Associated Press photographer Robert Houston. Authorities had recovered the body of Houston’s son, Bob, in the rail yard where he worked. It was ruled an accident, but strangely, he had died a day after leaving the Temple. Ryan was then flooded with stories from ex-devotees and despondent families who had united as Concerned Relatives. Many of their loved ones, they insisted, were literal hostages in Jonestown, forever forbidden to leave.
Ryan called for an investigation. It went nowhere. So he decided to launch his own, resolving to visit Jonestown personally whether Jim Jones liked it or not. Sure enough, on Nov. 18, 1978, he sat in tense conference with the man himself.
On the surface, Jonestown seemed fine. Ryan’s group was treated well. But about 30 of Jones’ disciples saw the visit as their only chance for freedom. Vernon Gosney quietly requested safe passage home for himself and his companion, Monica Bagby. Others expressed similar desires to escape.
One was a man named Larry Layton. However, he had no intention of leaving. Instead, he accompanied Ryan’s entourage after the Jones meeting to the Port Kaituma airstrip, where planes awaited to return them to Georgetown. Layton boarded a six-seat Cessna with Gosney, Bagby and another defector, Dale Parker. Once inside, he produced a pistol and opened fire, wounding all three before Parker disarmed him. All survived. (Layton would spend 18 years in prison for the incident.)
Meanwhile, the larger Ryan faction, populated by escapees, Concerned Relatives members and journalists, approached a Twin Otter primed for takeoff. The congressman shook someone’s hand. NBC cameraman Bob Brown stood back, filming. Suddenly, Jonestown’s security force, the Red Brigade, pulled up in a tractor trailer. Quick shots cracked the early evening air. Brown fell wounded to the dirt, his camera at an uneven angle, its gaze locked on the trailer, mercifully fading to static in the 17-second prologue to five assassinations, including his own.
Ryan took five hits and died not far from where he stood. Also killed were San Francisco Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, Temple defector Patricia Parks and NBC correspondent Don Harris, who not 24 hours earlier had given Gosney’s note to Ryan.
November 18 was Jonestown’s last day too. Jones made sure of it. They’d crossed a line. Soon new trouble would come, one they couldn’t suppress in an ambush. He summoned his followers to the pavilion for a final act they’d rehearsed but would execute now for real.
One by one, the remaining disciples approached vats filled with Flavor Aid. Valium and cyanide sweetened this particular batch. Parents dipped needle-free syringes into the punch, then sprayed it into their children’s mouths. Adults drank it from cups. The less willing were held down and “inoculated.” Jones, likely the last to go, chose a different, more dramatic end: a single gunshot to the head.
In all, 918 people — 913 at Jonestown and five at the Port Kaituma strip — perished that day. Many, like Congressman Ryan, were from the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Peoples Temple was last based.
1 of 918
Sharon Kislingbury was only 22 when she died. Born in 1956, she’d grown up in Burlingame, California, graduating from Mills High School in 1974. Friends described her as caring, fair, compassionate and friendly, attributes that may have inspired her involvement with Jones’ church, which, on paper, seemed in alignment. She arrived in Guyana on March 15, 1978. Eight months later, she finally came home.
Her older brother, Graham, was living in Oregon then, working at the Cottage Grove Sentinel after graduating from the University of Oregon in 1975. What happened at Jonestown cut him deeply. Not only had he lost his sister, he knew other names on the list of the dead, as well.
He was also familiar with the Ryan family. Leo’s second-oldest daughter, Pat, was a 1971 Mills High School classmate — Graham knew her from English classes. His father, Graham Sr., and other relatives had met with Leo shortly before the ill-fated Guyana trip. Graham admired the congressman, and visited the Ryans in Burlingame to pay his respects three days after Leo's funeral.
Leo’s former wife, Margaret Mary, was at the house, he recalled. So was Kevin, the Ryans’ youngest son, who’d graduated with Sharon. Pat was expected from Los Angeles. The oldest sister, Shannon, busied herself with dough ornaments to sell at the Cow Palace’s upcoming Dickens Fair. (Sister Erin and brother Christopher had returned to their homes in Washington, D.C., and Boston.)
“They had never met anyone who was connected to the Peoples Temple,” Kislingbury said. “So we sat around and I explained who I was. Then they pulled out a bottle of wine and we drank the whole thing. We’re having a great time. Then Pat arrives and it’s like we’re having a party. ‘Graham Kislingbury, what is this going on?’”
He chuckled and summoned another memory of that evening: Shannon. When she spoke, she struck him as someone in flux. “She was talking about things she might be doing in life,” he said. “She was searching for something she wanted to do.”
“What [Jim] Jones created was a prison and what Bhagwan has created is a way out of the prison of ordinary life. Just total freedom is what he is all about. Jones was trying to control people while Bhagwan is trying to give people control of themselves.”
— Shannon Ryan to the Los Angeles Times, Jan. 12, 1981
Kislingbury couldn’t believe it. Of all people. Shannon Ryan — or, rather, Ma Amrita Pritem — had converted to Rajneesh and gone to Pune. Then she joined the exodus to Oregon. Her affiliation made a tantalizing hook for the media and the Rajneeshees. Both played up the connection even as the latter adamantly denied parallels to Jonestown.
Kislingbury had left Cottage Grove for Corvallis, accepting the sports editor position at the Albany Democrat-Herald in 1981. He honored his sister Sharon’s memory by addressing church groups and high school and college classes about the dangers of cults. This news stung like a slap to the face. Leo Ryan’s daughter, in thrall to a guru.
Although troubled, he addressed his misgivings by writing her a number of letters into 1984. Shortly before Labor Day of that year, Kislingbury floated the possibility of visiting the ranch. Shannon agreed. And on September 2, Graham and his wife, Nancy Anderson, made the long drive to Rajneeshpuram.
Anthem for the Awakened One
“Once you see a certain truth, you cannot do anything other than obey it. But it has to be your seeing, your perception, your realization.”
— Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho), “From Ignorance to Innocence”
Rajneeshpuram awaited roughly four hours northeast of Albany, down a twisting stretch of Highway 218. Once you hit Antelope, you knew you were close. Its aura was unmistakable, even from 19 miles away, in a miniature prelude to the commune-city itself.
As you drove further, you felt it coming. If you were a stranger, someone had already noted your presence in Antelope. Beyond that point was a series of four two-man observation posts, each apprising the other of approaching unknown vehicles. A guard took down your license plate number. By the time you reached Rajneeshpuram, the proper authorities were aware of you. They knew how many people were with you.
Tourists may have been indifferent to such precautions, but government officials were not. They endured meddlesome welcomes, their movements shadowed, blocked or coaxed in less intrusive directions.
As Graham Kislingbury and Nancy Anderson drew closer, they passed a sign bearing a Rajneesh litany, one which may have also served as a guideline for visitors:
“I go to the feet of the Awakened One
I go to the feet of the commune of the Awakened One
I go to the feet of the ultimate truth of the Awakened One.”
As explained in “From Ignorance to Innocence,” going to “the feet” meant surrendering one’s ego, first in the presence of few, then in the presence of many. The “ultimate truth,” of course, was a little more difficult — it involved expunging a lifetime of preconditioning, and accepting, with all one’s heart, a new set of values.
There were 1,700 such souls at Rajneeshpuram in September 1984, although a sign at the border announced a modest 1,222, with 4,000 predicted by century’s end — a number it actually eclipsed within a year. Kislingbury and Anderson, however, were curious about only one: Shannon Ryan.
They paid a couple bucks for the commune-city tour (“They were very entrepreneurial,” Graham quipped) and heard its many selling points. Graham took copious notes. The Rajneesh International Meditation University — where one could enroll in such workshops as the four-day “Harmony: Opening the Heart” and the month-long “Training Course in Rajneesh Psychic Message and Energy Balancing” for $150 and $3,000, respectively — was declared one of the world’s largest growth centers. The Rajneeshees recycled 70 percent of everything and even maintained a “sewage lagoon” that reclaimed water for irrigation.
Parts of Rajneeshpuram, however, were very much off-limits to visitors. Some required personal searches, armbands or day passes. Despite the presence of a hotel, overnight stays were discouraged; non-sannyasins were redirected to Madras, about 30 miles southwest, for accommodations.
Kislingbury, Anderson and Shannon Ryan caught up over lunch. Labor, Graham learned, was considered integral to worship. Some, like Shannon, worked more than 12 hours a day. In fact, she had two jobs, one, in an administrative position of sorts that also involved cleaning; the other, as a Zorba the Buddha Restaurant employee. The woman who assembled holiday crafts in 1978 had abandoned art altogether by 1984. She also lost contact with her family, having last spoken with them some nine months earlier.
Around 2 p.m., their visit was interrupted. “I have to leave now,” she reportedly said. “We’re going to create a song for the Bhagwan.”
Kislingbury and Anderson followed to observe.
Disciples began gathering, instruments in hand, to practice in a grassy area. Their leader was scheduled soon, riding inside one of his many Rolls Royces. It was his daily ritual. Shannon carried a toy xylophone. “Look,” she announced, “I can play ‘Happy Birthday’” and tapped out the evergreen. Soon a song had formed. “Bhagwan,” sang his people, “we love you, we love, we love you … ”
Shannon said her goodbyes and vanished into the mass forming along a road leading from the Bhagwan's palatial home. A police force member approached Graham and Nancy, bidding them out of the way. The procession was coming, and they’d been standing on the wrong side — the “private side” — of the street.
First came a man with roses for sale at $3 apiece. Then the fleet rolled through. Petals rained in tumbling showers. Voices rose in harmony. Graham watched the Bhagwan as he passed. The Bhagwan, seated in comfortable luxury, did not look back. Instead, he watched the road ahead.
Graham turned to his wife.
“Nancy,” he said, “let’s get out of here.”
A mid-September Sunday, 1984
After his sermon, Mark Reid couldn't stay. The regional minister for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Oregon was recovering from pain in one of his arms. It had been bad enough to warrant brief hospitalization. So he graciously declined the Pendleton church group’s lunch invitation and headed home to Beaverton with his wife, Susie, and their teenage sons, Jay and Eric.
A couple of hours later, the Reids reached The Dalles. Hungry, they stopped at the Portage Inn, which overlooked the Columbia River, The Dalles bridge and the ruins of an old Indian settlement. (Today its restaurant is called the Columbia Portage Grill, within the Shiloh Inns. The view, you’ll be glad to hear, is the same.) The first thing Susie noticed was the small, sad salad bar in the main dining area. It was a sickly display, loaded with items exposed to the elements since that morning.
“We all sat down and ordered from the menu,” she said. “My husband ordered a taco salad. The boys ordered club sandwiches. I ordered a dinner that came with a dinner salad.”
She hoped her salad would be prepared in the kitchen. However, before their food arrived, she caught their waitress making it at the salad bar. Nevertheless, the Reids dug in. Jay and Eric worked on their sandwiches. Everyone sampled Mark’s lunch. Then Eric reached over to his mother’s plate, playfully plucked a crouton between his fingers and popped it into his mouth.
I can’t miss work, she thought.
I can’t miss work, she thought.
I’ve got to get to work.
Something was wrong.
The second she stood, it was too late.
She began vomiting.
But she had to get to work. They were counting on her. Congregation Beth Israel in Portland. There were deadlines to hit.
Her boys had already gone to school. Mark was en route to an out-of-town meeting. His aunt was the only other person left in the house, and together they worked to prepare Susie for the day. They were successful. Susie called the office. “I’m really not feeling good,” she warned, “but I’ll be in.”
And she was, arriving at 10 a.m. in her stick-shift Pinto station wagon. When she entered the building, a coworker offered her 7-Up, but it had zero effect. She kept leaving her desk and returning. Leaving her desk and returning. Leaving her desk and returning. Finally, she announced, “I need to go home.”
Home was a 14-minute drive away. But getting there proved dangerous.
“I had two stoplights,” Susie recalled, “one right there in Northwest and then one out by the hospital. Those two stoplights. I turn the corner at the stoplight and start up the hill. And I just threw up all over the car. I was driving up the hill; I couldn’t stop. I was in traffic just throwing up. I couldn’t control myself.
“I get all the way home, drag myself out of the car and get into bed. Then the phone rings.”
“Mrs. Reid,” said the voice on the other end, “your son is sick.”
Retrieving children from school can be inconvenient — logistically impossible, sometimes — but Susie Reid improvised a plan stuffed with variables and required the least exertion. She’d barely made it home and now, within minutes, she had to stagger back into traffic. She called her doctor, who issued a prescription. She called the drugstore with said prescription and a strange request. She called Sunset High School with a similar request. This was how it had to be.
“Walk him out to the street right now,” she said in her call to the school. “I’m on my way. There’s no way I can walk into the school and get him. There’s no way.”
“There’s no way I’m going to be able to walk into that drugstore and get the medicine,” she said in her call to the pharmacy. “Can you bring it out to the car?”
Somehow, they made it home with minimal incident. But they weren't finished being sick. Eric lost 10 pounds in two days and wouldn’t return to class for another two weeks. Susie went to her doctor that Thursday. Her headaches were intolerable. She didn’t seem to be improving. He administered a shot and sent her home to sleep. She did not sleep. No, not at all. Back she went, at his behest, on the condition that he knock her out so she could finally get some rest. “It helped,” she said, “but I don’t think I was totally ever rid of the pain.”
Everyone was at a loss for an explanation. But the doctor figured it out.
“You haven’t happened to have been in The Dalles lately, have you?” he asked.
A poisoned town
“The outbreak was clearly associated with food consumption at restaurants. Almost all case patients either worked at a restaurant in The Dalles or reported eating at 1 or more restaurants located in the town during the week before onset of illness. Many culture-confirmed cases occurred in nonresidents who had a single restaurant meal as their sole exposure.”
— The Journal of the American Medical Association, “A Large Community Outbreak of Salmonellosis Caused by Intentional Contamination of Restaurant Salad Bars” (Aug. 6, 1997)
Paper-trail warfare continued between Rajneesh leadership and Wasco County. The sect wanted to keep building, but their permits kept getting denied. The only way to override this stalemate was to purge the system, to oust nonbelievers for more cooperative officials. But how to ensure victory on Election Day?
Ma Anand Sheela announced “Share-a-Home,” a program that recruited some 4,000 homeless people from across the country in an apparently humanitarian display of compassion. They were given lodging in exchange for labor. Of course, a cynic might deduce it was also an attempt to bolster voting power through an easy loophole: at the time, Oregon residents could register in a county to vote and vote on the same day. And who better to populate a community than a cross-section of forgotten — and grateful — humanity? (Bonus: With no fixed address, you can bounce 'em just as quickly.)
Whatever plans they’d formed in that regard were thwarted when Wasco County Clerk Sue Proffitt, advised by Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus, blocked further registrations until voter qualification hearings could be held, an excruciating and arduous process for all involved.
This also prevented a counter-maneuver from an Albany group intent on the same purpose, albeit in reverse: voiding Rajneeshee votes with their own. Talbott "Robbie" Robinson and Joanne Boies led that drive, although both seemed to feel differently about Proffitt’s decision. “We accomplished what we set out to do,” Robinson told the Salem Statesman Journal in November 1984, ”and that was to prevent the Rajneeshees from taking over any county in Oregon.” “We’ve decided it’s absolutely worthless to go up there and not be allowed to vote,” Boies said. (Robinson died in 1998, Boies the following year.)
Another ploy had been launched as well. This one was quieter yet more devastating, and no one would quite know for months who was responsible.
It came in two waves: from September 9-18, followed by another between September 19 and October 10, 1984. The plot involved, among others, Ma Anand Sheela and Ma Anand Puja (birth name: Diane Yvonne Onang), the Rajneesh Medical Corporation’s secretary/treasurer.
A team of Rajneeshees visited 10 restaurants in The Dalles, the Wasco County seat, each concealing bags filled with a salmonella strain — they called it “salsa,” although the liquid was brown — that they poured over open salad bars. The conspirators hoped to incapacitate enough local voters to steamroll their handpicked candidates into office. This was the trial run, to see if it could work.
It could. In fact, it remains the biggest known bioterrorist attack on our shores in the last 70 years. The outbreak resulted in 751 cases, 692 of which were traced to restaurants in The Dalles with salad bars. Susie Reid was one of 45 people hospitalized. Somehow, miraculously, no one died. Those numbers were insane for a town of roughly 10,000 people; the state as a whole recorded, at most, about 400 incidents in a single year.
Health officials were stumped. Food and Drug Administration investigators checked food suppliers and wholesalers but found no commonalities. Surrounding towns weren’t affected at all. There was no “ground zero,” either, so to speak. The outbreak just exploded: this restaurant, this restaurant, this restaurant. About 325 food handlers were interviewed multiple times. Many of them had been infected too, concurrently with customers. And it originated from salad bars. Dressing, fruit, macaroni and potato salads — all contaminated. Yet the only conclusion authorities could draw was that food handlers were responsible. Nothing else made sense.
That was the official explanation, until Feb. 28, 1985, when Oregon Congressman Jim Weaver took the floor for an hour at the House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.
“Mr. Speaker,” he began, “I have a strange and terrifying tale to tell the House. It is about a town that was poisoned.”
Raise the alarm
“Is there a madman lurking in The Dalles? The poisoning was an insane act, an act of violent hatred, carried on with subtle means. There must be such a person or persons with the motive and ability to assault this town, for it actually happened.”
— Congressman Jim Weaver, “The Town That Was Poisoned” (Feb. 28, 1985)
As Weaver explained his theories, some couldn’t help but think them ludicrous. It was one thing to dislike the Rajneeshees, quite another to cast them as soap-opera villains. Ma Anand Sheela may have relished playing a media heavy, who took delight in shocking pronouncements, but bioterrorism for ballots was beyond the pale.
Weaver enjoyed — or, rather, he didn't — an interesting reputation among colleagues and nemeses alike. They accused him of wallowing in doomsday prophecies. His bombastic style inspired revulsion. Oregonian editorial page editor Robert Landauer described him to the Washington Post as “one of the least effective members of Congress. He is often so far out. By and large he’s futile.” (Weaver was less civilized in his assessment of the Portland-based organ, calling it “the rottenest, most vicious paper imaginable.”)
Weaver pressed on nevertheless. What had convinced him of Rajneesh involvement was a similar incident in August 1984 at the ranch itself, a story he heard from Wasco County Judge William Hulse.
Hulse and two county commissioners had gone to Rajneeshpuram to conduct an inspection. When they arrived, they were asked to exchange their car for Rajneesh-provided transportation. Ma Anand Sheela came to see them off. Instead of “Hello,” “Welcome” or “Be safe,” she reportedly said, “Snakes should sit in the back seats.”
They came back to find one of their car’s tires had gone flat. While they waited for repairs, someone from the Rajneeshpuram medical laboratory offered them water, which they graciously accepted in the summer heat.
“Within about eight hours,” Hulse told Weaver, “I became violently ill, with some sort of stomach and bowel upset. Later I went to the hospital. I was in the hospital two days. The doctor said I might have died. Another county commissioner came down with what appeared to be the same thing, though he was not hospitalized. The third commissioner was considered by us to be sympathetic to the Rajneeshees. He did not get sick.”
“I conclude my story,” Weaver said, “by calling for an extensive police investigation of the salmonella outbreak in The Dalles.”
Former Corvallis Gazette-Times editorial page editor Jackman Wilson remembered Weaver’s speech as a pivotal juncture in perception of the Rajneeshees.
“He was roundly criticized by people in the state, including in newspaper editorials, for inciting fear of this invading force,” said Wilson, now the Eugene Register-Guard’s longtime editorial page editor. “They thought he went way overboard. But he was one of the first people of any prominence to sound the alarm. It was early enough that people said, ‘Oh, that’s just Jim Weaver.’ But it turned out he was on to something.”
As a matter of fact, he was absolutely right. That October a task force appointed by state Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer searched a Rajneeshpuram laboratory and discovered vials of a salmonella strain. Samples were sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Could these somehow be related to the outbreak in The Dalles?
The results came back with a clean, definitive answer.
They were an exact match.
Happy place in Instant Town
“Our religion is about celebrating life.”
— Swami Anand Anshumali, June 1985
Like Graham Kislingbury, Jackman Wilson visited the ranch, too, though his was more impulsive than deliberate.
In June of 1985, he and his wife, Heather, were driving through Central Oregon with her parents, William and Norma McClenaghan. William taught in Oregon State University’s Department of Political Science, with an emphasis on American state and local government. He also helped with election oversight during the infamous 1984 voter-registration controversy, as did Albany attorney Meredith Wiley and Corvallis attorney Robert Ringo, known more affectionately as “Benton County Bob.” Ringo, in fact, featured prominently in a Salem Statesman-Journal photograph, verifying a Rajneeshee’s information. (His 2017 obituary lists his participation, for which he received a Wasco County Peace Prize from Norma Paulus, as one of his proudest achievements. McClenaghan died in 2010. Wiley did not respond to requests for comment.)
“We were in the back regions of Crook and Wheeler counties and then found ourselves in Fossil, not far from Antelope,” Wilson said in a recent telephone interview. “It was kind of a lark. My father-in-law was interested in the sudden emergence of this community out in the middle of nowhere. I’d heard enough about it to be curious to see it with my own eyes. So we went.”
He described the trip in the June 9 edition of the Corvallis Gazette-Times. He marveled at its size, a rarity in a section of the state so dotted with tiny towns. Its citizens seemed uniformly if bizarrely happy, swathed in a beatific sheen. “Our religion is about celebrating life,” Swami Anand Anshumali told them as he whisked them about the sights.
“It was striking,” Wilson recalled. “A lot of money was being poured into the place. People were putting up barracks for people to live in. There were public buildings. Water lines were being installed. It was clear that they were spending millions of dollars and burning through a lot of people’s inheritances. It was a very ambitious project. The people we encountered were energetic and enthusiastic and kind of blissed-out. After a while I asked myself, ‘Doesn’t anyone around here ever have a bad day?’ They very much wanted to communicate that this was the best place on the planet to be, and I think a lot of them believed that.”
He reflected further upon his adventure in a column later that month, exploring the world’s growing suspicion of the sect, which by this time was crumbling from within under the dark weight of fractured factions, increasingly hostile acts matched by equally aggressive media coverage and government pressure, and the beginnings of a seismic rift between the Bhagwan and Sheela that would doom both them and their failing utopia.
“[It] strengthened my opinion,” Wilson wrote then, “that the Rajneeshees themselves are mostly to blame for the public’s hostility. And they are not just victims of their own inept public relations. Rather, the Rajneeshees’ provocative public statements, their heavyhanded political maneuvers and their inability to admit error are manifestations of their view of the world and their place in it.”
When read the passage, Wilson didn’t hesitate in his response.
“I feel pretty much the same way,” he said. “It was clear to me that they thought they were a special group of people who deserved a special kind of treatment. They had a sense of superiority and a sense of condescension, which was directed most intensely toward their immediate neighbors, and also Oregon in general. They felt they had a key to understanding the universe and no one else did. Those poor, ignorant Oregonians couldn’t take their blinders off and join them in their happy place.”
All comes down
The Oregonian’s 20-part series on Rajneeshpuram began its run on June 30, 1985. But, as Les Zaitz learned more than 20 years later, it almost didn’t. Rajneeshee leadership attempted to stop it — not with litigation or threats; Zaitz was accustomed to those. In fact, he’d recently sat across from a raging Sheela, absorbing her tirades with some amusement. “You are no longer welcome on the ranch,” he was told. No, they were going to physically wipe the series from existence.
First, Rajneeshpuram mayor Swami Krishna Diva (David Knapp) arranged for a tour of the downtown Portland newsroom to determine where the investigative team sat. When he returned with the information, Sheela allegedly recruited a woman named Ava Avalos who assembled a group to visit the office as uniformed cleaners and attach a device called the Thumper to Zaitz’s computer terminal, effectively erasing his hard drive. Fortunately, they were stopped by a night supervisor who didn’t recognize them as the usual crew. “We’re just new and given the wrong address,” explained the would-be saboteurs, who quickly made their exit.
“They came pretty close to ‘mission accomplished,’” Zaitz said.
By then, Rajneeshpuram was splintering. Reports emerged of plots to assassinate U.S. Attorney Charles H. Turner, then deep into an investigation of immigration fraud, and state Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer, who challenged the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram and was prosecuting sect members in multiple cases. Zaitz, apparently, was also a marked man. “For some reason I emerged as the focal point of their anger,” he said. “But it didn’t bother us or dissuade us (at the newspaper).”
A town exodus went down in September, beginning with Sheela, whose once-unquestioned power had ebbed. She left for Europe with her remaining disciples. Swami Krishna Deva resigned as mayor and would later testify against the Rajneeshees in exchange for a shorter sentence (he would serve two years in federal prison for his part in the commune’s immigration fraud).
The Bhagwan railed against these traitors and said he’d welcome an investigation. He soon joined a cast of seven in a 35-count indictment on immigration fraud charges and fled the ranch. He made it to Charlotte, North Carolina, before law enforcement officers caught up with him. Europe proved no sanctuary for his former most-trusted lieutenant; Ma Anand Sheela was arrested in Hausern, West Germany, on Oct. 28.
Rajneeshpuram was living on borrowed time. Its remaining residents wrestled with the inevitable. With the exception of a new mayor, Swami Prem Niren (sect attorney Philip Toelkes), the majority of its leaders were gone. The ranch was going under, the property returned to market. The Bhagwan had declared Rajneeshism dead; he and his followers burned 5,000 copies of “An Introduction to Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh and His Religion” in a raucous ceremony. The Oregon chapter, at least, was over. But, where to go next?
It was a savagely cold November, Graham Kislingbury remembered. He covered that year’s Civil War game, dubbed the “Ice Bowl,” where the Ducks roasted the Beavers 34-13 in a frosty, 18-degree Autzen Stadium.
Shannon Ryan was still at the ranch. Somehow he reached her by phone one day.
“You’ve never figured out why I kept communicating with you,” he told her. “It’s because five people from Burlingame died at Jonestown. I didn’t want to see that happen to you or anybody else here. I know you didn’t consider this a cult, but I did. This place was armed to the teeth with weapons. If you need money for a bus — or I can come pick you up if you need a place to stay —
“She thanked me, but declined the offer and said she would be OK,” he recalled.
Kislingbury caught up with Pat Ryan a few weeks ago. He asked about Shannon. She’s living in the Sacramento area now near three of her siblings, including Pat, who says Shannon's doing fine.
"We have a good relationship with her," Pat said. "We get together on birthdays and holidays. I think she appreciates having family around."
All comes back
When Les Zaitz’s old partner Jim Long retired in the mid-2000s, Les knew exactly what to give him. Ever the journalist, he picked up the phone and called around. Finally, he got what he needed and dialed a number.
A woman answered.
“Hello,” Les said. “It’s Les.”
“Les Zaitz,” Les said. “From Oregon.”
A pause, then:
It had been years since they’d spoken, but this may have seemed an odd response from the former Ma Anand Sheela, even in surprise. There was no anger or rancor in her voice. “It’s like we’re long-lost friends,” Zaitz said.
Sheela was now Sheela Birnstiel and living in a small village near Zurich, Switzerland, where she moved in late 1988 after serving 29 months of a 20-year sentence in Dublin, California. She was running a pair of nursing homes, overseeing up to 34 patients. Although she and the Bhagwan had parted on less than amicable terms, and he had returned to his Pune ashram, where he’d died in 1990, she spoke of him reverently.
Les explained his proposal. His colleague Jim Long was retiring, and he hoped she’d send him a congratulatory letter. She was game, and came through. “Jim was convinced for a long time it was a gag,” Zaitz chuckled.
In the summer of 2010, he flew to Switzerland to interview her in person for a 25-year retrospective on Rajneeshpuram. Their previous meeting had taken place in more fraught climes: she considered him an interloper desperate to destroy what she’d built. She may have even wanted him six feet under.
The reunion was more convivial. Someone brought them water while they talked, a coincidental acknowledgment of old memories. Ever sharp, Sheela said, “It will be interesting to see if he will drink something in my house.”
“She was very gracious and warm,” Zaitz said. “’Sure,’ she said, ‘I’ll tell you everything you think you want to know.’
"We were far removed from those threats. I was genuinely interested in what she had become and deeply curious about what she would say about her time in Oregon. I knew my role, she knew hers. Neither of us took the roles personally. She wasn’t insulted by my questions. We were a couple of human beings going through this stage play. She never got intense, nor I with her.”
Time’s a funny beast. It can temper grudges and neutralize animosities.
It also has the benevolence to forget.
Rajneeshpuram once occupied center stage, consuming ink, devouring airwaves. Johnny Carson led his Burbank flock through a chorus of “Bye, Bye, Bhagwan,” set to the tune of “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.” People magazine ran shots of the Bhagwan waving from his private plane. Sheela’s discourses were bleeped across every talk show and news program — that is, when her live feed survived to that point. Nevertheless, they kept inviting her back. She made for great television, and television knew it. Kids from coast to coast passed Rajneeshee jokes in schoolyards. For the most part, Oregonians were embarrassed at these displays, that this sideshow represented their state to the culture at large.
Then, just as quickly, it was gone. Thankfully. Relievedly.
But, for better or worse, one generation’s nightmare feeds another’s fascination.
A ‘Wild, Wild’ side
There’s no shortage of Rajneeshpuram analyses in any medium, including a most excellent OPB “Oregon Experience” episode from 2012, but nothing’s renewed interest quite like “Wild, Wild Country,” a thrillingly binge-able six-episode docu-series that debuted March 16 on Netflix. Within days, Oregon-related Facebook pages were flooded with implorations for accounts on the commune-city. Had anyone met the Bhagwan or Sheela? Did anyone contract salmonella poisoning from salad bars in The Dalles? Did they really wear red? Were they really bad people?
Filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way were looking for a project after the success of their 2014 documentary, “The Battered Bastards of Baseball.” That film told the uplifting if eventually infuriating story of the Portland Mavericks, an independent, Northwest-based minor-league ballclub owned by the Ways’ grandfather, actor Bing Russell, whose son, Kurt, occasionally suited up.
The Mavericks were scruffy in every sense, an anti-establishment amalgamation of novices, nobodies and the stray faded pro who nevertheless forged one of the most formidable batteries to ever take the field. They were so damn good, in fact, they guaranteed their own extinction, when the majors stepped in with a mysterious interest in re-establishing a minor-league team in Portland, and dismantled the Mavs completely.
Everyone had suggestions, directing them to assorted Oregon oddities. But a young archivist, Matt Cowan, at the Oregon Historical Society pitched the forgotten tale of Rajneeshpuram, rife with violence! Betrayal! Cults! Poison! Gurus! Drugs! Guns! Money! Sex! He had in his possession 250 hours of footage that covered it all.
Intrigued, the Way brothers began their own research and sought what resonated beyond the tawdry.
“We came across this really complex story,” Chapman Way said in a recent telephone interview. “What’s the difference between religions and cults, or religious rights and fear of the other? Immigration issues. Electoral mayhem. Voter fraud. The Second Amendment, where this peaceful group arms itself with assault rifles. We uncovered all of this thorny subject matter and realized this would be fascinating to dive into and tell over six-and-a-half hours.”
An especially thorny matter: convincing the story’s principals to participate. Historic curiosity is usually the province of outsiders far removed from its events. That’s not the case for the actual survivors: the Antelopians, the Rajneeshees, the former government officials who carry Wikipedia citations as memories and, in some cases, lingering scars.
“Our experience was that most of these people, people on both sides of this issue, were skeptical at first,” Way said. “It was traumatic for everyone involved. Once we started to get to know these subjects and spend time with them, I think they all felt it was an incredibly important story. It was something profound that happened in their lives and they didn’t want it to be forgotten. They all thought there were important lessons to take away from the story. Granted, all of those lessons were extremely different and contradictory, but we were really fascinated to give a platform to all of these people to share their journeys and truth.”
“It was interesting, because I never got the sense that anyone was ever intentionally spinning us,” Maclain Way added. “Everyone we spoke to genuinely believed the things they were saying, including Antelopians, who were saying, ‘This was a scary time in our lives. The Rajneeshees’ presence and arrival in Oregon severely impacted my life in a very negative way.’
"We got to know the ranchers, whether they be neighboring ranchers or Antelopians themselves. They would ask us questions like, ‘Do you know what it’s like to raise a family in Antelope, look out your window and see people dressed head-to-toe in red carrying semiautomatic AK-47s?’ For me, as someone who didn’t have to live through that — I was born after Rajneeshpuram — it would stop me in my tracks. God, I could only imagine how terrifying that would be.
“I would often ask Antelopians, ‘Where did the first sign of distrust or conflict arise?’ I don’t know if we were quite able to totally get into it in ‘Wild, Wild Country,’ but I think a lot of them felt they had been lied to by Sheela. When Sheela and those very early Rajneesh leaders came to Oregon and bought the Big Muddy Ranch, they weren’t very transparent about what their plans were. Granted, I think if I asked Sheela, she’d say, ‘Had I been transparent, everyone in Wasco and Jefferson County would have immediately mobilized against me and tried to shut down my plans for Rajneeshpuram.’”
Sheela makes a transfixing antagonist in “Wild, Wild Country.” Her first on-camera appearance is mildly startling, a reminder of the passage of time. Her short, dark hair has lengthened and faded to grandmotherly gray. Yet still she speaks with fiery intelligence and indomitable conviction, attributes that made her polarizing then and even now.
Her old footage can leave modern viewers conflicted. On one hand, she’s a woman that Americans — especially men — underestimated at their peril; she was a powerful adversary, unimpressed by bluster and immune to threats. She laughed at their bravado. On the other hand, she made some pretty alarming statements — her sotto-voce "I will paint their bulldozers with my blood" still resonates with me some 30 years later — and committed some rather despicable acts. Her newer interviews find her just as compelling and divisive.
“Sheela is just as defiant and entrenched in her beliefs,” Chapman said. “It was fascinating to hear the story from her perspective. She very much feels this is a story of religious prejudice and bigotry, and that she and her group were pushed to commit these actions to defend her master and her community. She doesn’t regret anything she did. She’s not apologetic for anything she did. She very much feels she was in the right in how Rajneeshees conducted themselves in Eastern Oregon during the ’80s.”
For those of us who were children during the Rajneesh occupation, it’s difficult to reconcile our memories, which were likely influenced by what we were told and shown, with the same information we must now process as adults with life experience.
“Wild, Wild Country” asks that we reconsider our grasp of right and wrong, appending a “but” to every argument. Xenophobia played an ugly role, but the Antelopians' fear of being overwhelmed was real. The Rajneeshees were a peaceful people, but despite their talk of enlightenment and the “new man,” they carried weapons and showed their Western cracks by being petty, superior, catty and vindictive. This extends to the Bhagwan himself, who emerged from a vow of silence to castigate his former secretary as a “bitch” in a speech better suited to high-school taunts.
And how much can we separate their crimes from their dogma and some of the worthwhile values they espoused? How much did the Bhagwan actually believe? How aware was he of what happened at the ranch? Also, what if the state had left them alone? What if they’d all broken bread over negotiations, each side willing to listen?
According to the Ways, that uncertainty is by design.
“Chap and I and our producer Julie (Juliana Lembi) and editor Neil (Meiklejohn) would have these hour-long conversations on who’s telling you the truth,” Maclain Way said. “Who’s reliable? Who’s unreliable?
"What I’m most proud of about ‘Wild, Wild Country’ is that if you’re coming to this story for the first time, which I think is most people, at one point or another, you’re probably going to take a side, whether you believe the Rajneeshees were victims of religious persecution, or whether you believe the Antelopians were victims of a town takeover, or if you believe the Rajneeshees were brainwashed cult members, or if you believe neighboring ranchers out in Eastern Oregon are redneck bigots. Once you take a position, hopefully, 10 or 15 minutes later in the series, you question that position. Regardless of what your takeaway was, I hope it encourages people to examine the positions they took at one time or another.”
One more story
It had been more than 20 years since Rob Blickensderfer kayaked down the John Day River, watching the Rajneeshees behind their fence. Time passed for everyone. Susie Reid’s children grew up. Her husband, Mark, passed away in 2001. At some point she and Rob had met and gotten together.
Rob’s son John was living in Marin County. There he met a woman named Debbie Harlan, who called herself Nandano. She was a massage therapist and co-owner of Shibui Gardens, an outdoor spa in San Anselmo. They were in love but never got married. “Both were far out,” Rob said. “Not quite hippies, but close.”
But Nandano got sick. Breast cancer. And in July 2008, she died.
Rob and Susie went down for the service, held in a mansion on a hill. Real ritzy, great views, Rob said. They walked into a massive celebration, arms from wall-to-wall, bodies dancing, voices chanting. Tribal drums pulsed through the room. Someone had prepared a magnificent feast. It was a truly incredible sight. Who were all these people? They knew Nandano from the ranch. Rob and Susie kept hearing those words: the ranch. The ranch. All the great times they had at the ranch.
“Do they mean the Rajneeshee place?” Susie asked John later.
“Yeah,” John replied. “That was it.”
“John,” Susie said with a smile. “You don’t know about me, do you?”
She told him the story of her adventure at the Portage Inn. The crouton that sidelined her son for two weeks. Fighting her body while driving home. She joked that she was having second thoughts about partaking in the service’s potluck dinner. “They poisoned me,” she said and they laughed. But they were all having such a nice time, so she swore him to secrecy.
It didn’t last. Within minutes, as Susie recalled, she was approached by a woman in a turban and white robe. She looked stricken. “John told me what happened,” the woman said. “I’m so sorry. We didn’t know what was going on.”
“She was apologetic,” Rob added. “Others were too. The owner of the house had been at Rajneeshpuram. We learned that a major number of Rajneeshees had settled in Marin County.”
Despite the Bhagwan’s earlier proclamation, Rajneeshism didn’t die. Not even he could kill it. When he left this world in 1990, he became a principle, a guiding light. Osho, a high priest. His Pune ashram, now overseen by the Osho International Foundation, is active. Factions remain all over the world in physical and digital form. In fact, some of the figures interviewed in “Wild, Wild Country” remain believers. They’ve long since distanced themselves from the violent actions carried out in Oregon, however. That isn’t them. That isn’t what they teach.
In retrospect, Graham Kislingbury didn’t have a problem with what the Rajneeshees preached. He wasn’t anti-Rajneeshee at all; in fact, he disliked the organizations that pinned “Bag the Bhagwan” stickers to cars or damned the freaks ululating in the hills.
“A lot of people came for enlightenment and all the other things they talk about,” he said. “You have freedom of religion. You can think what you want to think. But when you talk about murder, when you talk about violence, when you talk about fraud, abuse — those things cross the line. If they had done — and the same with Jonestown —what they’d set out to do, without taking over the town or feeling they had to, being more neighborly, that could have worked. But they were human beings, and they didn’t have the structures and safeguards in place to prevent all that stuff from happening.”
Nov. 2, 2001. After a long car ride, the reporter and photographer pull down Muddy Road. The reporter's been here before, but that was a very long time ago.
He spots what was once an observation post. It’s empty now. No more signs for the Awakened One.
A number of structures are missing or serve other purposes. Some were destroyed by a voracious fire in the summer of '96. A former hotel contains a series of cabins. Rock-climbing walls, basketball courts, a skatepark and more inhabit the space where a meditation center stood. The two men are driving down the same road where one witnessed a passing Rolls Royce, carrying a passenger now 10 years dead.
Newer buildings have risen. A sports center. The Round Up Room. The property veritably bursts with life, even at 11:45 p.m. Singing, dancing, praise. Which all serve other purposes, too.
The kids here know it as Wildhorse Canyon (now the Washington Family Ranch), Young Life’s 1,200-acre Christian youth camp. But the adults remember it as Rajneeshpuram.
Graham Kislingbury doesn’t pay a dime for the tour today. He asks questions about the extant buildings and the irrigation systems the Rajneeshees left behind. “They did a good job,” maintenance technician Brian Anderson tells him. The infrastructure is solid. Most everything is in good working order.
Do Rajneeshees ever visit? Oh, yes. They’re treated with respect and shown what they’ve come to see. “We don’t cast judgment on what happened,” Kislingbury’s told.
The next morning, Kislingbury and photographer Mark Ylen stop in Antelope, which became Antelope again in late 1985, in a vote decided by both original residents and remaining Rajneeshees. They check in to the Antelope Store & Cafe, which used to be the Zorba the Buddha Restaurant, which used to be the Antelope Store & Cafe. Locals have no trouble with the current occupants of the old Muddy Ranch. And time has softened their perspective on its previous stewards — somewhat.
“There were some highly intelligent people down there,” says café co-owner Maryann Hore. “It amazes me how so many intelligent people can get involved in a group that was so corrupt.”
Antelope’s population has dipped since that trip, from 60 to an estimated 48. The café’s been closed for nearly four years; negotiations are underway to reopen it this summer.
A derelict building slumps further down Main Street. Behind it: a post office, with Wallace Street separating it from a flagpole on the other side. At the flagpole’s base is fastened a plaque, the only physical acknowledgment of the town’s past troubles. It reads: “Dedicated to those of this community who throughout the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-85 remained, resisted and remembered,” an old memory, faded no longer, hiding in plain sight.