News & Politics

How the Largest Bioterror Attack in U.S. History Nearly Derailed an Election

Imagine that a strange cult, with members all wearing red, buys up a bunch of property in your town, starts having all sorts of weird festivals, and resists local law enforcement attempts to rein them in. This cult has strange practices, and they violate several local laws. This cult and its leader respond to legal pressure by trying to swing elections, take over local government, and change the law to suit their needs. Not satisfied, they take up terrorism, conducting a widespread bioterror operation that poisons hundreds upon hundreds of local citizens. The story ends with murders, attempted assassinations, immigration fraud, global manhunts, and the largest illegal wiretapping case in American history.

This is a true story of a cult, its attempts to derail the political process, and a widespread terror attack that prompted the response of law enforcement, the full weight of the government, and local citizens fighting back.

Wasco County, Oregon, is today much the way it’s always been: sparsely populated and heavily reliant on agriculture. Today, there are a little over 25,000 residents. The largest city and county seat is The Dalles, which is home to one of the largest hydroelectric dams on the West Coast. The Dalles Dam was completed in 1957, and submerged the traditional Native American fishing grounds of Celilo Falls.

In 1981, the population wasn’t much different—a shade over 21,000. When the Rajneeshpuram bought 64,000 acres in a rural part of the county, it made waves among the locals. Founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Rajneeshees were an outgrowth of the popularity of mysticism and eastern religions that flourished in the 1960s. Originally founded in India, the group ran into legal trouble and needed to relocate. A barren West Coast state filled the bill.

A few years ago, federal documents were unsealed, and The Oregonian revealed many unknown details:

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh needed a new place to build his worldwide commune.

In India, he worked as a small-town philosophy professor until he found enlightenment paid better. He built a thriving enterprise attracting Westerners to his lectures and group therapies. They sought meaning in their lives, escaping the remains of the Vietnam War and a crashing world economy. And Rajneesh mixed in plenty of sexual freedom, ensuring publicity to build his brand.

Government authorities in India, weary of the Rajneesh’s growing notoriety, cracked down on his group’s unseemly and illegal behavior, including smuggling and tax fraud. The guru ran, ending up half a globe away at the Big Muddy Ranch, 100 square miles of rangeland an hour’s drive north of Madras.

The Rajneeshees made a fatal mistake, not understanding Oregon’s land use laws. It wasn’t legal for them to simply build a compound in the middle of nowhere on designated farmland. This simple legal dispute mushroomed into some of the largest criminal conspiracies in U.S. history.

The members of the cult, being cult members, were rather devoted to their guru. They were willing to do anything to make their utopian vision a reality. As a measure of devotion, they bought 93 Rolls Royces for Rajneesh. Like almost every cult, members were brainwashed into thinking that selling all their earthly possessions, giving up all their money to the guru, and working long hours in forced labor were a form of meditation that got them closer to enlightenment.

As the compound grew, however, they continually bumped into legal troubles with the county and neighboring cities. The compound was immense, and thousands of devotees flocked there from around the world. They built farms, an airstrip, a mass transit system, a strip mall, a discotheque, a hotel, a meditation center, a post office, and a hydroelectric power station. With rapid expansion came more legal troubles.

As their legal troubles and impediments to growth mounted, the Rajneeshees decided to fight back. The closest town, Antelope, had a population of under 50 at the time. The Rajneeshees applied for a business permit for a mail order operation in Antelope, which was denied. They responded by busing in homeless people from all over the country, drugging them with the antipsychotic medication Haldol, and forcing them to vote against Antelope’s disincorporation measure that was aimed at blocking the Rajneeshees from taking over city council.

But wait, it gets nuttier.

The Rajneeshees plotted to kill Wasco County Commissioner James Comini, but the attempt was foiled. They plotted to kill Charles Turner, then U.S. attorney in Oregon, after he investigated sham marriages on the compound, along with immigration fraud and illegal wiretapping. The details of these criminal activities are the stuff that movies are made of.

Along with trying to take over the tiny town of Antelope, the Rajneeshees attempted to take over the Wasco County government by surreptitious means. After considering a plan to fly a bomb-laden plane into the county courthouse in The Dalles, they decided instead to try to take the election. Taking over a tiny dot on a map was relatively easy, but taking two of three seats up for election in 1984 on the Wasco County Circuit Court was a much larger operation. They concluded that they could not win enough county-wide votes after having created so much tension with the local residents.

So they opted for terrorism.

The Rajneeshees thought they could win the circuit court election if they incapacitated—or killed—enough local residents, who would then not be able to show up to vote. They devised a plan to poison hundreds of local citizens with Salmonella. The plan was detailed, and included a couple of trial runs. They first tried giving contaminated glasses of water to two county commissioners who visited the compound. They became violently ill.

They then expanded the operation, attempting contamination of produce at grocery stores, and door handles, and urinal handles at the court house. Not having the desired results, they adapted their tactics. Members in on the plot would conceal plastic bags containing a light brown liquid containing the bacteria—a mix the members referred to as “salsa.” They took the bags into ten local restaurants and either spread it over the salad bar or dumped it into the salad dressing.

In total, 751 people were poisoned, and 45 were hospitalized. One victim was an infant born two days after his mother’s infection, and given a 5% chance of survival.

This was just the trial run, early in the year. Later in the year, closer to Election Day, the Rajneeshees planned to contaminate the city water supply of The Dalles in a widespread bioterror attack that would have kept most residents home—if they survived at all.

Ultimately, the pre-Election Day attack never occurred, though it’s not clear exactly what went wrong.

Two of the leaders of the plot were later convicted of attempted murder, serving 29 months of a 20 year sentence.

The cult dissolved less than a year later, as leaders and personal advisors to Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh fled internationally. Several were extradited and convicted of federal crimes. It remains the largest criminal investigation in Oregon history, and one of the strangest episodes in American politics.