For the first 12 years, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) could not write about it.
After 15 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was still identifying the six motivational factors that were involved: charismatic leadership, no outside constituency, apocalyptic ideology, loner or splinter group, sense of paranoia and grandiosity, and defensive aggression.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the foodborne bioterrorism attack on The Dalles, Oregon by top followers of cult leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Far more people know about it now than did at the time.
In 1984 and for years afterward, nobody outside Oregon paid much attention to it.
Since envelopes of anthrax were sent to media outlets and the U.S. Senate, bioterrorism has received much more attention throughout the United States. And while the 2001 anthrax attack remains a mystery, everything was solved involving the 1984 Oregon outbreak of Salmonella enterica Typhimurium that sickened 751 people and sent 45 to hospitals.
It was the largest foodborne illness outbreak in the nation in 1984. Now there’s interest because the group involved cultured its own pathogen for terrorist purposes.
Jim Weaver was the local Congressman when people in The Dalles got sick. He’d rise on the floor of the U.S. House just four months later to charge the Rajneesh with sprinkling Salmonella on the salad bar ingredients in eight restaurants.
Rep. Weaver’s remarks ran counter to the CDC investigation, which blamed unsanitary food handlers for the outbreak. Writing recently in The Oregonian, Weaver recalled: “I received daily printouts from the CDC investigation that made it only too clear that it was virtually impossible for the food handlers to be the source. For example, in one restaurant, the same food handlers set up salad bars in a private banquet room and in the main public dining room.
“Dozens of salmonella cases issued from the salad bar in the public dining room; none from the salad bar in the private banquet room. Yet the health authorities remained unanimous in blaming flood handlers.”
The food handlers would have to wait a few more months to have their names cleared.
American Type Culture Collection in Seattle had sold the bacterium to the Rajneesh. Among the hands that sprinkled droplets of Salmonella from vials hidden
under their red robes was that of Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s top
Three years earlier, the self-described Indian mystic bought the Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco County, OR for a commune that eventually attracted 4,000 followers. It was enough to take over the nearby village of Antelope and soon enough was testing the county’s land use and building powers.
As they sought to take control of Wasco County, the commune’s first plan was to collect enough homeless people off the streets of Portland and Seattle to vote in local elections, but the county was challenging those registrations. With a “Share-a-Home” plan failing, they turned to making cultures of Salmonella bacteria in the commune’s own laboratories.
The goal was simple. Make enough non-Rajneesh voters sick enough that they fail to vote in the local elections. The Rajneesh minority in the county would then dominate the county commission and sheriff’s offices that the commune desperately wanted to take over.
About a dozen cult members were involved in the plot. Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Silverman) was a trained nurse practitioner. Ma Anand Puja (Diane Ivonne Onang) was the on-site nurse at the Ranch’s medical clinic.
Poisoning the salad bars was supposed to be a trial run before putting the bacteria into The Dalles’ public water system closer to election day. When it became clear that the homeless people they’d recruited would not be allowed to vote, Rajneesh’s followers instead decided to boycott the election. So phase II was never executed.
By going public with a well reasoned, but only circumstantial case, Rep. Weaver says he was given “no credence” by the Oregon news media. He was called paranoid and a “Rajneesh basher.”
About six months later, Rep. Weaver picked up an unlikely ally in his suspicions–the Bhagwan himself. The cult leader was in self-imposed isolation and hadn’t spoken publicly for four years until shortly before Sept. 16,1985 when he held a press conference. He charged that Ma Anand Sheela and 19 others, who had recently fled to Europe, were responsible for a number of crimes.
He invited state and federal officials to come to the ranch to investigate. Oregon’s Attorney General headed up a state-federal task force that entered the ranch on Oct. 2, 1985. Glass vials containing Salmonella were found in the lab. CDC found it to be an exact match to the bacteria that sickened people who ate at the restaurant salad bars.
The task force also found evidence that the cult’s lab had experimented with other poisons, chemicals, and bacteria. They also found a copy of “The Anarchist Cookbook,” about explosives and bioterrorism.
During his isolation, the Bhagwan’s only contact with the outside world was through Ma Anand Sheela. He said she used the time to create “a fascist state.” He was never charged in the Salmonella outbreak. He did plead guilty to violating immigration laws, was given a 10-year suspended sentence, fined $400,000, and deported.
He died in India inn 1990 at age 58.
Sheela and Puja were arrested in Germany and extradited to the United States to face charges. They eventually entered no contest pleas to numerous crimes including the Salmonella poisonings. They received multiple sentences running from 3 to ten years, but were allowed to serve them concurrently.
With good behavior, both were released after 29 months. Sheela was deported to Switzerland.