A comedy mystery podcast in which two friends discuss a weekly mystery.

Rajneeshee Bioterror Attack

Have you ever had food poisoning? What was that like? (Insert pooping and or puking stories here).


Dave and Sandy Lutgens know what it’s like to have food poisoning. In 1984 Dave and Sandy ran Daves hometown pizza in The Dalles, Oregon. With a population of just over 15,000, The Dalles is a lovely little town nestled on the banks of the Columbia River about an hour and a half east of Portland. It is the county seat of Wasco county and is renowned for it’s annual cherry festival. But in 1984 evil beset this small cascadian town.


On September 25th, 1984, Dave and Sandy Lutgens both became violently ill. They both hd vomiting, cramps and diarrhea. Eventually the sickness got so bad that they needed to go to the hospital. When they arrived they discovered they weren’t the only ones sick. The hospital was completely full of people with the exact same symptoms. There were people lying on the floor, leaning on walls in the hallway, even people throwing up in the lobby. Eventually doctors were able to determine that all of these people had ingested salmonella. More specifically they had ingested a rare strain of salmonella that was extremely vulnerable to antibiotics.


While salmonella is very rarely fatal it was still cause for alarm, even more so when, 10 days later, a second outbreak occurred and the number of cases jumped from approximately 150 people to over 750. Do you know what that means Zach? It’s time to call……… THE CDC!


CDC no disease is safe

CDC germs will be erased

CDC they have special cars

CDC they’ll kill diseases from mars


CDC who are those guys?

CDC they protect your pies!

CDC best in disease control

CDC they’re on disease patrol!


Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, CDC, yeah, CDC, Look out bacteria, look out disease, CDC coming for you, CDC is coming for you, CDC is coming for you, investigate, was it disease or some poo?


Yes, the center for disease control was called in to investigate the cause of the outbreak. Now Zach, I’m going to give you the greatest honor of all, that of a health and safety inspector. We have a town of about 10,000 people. A pretty major portion all got sick at the same time. How do you go about determining the cause of the illness?


Ultimately officials weren’t able to determine the cause of the outbreak either and basically said “I dunno” by attributing it to poor hygiene from food handlers.


Now, on a completely and totally unrelated note let me tell you about something else. Shree Rajneesh was an Indian guru often referred to as a godman which is a type of guru who can perform miracles. During the 1970s Rajneesh gained a fairly substantial following in India preaching many things including the importance of meditation, hard work, and free love. His following grew rapidly over a decade. He established an Ashram in the Indian city of Pune and by 1981 his Ashram attracted over 30,000 visitors a year.


Now, of course, there are always haters. This time the haters took the form of the Indian authorities who began to crack down on Rajneesh for smuggling and tax fraud. This prompted Rajneesh to move his operation to the United States. The group spent $5.75 million to buy a 64,000 acre ranch in Wasco county, Oregon.


Now Zach, I don’t know what happened the last time a cult suddenly moved next door to you, but when it happened to me I was a little upset. And so were the residents of Wasco county Oregon. Almost from the moment the Rajneeshees moved in, there were a series of legal battles. The Rajneeshees wanted to expand their compound into a world headquarters. They wanted to build hotels and input sewer lines and basically create their idea of a self governing utopia. Local officials initially told them that they weren’t allowed to do that because their land wasn’t properly zoned. The Rajneeshees tried to get around this by incorporating their ranch into a city that they dubbed Rajneeshpuram. The legal battles continued as the city grew but ultimately the Oregon supreme court ruled in favor of the Rajneeshees and they were allowed to continue and the Rajneeshees spent another $25+ million on improvements to their city. Soon Rajneeshpuram had it’s own post office, school, police force, hospital, shopping mall, and hotel with room for over 1,000 followers. Rajneesh also grew a great deal in wealth. He owned 93 Rolls-Royces and his followers were dedicated to getting him to 365 so that he could have 1 for each day of the year. Rajneesh also claimed that he had had more sexual partners than anyone in history.


During this time Rajneesh took a self imposed vow of silence and appointed Ma Anand Sheela as his spokesperson. In this role she basically took over the day to day operations of the town and was one of the only people Rajneesh would talk to. Rajneesh actually mostly appointed women to roles of power in his organization believing that a matriarchy would be less aggressive. While the Rajneeshees had won the battle to incorporate their town, the Oregon legislature passed several laws that made it significantly more difficult for their town to grow. Specifically they passed laws that targeted Rajneeshpuram by limiting the things that town with recent “challenges to their legitimacy” could do. Of course these laws only applied to Rajneeshpuram.


So how do you get around this problem if you’re a cult leader? You take over an already established town of course. About 17 miles Northwest of Rajneeshpuram was the small town of Antelope. In 1984 a sizable group of Rajneeshees relocated to Antelope, ran for city council and school board positions and essentially took over the town even going so far as to rename the town Rajneesh.


Still, taking control of Antelope didn’t solve all of the problems for the Rajneeshees and tensions started to escalate. There were reports of vandalism and violence from some of the locals including a popular “better dead than red” slogan that appeared on shirts and bumper stickers. A paranoia of local and state officials also started to grow in the group’s leadership. In response the Rajneeshees started to collect weapons and train their own 45 person militia armed with automatic weapons.


So Zach, you’re a cult leader with growing influence, a local population that is increasingly hostile, and a local government that seems to be conspiring against you. What are you going to do about it?


That’s right, you’re going to take over the county government. You have two of the three spots on the county court opening up as well as the county sheriff, but how are you going to win those elections?


There were two things the Rajneeshees tried. The first was a program they called “share-a-home” in which they had over 2,000 homeless people bussed into Rajneeshpuram. Once there they were given food and shelter and immediately compelled to register in Wasco county. The Wasco county clerk tried to counter this by increasing regulation on voter registration and they quite possibly would have been too late if not for one thing. What do many homeless people in the US have in common Zach? That’s right! A history of mental illness. The Rajneeshees had a great deal of trouble controlling their new resident often resorting to simply drugging their beer to sedate them. Eventually the Rajneeshees abandoned the program (and the people in it) at first by giving them bus tickets home then by just dropping them off at different towns and cities in the area.


So you’ve tried to increase the number of voters for your candidate. What’s the other way that you can go about winning an election? That’s exactly right Zach! You can decrease the number of people voting for somebody else!


Several members of the Rajneeshee inner circle, spearheaded by Ma Anand Sheela, hatched a plan to limit voter turnout in Wasco county. Quite simply, they were going to poison the town and make everyone too sick to vote.


Because the Rajneeshees had several former medical professionals in their ranks they actually had a fully licensed medical center at Rajneeshpuram. In this medical center, under direct command from the leaders of the cult, Rajneeshee doctors started to develop Salmonella.


Their original plan was to contaminated The Dalles water supply but they had to make sure that their plan would work. Their first test came on two county commissioners. While Bill Hulse and Ray Matthew toured Rajneeshpuram they were given two glasses of water that had been contaminated with salmonella. Ray Matthew became violently ill and was confined to his bed for two days while Bill Hulse had to be hospitalized for four days and doctors said he would have died without treatment. Hulse almost immediately accused the Rajneeshees of poisoning him but there was no proof that his sickness had come from them let alone that they had done it intentionally.


So with their first tests out of the way the group decided to escalate. They sprayed salmonella contaminated water on grocery store produce sections as well as door and urinal handles at The Dalles city hall. This did not have the desired effect as no one reported any major illness. Finally the Rajneeshees devised a plan in which they target the salad bars of 10 local restaurants. They sprayed the food with salmonella infected water and poured salmonella directly into bottles of salad dressing.


No one was killed in the attack on The Dalles which is miraculous considering that victims ranged in age from an infant, born two days after his mother’s infection and initially given a five-percent chance of survival to an 87 year old.


The Rajneeshees quite possibly would have gotten away with it if not for the great heroes of epidemiology. While investigating claims of falsified green card marriages, investigators brought along Oregon State Health Lab epidemiologist Dr. Michael Skeels. While there he seized a sample of salmonella from Rajneeshpuram licensed medical center. Testing by the heroes at the CDC discovered that it was the exact same rare strain of salmonella that had infected the town. This was essentially the smoking gun that authorities needed to make arrests.


Now because all is just and right in the world the prosecution ended in Sheela being sentenced to almost 40 years of which she served only a little over 2 years. Rajneesh was able to largely get off scot free there wasn’t any evidence proving that he had ordered the attacks and, after pleading guilty to a handful of immigration charges was forced to pay a $400,000 fine and was deported from the county. He returned to India, started going by the name OSHO and only saw his followers grow. He died in 1990 with much of the bioterror attacks erased from his history and you could probably find one of his quotes on the wall of your local yoga studio.