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Bhagwan’s Biggest Gamble: The Attempted Takeover of Wasco County

The Share-A-Home program was the beginning of the end

Courtesy of Netflix

In early September 1984, the Rajneeshees began busing homeless street people from cities throughout the United States into Rajneeshpuram. Rajneesh public relations person Ma Prem Isabel announced the Share-A-Home program on September 6, claiming its purpose was charitable: “To share with some people who have been less fortunate than we have.”

The idea of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers harboring altruistic impulses toward the disadvantaged struck observers familiar with the group as unlikely. It also struck many street people as suspect. “It sounds too good to be true,” Vincent Rowe, an eighteen-year old street person in Richmond, Virginia, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “How can you get something for nothing? They must want something.” The Rajneeshees were offering free bus transportation to Rajneeshpuram, free room and board there with no work requirement, and free tickets home for those who didn’t adjust to life in the Bhagwan’s Buddhafield.

At the end of August 1984, approximately one week before the Share-A-Home program was officially launched, canvassers appeared in The Dalles seeking signatures to put the names of Mary Crawford and Donnie Barlow on the November 6 ballot as independent candidates for the Wasco County Court commissioners. The Toyota Land Cruiser used by the canvassers was found by The Dalles Weekly Reminder to be registered to an owner at Rajneeshpuram. Crawford’s petition was subsequently rejected by the Wasco County clerk because it came up short of the required 512 valid signatures. Barlow’s petition, which did have enough valid signatures, including the signatures of 194 registered voters at Rajneeshpuram, was rejected because of alleged voter fraud. (Barlow was found to be simultaneously registered in The Dalles and at Rajneeshpuram under two different names.)

On August 29, the three members of the Wasco County Court— County Executive William Hulse and commissioners Raymond Matthews and Virgil Ellett—went on an official inspection trip to Rajneeshpuram. They were stopped at the city entrance and told to proceed in a chauffeured Rajneesh vehicle. When they returned to their car they found that one of its tires was flat. The Rajneeshees offered to fix the tire for them.

While the commissioners waited for the tire to be repaired, a representative of the Rajneesh Medical Corporation brought them a pitcher of water and three glasses. It was a very hot day and all three drank water from the pitcher in their separate glasses. Hulse and Matthews, who in the past had been publicly critical of the Rajneeshees, became seriously ill soon afterward; Ellett, who at the time was considered to be sympathetic to the Rajneesh cause, did not. Hulse had to be hospitalized and was told by doctors that he had an “extremely toxic” substance—later determined to be salmonella—in his bloodstream.

On September 10, shortly after the Share-A-Home program began, there was a large outbreak of salmonella poisoning in The Dalles. A second and larger outbreak commenced a week later. Although salmonella bacteria normally thrive in protein foods such as chicken, the outbreak struck patrons of salad bars in eight different restaurants in the city. Taken together, they constituted the largest single epidemic of salmonella poisoning in the history of the United States. All told, over seven hundred restaurant patrons fell ill and approximately forty-five were hospitalized. A baby born to a woman patron afflicted with salmonella came close to death as a result of contracting the illness in her mother’s womb.

The Share-A-Home program itself—which reportedly cost in excess of $1 million—was a gigantic fiasco. Relations between the predominantly middle- and upper-class sannyasins and their lumpenproletariat guests soured almost at the start. On the night of Friday, September 21, Rajneesh leader Ma Anand Sheela held a mass meeting with the street people during which she upbraided them for actions ranging from putting their shoes in the toilets to poking the eyes out of Bhagwan posters. After the meeting, 225 street people flooded the bus depot in Madras.

“They were very discouraged,” said Jackie Finley, the Trailways agent in Madras. “They said they thought they had been tricked. They just hated it.” The next day, September 22, the Rajneeshees dropped their return-ticket guarantee for new arrivals. The Salvation Army stated that it spent upward of $100,000 to house, feed, and purchase return tickets for street people subsequently dumped by the Rajneeshees in Madras, The Dalles, and Bend.

Departing street people and journalists who penetrated the commune during this period painted a disturbing portrait of life in the Bhagwan’s supposedly utopian community. “It’s a peace and love thing, right? Wrong!” street person Duane Hartman told the Vancouver Columbian. “Everywhere you go, there’s someone checking up on you.” A street person from New York named Steve Maranville told the same paper, “I hated it. It was like a terrorist camp.” Street person John Irwin told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, “There’s rampant sex and they’re trying to twist people’s minds in these all day brainwashing sessions.” Irwin has alleged that he was kicked and beaten in his tent after refusing to register to vote.

Reporter Roddy Ray wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “Periodically, during dinner, a voice came over the loudspeaker: ‘Attention, friends. If you are an American citizen and over eighteen, you are eligible to register to vote.”’ Some street people claimed that food, clothing, and bedding were withheld from them if they refused to register.

“It’s a constructed environment that invokes most of the senses,” Warren Barnes, from Berkeley, California, explained to the Seattle Times. “Color predominates. Image dominates—you see Bhagwan’s picture all the time. Words predominate—Rajneesh, Rajneesh, Rajneesh.” Barnes said that personal decisions such as where to work, where to eat, and where to live were taken away at Rajneeshpuram. “It’s a continuing process where you can be a baby again,” he said. “And these subliminal things weaken your will to resist.”

In early 1984, the Rajneeshees had undertaken to arm both the official Rajneeshpuram Peace (police) Force and the ranch’s private security force, as well as their “peace” patrol in Antelope, with semiautomatic assault weapons such as AR-15s, CAR-15s, and Uzi Model Bs; meanwhile, Rajneesh spokespeople such as Ma Anand Sheela had begun threatening to respond with armed violence to any attempts to enforce land-use or immigration laws against the city or its residents. In June 1984, Antelope resident Jim Opray, who had been picketing in Antelope to protest the Rajneesh police’s harassment of non Rajneesh Antelope residents, was arrested in his own home by Rajneesh police on a charge—quickly rejected by the Wasco County district attorney—of “menacing.” An article entitled “Rajneeshpuram: Valley of Death?” in the September 1984 issue of Oregon Magazine—which reached the newsstands just before the Share-A-Home program got under way—had raised the possibility of a Jonestown-type finale at the ranch. Now evidence began to emerge from the commune that the Rajneeshees might be planning to arm the imported street people as well.

“They say peace there, but there’s guns everywhere you look,” street person Donnie Harman of Tyler, Texas, told the Seattle Times. “They say no lies, but I was lied to until I left.” Reporter Jay Maeder of the Miami Herald described Rajneeshpuram as “a dark-souled, usagainst-them kingdom, full of beaming, soft-singing spiritual storm troopers whose high priests daily drum into the acolytes that the world outside is a savage forest full of predators who mean to destroy them.” Maranville described to The Dalles Weekly Reminder a meeting at which street people, particularly Vietnam veterans, were asked to “defend the community.” “They said they’d arm people if they had to,” Maranville claimed.

“These people are dedicated and dangerous,” street person Michael Sprouse of Jacksonville, Florida, told the Weekly Reminder. “They are dedicated fanatics and they’re armed . . . psyched up to the point of firing on American citizens or U.S. military personnel, if the Bhagwan asks them to. I know Oregon people are concerned. But I don’t think they’re taking them as seriously as they should.”

In the end, the Rajneeshees’ effort to register enough new voters in Wasco County to influence the results of the 1984 elections came to nothing. On October 10, voter registration in Wasco County was halted by County Clerk Sue Proffitt because of “the probability of voter fraud,” and Secretary of State Norma Paulus stipulated that potential new voters desiring to register in the county would have to submit to a special hearings process in The Dalles. On October 18, the day after the cutoff date for Oregon’s twenty-day residency requirement for voter registration, the Rajneeshees announced they were halting the importation of street people. They had delivered more than 3,000 voter registration cards to Proffitt’s office by the cutoff deadline.

At the first voter registration hearing in The Dalles on October 23, only fourteen potential voters, out of a total of some two hundred present, were accepted. On October 26, Ma Deva Jayamala, the only Rajneeshee to publicly declare an intention to run for Wasco County Court commissioner, announced her withdrawal from the race. At the second voter registration hearing in The Dalles on November 1, no Rajneeshees or street people showed up. On November 6, only 249 residents of Rajneeshpuram voted, and almost none voted in county, state, or federal elections. By the end of 1984, almost all of the street people, whose numbers may have reached a high of around 3,500 in mid-October, were gone from Rancho Rajneesh.

At the end of October, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh broke his threeand-a-half-year “vow of silence” and began speaking publicly again—in a discourse on election eve, Rajneesh said that his coming to the United States in 1981 “might have been a mistake.”

Oregon Magazine, September 1985

This article was adapted from The Rajneesh Chronicles, published by Tin House Books.