Few characters in Oregon life have been as formidable as Ma Anand Sheela.
Sheela was the mouth and mastermind of the Rajneeshee sect. Under her orders, the orange-clad "sannyasins" would take over the town of Antelope, Ore., bus in thousands of homeless people to try to flip a Wasco County election, and poison voters in The Dalles by dousing salad bars with salmonella.
So in 1988, after Sheela finished her 29-month prison sentence for attempted murder, WW asked Katherine Dunn to interview her.
A year later, Dunn would gain her own cult following with the publication of her circus-freak novel, Geek Love. At the time, she wrote a weekly column for WW and covered boxing.
Dunn died in 2016. Sheela now lives in Switzerland, where she owns two nursing homes. Here's what happened when they stepped into the ring together. AARON MESH.
Dec. 29, 1988
By Katherine Dunn
On Tuesday, Dec. 13, Ma Anand Sheela, the most explosive female to hit the Northwest since Mount St. Helens, was released from a federal penitentiary in San Diego and immediately deported to Frankfurt, West Germany. Her 29 months behind bars were the result of her guilty plea to charges ranging from attempted murder to the salmonella poisoning of 750 people in The Dalles, Ore. In October, while she was still in prison. WW interviewed Sheela over the phone. She was outspoken, opinionated and occasionally inflammatory—as always. While her flying exit might seem the finale of the public role for this architect of Rajneeshpuram and the power behind Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Sheela's comments to Willamette Week suggest that the world has not heard the last of the 39-year-old firebrand. In the following excerpts from two separate conversations. Sheela discusses some of her plans for the future.
WW: In looking back at Rajneeshpuram, do you have any regrets?
Ma Anand Sheela: No. I don't feel any regrets. And the reason is very simple and very clear. I was Bhagwan's subordinate. He was my master, and he did not want to compromise to anyone's weaknesses, nor did he want to compromise for anyone's understanding. What he had set out to do, he wanted me to do it for him. And me being absolutely loyal and available to carry out his work. I had performed my task beyond human capacity. My loyalty, my integrity to him was so total that I could only perform more than best, and I have done it and therefore I have no regrets at all.
It seems strange to me that a woman of personal strength should subjugate herself to anyone. What did you need the Bhagwan for?
OK. Very clear. The question is very relevant. Bhagwan was the man who was going to offer me his teachings. Which he did. Now, for these teachings to be parted with, total surrender was required by him. He wanted all his people to surrender to him. Now, to surrender to him or not was my decision. The initial decision was mine.
In April of 1988, you were transferred from the relatively luxurious federal penitentiary at Pleasanton, Calif., to the more Spartan facility in San Diego. Willamette Week has received information about why that transfer took place. The story is—
I will tell you the story. You tell me if you heard it right. As I told you already, a number of people [in Pleasanton] were attracted to me. There were a number of friends there. One of the friends was leaving at the end of the week or something, and I was giving him a hug to say good luck, you know. And that they considered a [grounds for] discipline. To me, hugs are religious. For us Rajneeshees, that is the only way we express ourselves, is through hugging and smiles. Now, I don't know what you heard.
This is the story I was told. Pleasanton is a coed facility. The story goes that James Barnard [the racecar driver who was convicted of cocaine trafficking] and you were found consummating your liaison in a laundry basket in the prison laundry room, that you were transferred to San Diego and Barnard was transferred to a federal facility in Tucson as punishment.
[Peals of laughter throughout following remarks] No. No. Laundry basket in laundry room is not available to anybody. Because only people who can be in laundry room in a laundry basket are people who work in laundry. I didn't.
Why do you think you were transferred?
It was a good way of separating me from my co-defendants and people who were feeling comfort in my presence.
Do you think the prison authorities were afraid you would influence people too much?
They know that I did. Because first few months I ate alone with my co-defendants, but now there are 10 people eating at my table. And one would finish eating and the next was ready to sit at my table. And the reason they spoke openly and widely: "You know, when we eat with you, we don't find food so distasteful. And why is it every day at your table there is a party?" It is because I like parties. One thing I have learned from Bhagwan and Rajneeshpuram is to celebrate. Same food you eat, I eat. To me food is sacred, and I don't complain. Whatever they serve me, I eat it pleasantly.
So the authorities had reason to be concerned that you might be turning a federal penitentiary into a small Rajneeshpuram?
They had no cause for concern. But, in fact, me and my co-defendants were constantly reminded, "You're too happy. You're laughing too much."
If you're so smart, why are you in jail?
Very simple. Because I am intelligent, I didn't fight when the odds were completely against me. It is a simple question of mathematics. When you have a jury survey that says that 97 percent of the population holds you guilty even before you are charged, it would be fatal to go in front of a jury. Then you know that you don't have a single penny on you—and the budget of fighting lawsuits that were brought upon me, the budget was $2 million without any assurance [of winning]. You know that it's impossible to fight in a situation like that.
Because I am smart, because I am intelligent, I did not give the value to what people might think of me, but what is right for me in the long run. I didn't get caught up in the ideology of whether justice is being done or whether the truth is this. To be honest, I did not value the opinion of the people of Oregon before. What do I care? When I presented what I was, they did not understand me. Them calling me a criminal does not make me a criminal. I know who I am, and I am completely happy, satisfied, know who I am.
What about the strange fact that the Bhagwan is not in jail and you have taken the whole rap?
That's right. It is not strange. That has always been the agreement between Bhagwan and me. [Since] the day I became his secretary, the day I began his work, it has been understood between him and me that when the time comes to take the rap, I will be the one to take the rap. And I have taken the rap for him all along. One of the reasons that I portrayed myself so fierce was to attract people's attention on me and divert attention from him, because his life was threatened. Severely. When we came to America, he had just survived an attempt of assassination.
So his reputation became that of a helpless puppet.
Who was manipulated by you.
Right. But in reality, it was a very calculated act. In reality, it was an act of incredible love and devotion towards him.
You've told me that you left Rajneeshpuram simply because you were exhausted and wanted to abdicate the burden of running the whole operation. Yet immediately after you left Rajneeshpuram and flew to Europe, the Bhagwan made various accusations against you, including a claim that you had taken much of Rajneeshpuram's money, that you were guilty of attempted poisonings and had conspired to introduce salmonella to the population of The Dalles. Were you surprised at his allegations?
I knew that Bhagwan would have to publicly destroy me to maintain the hold on his following. And I had told 300 people who had come to say farewell to me. And I had told people who left with me, "Don't be shocked when Bhagwan turns around and tells you how bad a disciple you are because you have left him." I explained to them that he will have to do it to hold on to the following. I didn't know the extent of the fiction he would create. I had known that he would take something non-tangible like ego, that he would take something like money and create a fiction around it. But I had never, ever suspected that he would come out and make these ghastly, fictional accusations. Criminal accusations. I never knew that. But even that has been good in the sense that it has created my understanding of my own self far more stronger, which is that I never, ever needed others to approve or disapprove of my actions.
What are you going to do when you get out?
What I intend to do is—I feel the best way I can reach out to the world and touch the heart of people is through media. Therefore I intend to create my own television show. Now, it's very possible I may fail in doing so. Then I will take the next medium, which is writing. If that doesn't work out, I will take the next medium of going on a lecture tour. Or, if there is an opportunity to do all three at the same time, then I will do all three.
How would you begin with a television program?
I intend to syndicate it through Australia.
I understand there is a large group of Rajneesh followers in Germany.
Yes. But my work will not deal with them. I will find my own people just as Bhagwan found me and others as his own people. I will find my own people and start my own work.
When you first met and fell in love with him, as you described it, did you then go and read some of his works?
No. Actually, I have not read any of his works. But I have listened to his discourses. The funny part is that I used to fall asleep in his discourses. It was a big joke. He would come into the discourse hall, I would look at him for about two seconds, and I would be in a deep sleep.