Twenty years ago, the largest bioterror attack in American history took place 80 miles east of Portland.
The mastermind behind this mass poisoning--which sickened 751 people--is not behind bars or hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora. Rather, she runs two homes for the elderly and disabled in Switzerland.
Her 20 employees know her now as Sheela Birnstiel, but during the mid-1980s she bore a different name. Some 350,000 followers around the world addressed her as Ma Anand Sheela--the right hand of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
The story began in 1981, when the Bhagwan fled persecution in India, bought a ranch outside the tiny Oregon town of Antelope (population 47) and established a commune he christened Rancho Rajneesh.
Over the next four years, thousands of "sannyasins," or followers, flocked to the 64,000-acre commune. The Bhagwan spent $30 million to build a shopping mall, a school, an outdoor disco, and other amenities for the 3,000 disciples who lived there at any given time.
The Bhagwan preached a radical detachment from the world, and his sannyasins engaged in daily group bouts of "dynamic meditation" exercises. (For example: "With raised arms, jump up and down, shouting the mantra, 'Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!'")
But detachment did not equal poverty. By 1985, the Bhagwan had amassed $1 million worth of personal jewelry, and performed a daily drive-by at the commune in one of the dozens of Rolls Royces he owned, slowly idling past throngs of cheering followers--all of them clad in red and orange robes with pictures of their guru dangling from their necks.
In 1983, when the Bhagwan surrendered to the void and took a vow of silence, Sheela stepped in and took over the day-to-day running of the commune. She became the movement's increasingly strident voice, denouncing Oregonians as bigots and rednecks. During a nationally televised debate, she gave Nightline's Ted Koppel the finger when he cut off her mike after she kept shouting, "Bullshit!" over the air.
Sheela's growing allergy to criticism led to tension with local authorities in Wasco County--especially after the Rajneeshees took over the government of Antelope and renamed the city Rajneeshpuram.
As Rancho Rajneesh swelled with sannyasins--a mixture of well-educated enlightenment seekers and street people--Sheela became convinced the county and state government were trying to bring the Bhagwan down. She stepped up security, stockpiling guns and a quarter-million dollars' worth of ammunition. She began taping all the commune's incoming and outgoing calls. All sannyasins wore identification bracelets.
Just before the 1984 elections, Sheela hatched a two-pronged plot to seize power in Wasco County. First, the sannyasins bussed in 4,300 homeless people to vote in local elections (a sting operation by Oregon Secretary of State Norma Paulus halted all illegal voting, however). Second, the Rajneeshees sought to impede native voters from reaching the polls--and what better way to do this than to poison them?
Sannyasins slipped salmonella bacteria into salad bars and coffee creamer at 10 restaurants in The Dalles. Soon, 751 people fell ill with food poisoning, 45 of whom were hospitalized.
Sheela and the sannyasins also made attempts on the lives of several of the cult's "enemies," including U.S. Attorney Charles Turner, who fell ill after drinking from a cup of coffee he left unattended in a courthouse where sannyasins were roaming about.
As pressure mounted from the state police, the FBI, U.S. marshals and the National Guard, the Bhagwan broke his vow of silence and accused Sheela of exerting totalitarian control over the commune--as did many other sannyasins.
It was too late. The commune imploded. The Bhagwan fled, was arrested in Charlotte, N.C., on his way to the Bahamas, and was ultimately deported to India (where he renamed himself "Osho" and died in 1990).
Sheela fled to Germany in September 1985, only to be extradited back to the U.S. and convicted of attempted murder and illegal wiretapping, among other crimes. She served 29 months in federal prison.
After her release, Sheela married Swiss Rajneeshee Urs Birnstiel, giving her a Swiss passport and immunity from extradition to the U.S. on any future charges, such as the unresolved attempted murder of U.S. Attorney Turner. Urs Birnstiel died of AIDS in 1992.
Sheela, 55, now tends to 34 mentally disabled patients at her homes in Maisprach and Lausen, Switzerland, which she opened in 1990.
"I call them 'communes,' not 'nursing homes,' because 'nursing homes' has a feeling of people you want to put aside," she says. "The same love I had for people at Rajneeshpuram, I bring to my patients now."
Sheela lives with her patients and her two black Labradors, Lalla and Rajab, at her commune in Maisprach, a village near Basel renowned for its fine pinot noir grapes. She integrates the patients' care into her daily life, treating them more like family members than invalids.
"I live with my people in the same house, I eat with them and dance with them," Sheela says. "People respect what I do."
Sheela says the Bhagwan's religion is still "inside me, in my heart," but she doesn't preach to her patients--or wear the saffron robes anymore.
"I was never a clothes person anyway," she says. "I'm into comfortable, baggy clothing now."
Sheela still maintains that she was innocent, and simply became a convenient scapegoat for everything that went wrong at Rajneeshpuram. Nevertheless, she didn't blame the Bhagwan; though the two never met again, she says they still had an unspoken bond. While she has no regrets, Sheila says she'd never want to go through it again.
"I don't miss anything about Oregon," she says. "I would have to miss the hate, that's all. I don't forget anything that happened in my life; everything is best. I have a wonderful past, a wonderful present and I know I'm going to have a wonderful future."
Intro | Tonya's Mob: Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly & Shawn Eckardt | The Crusader: Gordon Shadburne | The Meteor: Billy Ray Bates | Satan's Pilgrim: Rex Diabolos Church | The Firebrand: Ron Herndon | The Bad Boy: Frank Peters | The Broken Halo: Michael Stoops | The Crack Mother: Anita Nichols | The Veejay: Kennedy | The Girl from Electra: Treva Throneberry | The Perfect Victim: Azalea Cooley | The Grappler: Dutch Savage | Wonder Boy: Pat Gillis | The Ex-Files: Marcia & Steve Moskowitz | The Witness: Dave Mazzella | The Prankster: Igor Vamos | The Intern: Monica Lewinsky | The Runaways: Diane Walden & Peter | Top Cop: Mark Kroeker | Sprawl Kitten: Kate Schiele | Authority Figure: Rocky Balada | The Hulk: Dry Dock 4 | The Candidate: Gail Shibley | The Super: Ben Canada | The Organ Grinder: Dr. William J. Brady | Pillars of the Community: The Lovejoy Columns | The Survivor: Giles Thompson | The Contender: Andy Minsker | Space Invader: The Phantom Dialer | The Red Menace: Ma Anand Sheela