When "The Rolls-Royce Guru" came to Oregon

Part Four: Unraveling

 

August 31, 2023 | View PDF

After the election, the new formerly homeless residents of Rajneeshpuram were the most pressing problem for Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers. They cost a lot of money to feed and house, and they started fights and made trouble.

Rajneeshee leaders started out giving them bus tickets home, but that got very expensive very fast. After all, it had cost $1 million to bring them in by busloads; sending them home one or two at a time would be many times more than that.

So finally, the Rajneeshees gave up and, herding them all aboard buses, simply hauled them to downtown Madras and dropped them off.

Social services agencies were forced to take on the task of getting them all home. The Salvation Army alone spent more than $100,000 taking care of them. Other Oregonians dug deep to help out as well.

By early 1985 the Rajneeshpuram experiment was a clear failure and was obviously doomed. Rajneesh’s personal secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, whose natural stubbornness continued to lead her into outright stupidity, was trying to take advantage of the homelessness problem she had created by seeking a meeting with Governor Vic Atiyeh in which she hoped to use the crisis as bargaining leverage. This, of course, went nowhere. But it made it clear to anyone who might not yet have figured it out that the Rajneeshees could not be worked with, and the only solution was to get them out of Oregon.

As the investigative walls closed in, Sheela and her staff lashed out. They tried to burn down the Wasco County Planning Department office in January 1985, plotted to crash an airplane loaded with explosives into the Wasco County Courthouse, and even tried a few assassinations. None of these efforts succeeded. But an attempt to kill Rajneesh’s personal physician, Swami Devaraj, nearly did. One of Sheela’s lieutenants jabbed him with a syringe during a Rajneeshee festival, injecting him with what she thought would be a lethal dose of adrenaline. She was nearly right.

(By the way, the motive for wanting to kill Devaraj was a rumor Sheela had heard, that Rajneesh had asked him to prepare a suicide pill for him to use if things got really bad. It’s not clear if the rumor was true and it’s super unlikely Devaraj would have complied with this request if it was made; but apparently, Sheela took it seriously.)

By now the hostile energy was really affecting the rank-and-file Rajneeshees, and it was causing the group’s income to collapse. Remember, these were spiritual seekers who were actually paying to be there and working all day on a volunteer basis. Being surrounded by hard-eyed men with Uzis all the time, and being forbidden to run to Madras to shop, made the experience of living at Rajneeshpuram a lot less appealing. And Rajneesh’s continuing penchant for buying Rolls-Royces — by the end he had 94 of them — added insult to injury. It seems pretty clear that Rajneesh didn’t yet understand how bad things had gotten. Sheela would come back from battling with state officials and insulting Oregon residents on TV and have to deal with the oblivious Rajneesh demanding another Rolls — he really wanted to get into the Guinness Book of World Records as the man who owned the largest collection of them.

Finally, at long last realizing the case was hopeless, Sheela and her cabal fled the country, leaving Rajneesh behind to salvage what he might.

Rajneesh did so by basically throwing Sheela under the bus, blaming her alone for all the stupid and illegal activities and inviting law enforcement to come to Rajneeshpuram to gather the evidence they’d need against her.

And yes, they found plenty.

They found two laboratories set up to produce biological and chemical agents that could certainly be used as weapons. They also found some books detailing how that might be done. “Deadly Substances,” “Handbook for Poisoning,” “The Perfect Crime and How to Commit It” and “Let Me Die Before I Wake” were some of the titles.

Investigators for state and federal agencies and police departments, invited to come to Rajneeshpuram and build a case, got a real earful. Rajneesh told his followers to be completely frank and open, and they were. The depth and breadth of the criminal misconduct they learned about astonished them.

Perhaps the investigations went a little too well, though, because a few days later Rajneesh started getting less cooperative. Doubtless he was eager to help get Sheela prosecuted — he clearly felt betrayed by her — but the investigators were asking other questions as well, and some of them were landing very close to the guru himself. This was especially true with questions of his immigration status.

At the same time, some of the law enforcement officers were getting very nervous about what they were seeing at Rajneeshpuram. By now — summer of 1985 — the Rajneesh “Peace Force” was bristling with Colt AR-15 rifles and other military-style firearms, including the semi-automatic civilian variant of the Uzi submachine gun. Most investigators saw it as mostly theater, to make the group look like a harder target; but there were a lot of guns, and a lot of ammunition, and the whole compound was arranged very effectively for urban defense.

To make matters even more nerve-wracking, Rajneesh had, after Sheela’s departure, lifted the red-clothing requirement for the group. This meant if something went horribly wrong, it would be very hard for outsiders to tell friend from foe.

Police in the compound — both investigators invited in by Rajneesh and undercover agents posing as followers — started warning darkly that any attempt to arrest Rajneesh would be likely to turn messy and bloody. The worst-case scenario still fresh in everyone’s mind was Jonestown, which had happened just a few years earlier.

Then came the spark that could have blown the whole thing up: The warrant came through. It was a sealed indictment from a court in Portland charging Rajneesh with immigration violations.

This presented law enforcement officers with a serious problem. It was now their duty to go and get him. But they would have to be very careful. It was not hard to imagine what the Peace Patrol could potentially do: they had hundreds of innocent noncombatants in their direct control and a huge arsenal at their disposal. They could surround themselves with a human shield of women and children. They could take hostages. Would they? What would they do?

Luckily, no one ever found out. A few days later, Rajneesh boarded a chartered Learjet and flew to North Carolina with a small entourage of his people. This flight has been characterized as an attempt to flee to Bermuda, and it may have been so; but the complete absence of any kind of secrecy, along with the fact that he filed a detailed flight plan with the Federal Aviation Administration and followed it to the letter, suggests that Rajneesh was at least half expecting to be intercepted. Most likely his departure was motivated by Rajneesh’s growing worries that his presence could bring trouble upon his people.

In any case, Rajneesh’s flight meant that instead of having to invade a heavily armed compound with a huge SWAT team, authorities simply had to dispatch two U.S. Marshals Service officers to the North Carolina airport and pick him up there.

(Sources: “Rajneeshpuram,” an episode of Oregon Experience produced by Eric Cain and Nadine Jelsing and aired Nov. 19, 2012, by Oregon Public Broadcasting; “Beyond the Ranch: Rajneesh Revisited,” a three-part series by Cory Frye published July 8, 2018, in the Corvallis Gazette-Times; the Portland Oregonian’s 20-part series on Rajneeshpuram, published June 30 through July 19, 1985, and 5-part series by reporter Les Zaitz published April 14, 2011)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

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