1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack

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1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack
1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack
Salmonella typhimurium, the agent used in the attack
Location The Dalles, Oregon
Flag usa.gif United States
Coordinates 45°36′4″N, 121°10′58″W (45.601218, -121.182774).GR1
Target(s) Voting population,
Wasco County
Date March 29 - October 10 1984
Attack type Bioterrorism
Weapon(s) Salmonella enterica Typhimurium
Injured 751 people sickened,
45 hospitalizations
Perpetrator(s) Rajneeshee commune management

The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack refers to the salmonella food poisoning of over seven hundred and fifty individuals in Oregon, USA through the contamination of salad bars at ten local restaurants. Followers of Osho, then known as Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, had hoped to incapacitate the voting population of the town so that their own candidates would win county elections.[1] The incident was the first bioterrorism attack in the United States.[2][3][4][5][6] The attack is also one of only two confirmed terrorist uses of biological weapons to harm humans.[7]

Having previously gained political control of Antelope, Oregon, Osho followers based in nearby Rajneeshpuram sought election to two of the three seats on the Wasco County Court which were up for election in November 1984. After other tactics to gain political control failed, Rajneeshpuram officials decided to incapacitate voters in The Dalles, the most populated community of Wasco County. The chosen biological agent was Salmonella enterica Typhimurium, which was first delivered through glasses of water to two county commissioners, and then delivered on a larger scale at salad bars and in salad dressing.

Seven hundred and fifty-one people became sickened with salmonellosis, and forty-five were hospitalized. There were no fatalities. Though an initial investigation by the Oregon Public Health Division and the Centers for Disease Control did not rule out deliberate contamination, the actual source of the biological agent was only discovered one year later. At a press conference in 1985, Osho accused several of his followers of involvement in this and other crimes, including an aborted plan to assassinate a United States attorney. The Oregon Attorney General set up an interagency task force between the Oregon State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and executed search warrants in Rajneeshpuram. A contaminant matching the bacteria that sickened the town residents was found in a Rajneeshpuram medical laboratory. Two leading Rajneeshpuram officials were indicted and served twenty-nine months in a minimum-security federal prison.


File:Osho Drive By.jpg
Osho greeted by sannyasins on one of his daily "drive-bys" in Rajneeshpuram, 1982.

Osho's followers had previously moved into the city of Antelope, Oregon in Wasco County, and had taken over political control.[8][9][10] They established a main presence at the Big Muddy Ranch, which was legally incorporated as the city of Rajneeshpuram.[8][9][10] After being denied building permits on Rajneeshpuram, the commune leadership sought to gain political control over the rest of Wasco County by influencing the November 1984 county election.[11] Specific offices in Wasco County sought after by them included two of three seats on the Wasco County Court and the sheriff's office.[12][1][9] Their attempts to influence the election outcome included a "Share-A-Home" program, where they transported thousands of homeless people into Rajneeshpuram to have them vote for their candidates.[12][13] Wasco's county clerk countered this attempt by enforcing regulations and requesting that all of the individuals submit their qualifications to register to vote.[14] In addition, they planned to sicken and incapacitate voters in The Dalles, where most of the voting public of the county resided.[10]

Approximately twelve followers of Osho were involved in the plots to employ the biological agents, at least eleven were involved in the planning process, and no more than four were involved in development at the Rajneeshpuram medical laboratory.[12] At least eight individuals were involved with the actual distribution of the biological agents.[12] The main planners of the operation included Osho's chief lieutenant Sheela Silverman (Ma Anand Sheela), and Diane Ivonne Onang (Ma Anand Puja), a trained nurse practitioner and secretary-treasurer of the Rajneesh Medical Corporation.[12][15] They chose to utilize salmonella bacteria, and if a preliminary test was successful, to implement the plan just before Election Day. The bacteria were purchased from a commercial supplier of biological products, American Type Culture Collection, and the organization began to grow more of the bacteria at its commune.[9][16] The delivery of the agent through the salad bars was actually regarded by the members as a "trial run."[17] If they succeeded in sickening enough individuals through contamination of the salad bars, their next intent was to contaminate The Dalles' water supply.[1]

Salmonella poisoning

Perpetrators spread salmonella contaminants on surfaces in the Wasco County Courthouse.

Initially, two visiting Wasco County commissioners were poisoned when they were given contaminated glasses of water on a visit to Rajneeshpuram on March 29, 1984.[18][7] Both men were sickened from exposure to the salmonella, and one was hospitalized.[13] Afterwards, the perpetrators sprinkled salmonella on produce in grocery stores, and spread contaminants on doorknobs and urinal handles in the county courthouse, but this did not produce the desired effects.[7] In September and October 1984, they deliberately contaminated the salad bars of ten local restaurants with salmonella, which sickened seven hundred and fifty-one people.[19][10] Forty-five people were hospitalized with symptoms of food poisoning, but there were no fatalities.[20][21] The attacks occurred in two waves: from September 9 to September 18, 1984, and from September 19 to October 10, 1984.[22][23]

The primary delivery tactic involved one member concealing a plastic bag containing a light brown liquid with the salmonella agent, and either spreading it over the food at a salad bar, or pouring its contents into salad dressing.[23] During the operation, the biological agent was referred to by followers as "salsa."[24] By September 24, 1984, one hundred and fifty people were violently ill, and by the end of September seven hundred and fifty-one cases of acute gastroenteritis were documented, representing nine percent of the total population of Wasco County.[25] Symptoms experienced by those poisoned with salmonella included diarrhea and other related symptoms such as fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, headaches, abdominal pain, and bloody stools.[19] Victims ranged in age from newborn to eighty-seven years old.[9] The organization had lacked the sophistication necessary to breed drug resistant strains of the bacteria, and the victims responded to antibiotic treatment.[25]

Local residents suspected that Osho's followers were behind the poisonings, and turned out in droves on election day so that they did not win any county positions.[1] Only two hundred and thirty-nine members of Osho's seven thousand disciples voted in the November election.[26] The Rajneeshees eventually withdrew their candidate from the November 1984 ballot, and the salmonella poisoning did not have the desired effect on the election.[23] The outbreak cost local restaurants hundreds of thousands of dollars, and health officials shut down the salad bars of the affected eateries.[1] Some residents feared further repercussions and would not go out alone.[27] One resident stated: "People were so horrified and scared. People wouldn't go out, they wouldn't go out alone. People were becoming prisoners."[9]


Health officials were brought in to investigate the outbreak and determined that the cause was salmonellosis, but initially thought it to be the result of poor food handling.[10] Dr. John Livengood, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control, was dispatched to The Dalles to investigate further.[10] The specific causal agent was identified as Salmonella enterica Typhimurium.[5] Dr. Michael Skeels, at the time chief epidemiologist for the Oregon Public Health Division, explained that the incident provoked such a large public health investigation because "it was the largest food-related outbreak in the U.S. in 1984."[25] Oregon Congressman James H. Weaver contacted physicians at the CDC after they had confirmed the salmonellosis outbreak, and urged them to investigate Rajneeshpuram.[28] On February 28, 1985, Congressman Weaver gave a speech on the floor of the United States House of Representatives in which he "..accused the Rajneeshees of sprinkling salmonella culture on salad bar ingredients in eight restaurants."[28][29] Though public health officials had considered intentional contamination as a cause of the incident, the outbreak's deliberate nature was determined by the criminal investigation that followed.[5][30] Initially, investigators came to the conclusion that the outbreak had been due to poor personal hygiene, and it was not until one year later that they found evidence to prove otherwise.[14]

In the week starting Monday, September 16, 1985, Osho convened press conferences and came forward with information about the salmonella incident and other crimes he believed had been committed by the Rajneeshpuram leadership.[11] Osho made statements to the press saying that Ma Anand Sheela and a dozen other commune leaders, including Puja, had left Rajneeshpuram over the weekend and gone to Europe.[11] Calling them a "gang of fascists", he accused them of attempting to poison his doctor and his female companion, as well as the Jefferson County district attorney and the water system in The Dalles.[11] Osho also stated that he believed they had poisoned the county commissioner, Judge William Hulse, and may have been responsible for the salmonella outbreak in The Dalles.[11] The Oregon Attorney General established a task force between the Oregon State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and after obtaining search warrants and subpoenas, representatives from six law enforcement agencies entered Rajneeshpuram to seek out new evidence in the case.[31][11] After epidemiological research, law enforcement isolated the source of the contamination at a clinical laboratory in Rajneeshpuram.[10][4] On October 2, 1985, vials of the bacteria were found in the laboratory of the Rajneesh Medical Center.[9] The investigation also revealed prior experimentation at Rajneeshpuram with poisons, chemicals and bacteria, in 1984 and 1985.[15] Police found that the bacteria at the Rajneesh laboratory were an exact match to those which sickened individuals who had eaten at area restaurants.[9] The Rajneesh group is the only known organization to have cultured their own pathogen for terrorist purposes.[32] Dr. Skeels described the scene at the Rajneesh laboratory as "a bacteriological freezer-dryer for large-scale production" of microbes.[25] Investigators also found a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook, and literature on the manufacture and usage of explosives and military biowarfare.[25] Investigators also believed that similar attacks had previously been carried out in Salem, Portland and other cities in Oregon.[15] According to testimony, the plotters had boasted that they had attacked a nursing home and a salad bar at the Mid-Columbia Medical Center, but no such attempts were ever proven in court.[15] As a result of the bioterrorism investigation, law enforcement uncovered that there had been an abortive plot by Rajneeshees to murder former United States Attorney for Oregon, Charles Turner.[33][13]

File:1982 Osho driving.jpg
Osho driving one of his Rolls-Royce cars in 1982. The mayor of Rajneeshpuram stated he believed that Osho was involved in the plot, but this was never proven.[12]

The mayor of Rajneeshpuram, David Berry Knapp (known as Krishna Deva or KD), turned state's evidence and gave an account of his knowledge of the salmonella attack to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.[12] He claimed that Sheela said "she had talked with Bhagwan about the plot to decrease voter turnout in The Dalles by making people sick. Sheela said that Bhagwan commented that it was best not to hurt people, but if a few died not to worry."[12] In Miller's Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, this statement is instead attributed to Sheela:[15] According to KD's testimony, she played doubters a muffled tape of Bhagwan's voice saying that "if it was necessary to do things to preserve (the Bhagwan's) vision, then do it" and interpreted this to mean that killing people in Osho's name was fine, telling doubters "not to worry" if a few people had to die.[15] The investigation did uncover a September 25, 1984 invoice from American Type Culture Collection, showing an order received by the Rajneeshpuram laboratory for Salmonella Typhi, the bacterium which causes the life-threatening illness typhoid fever.[15][34] According to a 1994 study published in the journal Sociology of Religion: "Most sannyasins indicated that they believed that Rajneesh knew about Ma Anand Sheela's illegal activities."[35] FitzGerald writes in Cities on a Hill that most of Osho's followers "... believed Rajneesh incapable of doing, or willing, violence against another person."[11] Carus writes in Toxic Terror that "There is no way to know to what extent the Bhagwan participated in actual decision making. His followers believed he was involved in every important decision that Sheela made, but those allegations were never proven."[24] Osho left Oregon by plane on October 27, 1985 and was arrested when he landed in Charlotte, North Carolina, and charged with thirty-five counts of deliberate violations against immigration laws.[36][31][37] As part of a plea bargain arrangement, he pled guilty to two counts of making false statements to immigration officials.[13][23][31] He received a ten-year suspended sentence and a fine of USD$400,000, and was deported and barred from reentering the United States for a period of five years.[38][13][37] He was never prosecuted for crimes related to the salmonella poisoning.[23][13]

Ma Anand Sheela and Ma Anand Puja were arrested in Germany on October 28 1985.[13] After protracted negotiations, they were extradited to the United States and arrived back in Portland on February 6 1986.[13] They were charged with attempting to murder Osho's personal physician, first degree assault for poisoning Judge William Hulse, second-degree assault for poisoning The Dalles Commissioner Raymond Matthews, and product tampering for the poisonings in The Dalles, as well as wiretapping and immigration offenses.[13][7] The U.S. Attorney's office handled the prosecution of the poisoning cases related to the ten restaurants, and the Oregon Attorney General's office prosecuted the poisoning cases of Commissioner Matthews and Judge Hulse.[31] On July 22 1986, both women entered no-contest ("Alford") pleas for the salmonella poisoning and the other charges, and received sentences ranging from three to twenty years, to be served concurrently. Sheela received twenty years for the attempted murder of Osho's physician, twenty years for first degree assault in the poisoning of Judge Hulse, ten years for second degree assault in the poisoning of Commissioner Matthews, four and a half years for her role in the salmonella poisoning, four and a half years for the wiretapping conspiracy, and five years' probation for immigration fraud; Puja received fifteen, fifteen, seven and a half, and four and a half years respectively for her role in the first four of these crimes, as well as three years' probation for the wiretapping conspiracy.[31][13][7] Both Sheela and Puja were released early for good behavior, after serving twenty-nine months of their sentences in a minimum-security federal prison.[13][7][39][40]


The Oregonian ran a twenty-part series on Osho's movement, beginning in June 1985, which included an investigation into the salmonella incident.[10] As a result of a follow-up investigation, The Oregonian learned that Leslie L. Zaitz, one of their investigative journalists, had been placed as number three on a top-ten hit list by Sheela's group.[10] Former Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer commented on the poisoning incident and other acts perpetrated by the group, stating: "The Rajneeshees committed the most significant crimes of their kind in the history of the United States ... The largest single incident of fraudulent marriages, the most massive scheme of wiretapping and bugging, and the largest mass poisoning."[9][41] Looking back on the incident, Dr. Skeels stated, "We lost our innocence over this ... We really learned to be more suspicious ... The first significant biological attack on a U.S. community was not carried out by foreign terrorists smuggled into New York, but by legal residents of a U.S. community. The next time it happens it could be with more lethal agents ... We in public health are really not ready to deal with that."[25]

Federal and state investigators requested that details of the incident not be published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) for twelve years, for they feared a description of the events could spark copycat crimes, and JAMA complied.[25] No repeat attacks or hoaxes subsequently occurred, and a detailed account of the incident and investigation was published in JAMA in 1997.[42][14][43] A 1999 empirical analysis in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described six motivational factors associated with bioterrorism, including: charismatic leadership; no outside constituency; apocalyptic ideology; loner or splinter group; sense of paranoia and grandiosity; and defensive aggression.[44] According to the article, the "Rajneesh Cult" satisfied all motivational factors except for an "apocalyptic ideology."[44] An analysis in the book Cults, Religion and Violence disputes the link to charismatic leadership, pointing out that in this and other cases, it was organizational lieutenants who played a pivotal role in the initiation of violence.[45] Arguing for a contextual rather than decisive view of charisma, the authors state that the attribution of outcomes to the personality of a single individual, even a charismatic leader, usually camouflages a far more complex field of social relationships.[45]

The media revisited the incident during the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States.[46][47][48][49] The 2001 publication of Judith Miller's Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, which contained an analysis and detailed description of the events, also brought discussion of the incident back into the news.[50][51][52] Townspeople of The Dalles reacted to the renewed interest in the 1984 incident, and commented that they have an understanding of how bioterrorism can occur in the United States.[1] The incident had spread fear in the community, and drained the local economy.[1] All but one of the restaurants affected went out of business.[53] In 2005, the Oregon State Land Board agreed to sell four hundred and eighty acres of Wasco County, including Rajneeshpuram, to the Colorado-based youth ministry Young Life.[54][21] On February 18, 2005, Court TV aired a special investigation into the incident, entitled: "'Bio-Attack' – Oregon Cult Poisonings."[55] The salmonellosis outbreak was also discussed in the media within the context of the 2006 North American E. coli outbreak.[56][57][58]

The book Emerging Infectious Diseases: Trends and Issues cites the 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack, along with the Aum Shinrikyo group's attempts to utilize anthrax and other agents, as exceptions to the belief "that only foreign-state supported groups have the resources to execute a credible bioterrorism event."[4] According to Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons Since 1945, these are the only two confirmed uses of biological weapons for terrorist purposes to harm humans.[7] The incident was the single largest bioterrorist attack in United States history.[59][60][61]

See also


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  2. Swearengen, James R. (2006). Biodefense: Research Methodology And Animal Models. CRC Press, Page 9: "The History of Biological Weapons". ISBN 0849328365. 
  3. Lewis, Susan K.. "History of Biowarfare: Bioterror", Nova Online Website, WGBH/NOVA, November 2001, pp. Section: "The Cults". Retrieved on 2007-11-23. 
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  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 Wheelis, Mark; Lajos Rózsa, Malcolm Dando (2006). Deadly Cultures: Biological Weapons Since 1945. Harvard University Press, 284-293, 301-303. ISBN 0674016998. 
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  22. Prelas, Mark A. (2005). Nonproliferation Issues for Weapons of Mass Destruction. CRC Press, Page 47. ISBN 0824753399. 
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  43. Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction (December 15 1999). Assessing The Threat: First Annual Report to The President and The Congress of the Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction. DIANE Publishing, 18-19. ISBN 1428981128. 
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  49. Staff, Associated Press. "Bioterror's first US victims offer hope to a nation - CULT ATTACK: The small town of The Dalles, near Portland, Oregon, was in 1984 the first place in America hit with germ warfare. The people of the town say that the country will get through this as well", Taipei Times, October 21, 2001, pp. Page 4. Retrieved on 2007-11-22. 
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  53. Nestle, Marion (2003). Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism. University of California Press, 266-267. ISBN 0520232925. 
  54. Associated Press. "Oregon agrees to sell former Rajneeshees cult encampment", The Seattle Times, The Seattle Times Company, December 15, 2005. Retrieved on 2007-11-24. 
  55. Staff. "'Bio-Attack' – Oregon Cult Poisonings", Court TV, Turner Entertainment Digital Network, Inc., February 18, 2005. Retrieved on 2007-11-22. 
  56. Staff. "Spinach scare sparks memories of The Dalles", Nashua Telegraph, Telegraph Publishing Company, September 21, 2006. 
  57. Staff. "Spinach and bioterrorism prevention", Ocala Star-Banner, September 23, 2006. 
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  59. Cramer, John. "Oregon suffered largest bioterrorist attack in U.S. history, 20 years ago", The Bulletin, bendbulletin.com, October 14, 2001. 
  60. Scripps Howard News Service. "Health experts fear bioterror attack", Grand Rapids Press, January 28, 2007, pp. Page G1. "A total of 751 people, including members of the Wasco County Commission, became ill with nausea, diarrhea, headaches and fever. Forty-five people were hospitalized, but no one died. It was the first, and still the largest, germ-warfare attack in U.S. history."
  61. Hargrove, Thomas. "Lab Unprepared for Germ Warfare", The Kentucky Post, November 25, 2006, pp. Page A11. 

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