In the early 1980s, the small town of Antelope, Ore., (population 40), became a focus of intense media attention after followers of an Indian guru named Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased a nearby ranch of 64,000 acres and began setting up a commune.
It didn’t take long for relations between the townspeople and the Rajneeshis, as they became known, to deteriorate. By the time Rajneesh fled the country in 1985, his top lieutenant was accused of poisoning local residents in an effort to sway the results of a county election. He was also dogged by allegations that his followers were in violation of immigration laws and the separation of church and state.
The story of what transpired in north-central Oregon is told in a compelling six-part documentary series available on Netflix called “Wild Wild Country.” Through interviews with principal players and archival footage, filmmakers Maclain and Chapman Way bring this disturbing story to life.
At first, a viewer can’t help but feel a modicum of sympathy for the Rajneeshis. Antelope residents clearly didn’t want them in their backyard, and some expressed openly bigoted views about “cults” and non-Christians settling in the area. A few even attempted to intimidate commune members by approaching their property and flashing guns.
All sympathy for the commune quickly melts away, however. By episode three, members of the group, led by an aggressive Rajneeshi lieutenant named Ma Anand Sheela, have taken over Antelope, renamed it “Rajneesh” and imposed a quasi-theocratic government. They soon began committing serious crimes.
This led Dave Frohnmayer, then Oregon’s attorney general, to investigate. He concluded that the town was in violation of separation of church and state and argued that religious groups did not have the power in Oregon to incorporate towns.
Commune members responded with a brazen attempt to seize control of the government of surrounding Wasco County. The Rajneeshis traveled around the country to major cities, urging homeless people to move to their commune. Once they had been there 20 days, the commune registered them to vote. Their plan was to gain control of the county commission and change zoning laws enabling the commune to expand to a city of more than 10,000 people.
But the Rajneeshis didn’t stop there. A small faction led by Sheela hatched a plan to spray salmonella on salad bars at restaurants in the county. They hoped that enough people would fall ill and be unable to vote on Election Day, creating an opening for the Rajneeshi bloc. (The gambit failed, and no Rajneeshis were elected.)
More than 750 people were sickened by the poison, and 45 were hospitalized, though none died. In the subsequent investigation, it came to light that commune members had considered assassinating Frohnmayer, tried to kill Rajneesh’s personal physician and attempted to poison several local officials with spiked candy.
The commune failed to survive the scandal. Sheela and a confederate fled to Germany but were extradited to the United States and put on trial. Both served about two years in prison. In 1985, Rajneesh also attempted to flee. He headed for Bermuda but was apprehended at the airport in Charlotte, N.C., and was charged with various immigration-related offenses. Under a plea bargain, he was fined $400,000 and deported.
As the drama unfolded in Oregon, the Rajneeshis frequently claimed that all they wanted to do was live in peace and enjoy America’s great tradition of religious freedom. Despite their unconventional views, their right to worship would have been protected if that were all they had truly sought. They had much broader ambitions, hypocritically invoking said “great tradition” as a stepping stone to political power.
The story of the rise and fall of this unusual group requires an investment of time, but it’s worth it. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that some groups won’t hesitate to use religious freedom to cover all sorts of malfeasance.