Remembering the Rajneesh – Local News – East Oregonian

Posted: March 24, 2018 at 11:44 am


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Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Journalist Wil Phinney, the current editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal, worked at The Dalles Weekly Reminder during the time the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh started a commune near the rural town of Antelope.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Journalist Wil Phinney holds a prayer necklace that has a photo of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh he collected while covering the events at Rajneeshpuram during the late 1980s.

Gary Kopperud

Contributed photo

The Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh takes his daily afternoon drive through Rancho Rajneesh in one of his 74 Rolls Royces.

Contributed photo

Followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh exult as the guru passes by in one of his 74 Rolls Royces.

Contributed photo

Ma Anand Sheela and her attorneys face reporters after a day in court.

Wild Wild Country paints a story as incredible as any futuristic fantasy flick.

Consider the following plot: A mystic and his followers construct a utopian city and paradise of spiritual existence in the Central Oregon high desert. All seems right, then things get sinister. The commune slams up against local law. The group co-opts a nearby town and eventually attempts to take over the entire country. Before its over, commune leaders face charges of biological warfare, attempted murder, wiretapping and immigration violations.

This twisty tale, however preposterous, is pure truth. The six-hour Netflix documentary chronicles the story of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers. Some who witnessed the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram share their impressions in the paragraphs below.

Wil Phinney

Every so often, Wil Phinney pulls his Rajneeshpuram box down from the shelf, lifts the lid and journeys back in time.

Phinney, now editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal in Mission, worked for The Dalles Weekly Reminder when the Bhagwan arrived at the ranch. A shot of Phinneys byline appears in episode four of Wild Wild Country. Over the next years, Phinney visited Rancho Rajneesh many times, got to know Rajneeshee leaders and chronicled the cults efforts to take over Antelope and Wasco County.

This week, he lifted the lid of the worn cardboard box once again and started removing items one by one, laying them on a long table in the East Oregonian conference room. He fingered a beaded necklace he got from a homeless person who had lived on the ranch. Inside a chunk of clear plastic, the Bhagwan smiled serenely from a tiny photo.

He pulled out a diary neatly penned by a Bhagwan follower.

I felt on holy ground, she had written. I felt Bhagwans presence spreading over every inch of this vast desert, permeating even the smallest twig by the roadside, his love and protection encompassing every bird and insect and even every blade of grass and every rock.

Black-and-white photos taken by Phinney show scenes from the compound, Antelope and The Dalles. The Bhagwan taking his daily drive around the ranch in one of 74 Rolls-Royces. Red-frocked followers lining the road, kneeling and singing as he passed by.

In one photo, a woman mops the compounds huge industrial kitchen. In another, protesters from the embattled town of Antelope carry signs with slogans such as Free Antelope and Let Antelope Roam Free.

Aerial shots reveal dozens of large buildings and hundreds of tents brought in to house followers during the annual festival. Phinney pulled out several items he and other reporters discovered in the Antelope dump after the towns takeover. He held up a cork board with the image of the Bhagwan with a target imprinted over his face.

Phinney remembers the media at first thought the group would bring good things to the region.

Initially all the media thought these guys were great they were going to create an oasis at the (former) Big Muddy Ranch, Phinney said. Ill be honest, I bought into it.

But not for long. As the ranch grew into a self-sustaining town and steadily made moves to take over Antelope and Wasco County, he got concerned. Phinney reported some things that drew Rajneeshee ire. Eventually, he said, his name appeared on the cults enemies list. Rajneesh propaganda showed up on his car and front porch.

Sheela and other Rajneeshee officials proceeded with intelligence and knowledge of local law, he said, but finally they went too far.

It was all going according to plan, then they just got too arrogant and started pushing too hard and too fast, Phinney said. If theyd followed all the laws, theyd have gotten a lot farther.

Gary Kopperud

After the fall of Rajneeshpuram, Gary Kopperud returned to the ranch to rescue his favorite follower a large, orange cat named Popcorn that he soon renamed Swami. Swami later accompanied Kopperud when he spoke to groups about Rajneeshpuram.

Kopperud, who worked for Juniper Broadcasting in The Dalles and also shot video for Associated Press during the time of Rajneeshpuram, got a firsthand look at the commune as a member of the press. Kopperud, who now lives in Pendleton, said he watched the commune rise from the desert with fascination. At its height, he said, it included a 4,200-foot airstrip, public transportation system, creamery, restaurants, a police force dubbed the peace force, a mall, fire station and other amenities.

They were really on the move, Kopperud said. They had talented people from every walk of life.

Kopperud met the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his personal assistant, Ma Anand Sheela.

He was very soft spoken, Kopperud said of the Bhagwan. There was intensity and peace in his eyes at the same time. He was the spirit. He was everything to those people.

Sheela (Sheela Silverman) was a powerful presence.

When Sheela talked, no one else spoke, he said. She was not a person that allowed you into her space if she didnt want you there.

Kopperud had a close call in 1984 when Rajneesh followers poisoned salad bars in seven restaurants in The Dalles with salmonella as a strategy to sicken voters so Rajneeshee commissioner candidates could win an election. In all, 751 people got sick.

I was having pizza at Big Daves that day with a friend, Kopperud said. He had a salad and I didnt. He got sick.

That plot failed, along with another to bring busloads of homeless people to the area and register them as voters.

In late 1985, top Rajneeshee officials fled the ranch. For Kopperud, Swami remained as a reminder of the unbelievable saga. The cat lived to age 23. The Dalles Chronicle, Kopperud said, ran a three-paragraph obituary on his passing.

Kathy McBride

Many people in Wasco County dont need Netflix to know what happened when the Rajneesh and his followers came to town its still fresh in their minds.

This brought up some raw emotions, Kathy McBride said of the documentarys impact on the towns residents.

McBride, who lives in The Dallles, was the Wasco County Court administrative assistant at the time and was one of the people sued by the Rajneeshees for civil rights violations as they went head-to-head with the county. Her father was the county sheriff, and she said he felt the strain of trying to prevent tensions from erupting into bloodshed.

She has only watched a little bit of the docu-series so far, but she said in discussions with others who experienced the events firsthand and watched the whole thing, there is a sense that depth of the harassment experienced by Wasco County residents isnt portrayed.

After the county started trying to enforce land use regulations at the commune, for example, McBride opened an anonymous package at the courthouse to find human feces. Other times people phoned in bomb threats and the courthouse had to be evacuated.

Two of them would sit outside my house in The Dalles and watch my house while I was on maternity leave, she said.

After the county refused to register the 6,000 homeless people the Rajneeshees had bused in from around the country to vote, she said the commune pushed many of them out onto the streets of The Dalles with no resources, creating a major strain on the community.

McBride doesnt believe the Rajneeshees were all bad commune members did some amazing things out at the ranch with agriculture and art. But she said it was difficult to watch interviews with Ma Anand Sheela, who served prison time after admitting to orchestrating a variety of crimes, including poisoning county commissioner Bill Hulse nearly to death when he visited the ranch and spraying salmonella on salad bars.

I listen to Sheela and its like she had no remorse, poisoning all those people, McBride said. She almost killed our county judge.

She said in retrospect, listening to all of the attempted murders and planned murders that went on, its amazing no one died. She said at the time it was easy for people outside the area to say residents of The Dalles and Antelope were being paranoid, but later the FBI found evidence of many of the things they had suspected. The Rajneeshees were behind the salmonella outbreak. They were plotting to poison the water supply. The marriage licenses they were getting at the courthouse were part of a massive immigration fraud scheme. They were recording everyone when they visited the courthouse.

It was scary times, and Im just glad that people didnt die, she said.

Kricket Nicholson

Kricket Nicholson remembers the day Rajneeshees drove busloads of homeless people to town and left them walking the streets of The Dalles.

These individuals had been picked up off the streets of other towns and taken to Rajneeshpuram, lured with promises of food, clothing and shelter in exchange for agreeing to vote for Rajneeshee commissioner candidates in the election. When the plot didnt work, the homeless people were jettisoned.

They just started dumping them, Nicholson said. They dropped a busload of them a block from the Salvation Army and another at a rest area on the freeway.

Nicholson, now executive director of United Way in Pendleton, was a Salvation Army caseworker at the time. The homeless descended on the Salvation Army in droves that night. Nicholson and others spent the next few days working to feed the people and get them back to their places of origin.

The Dalles obviously couldnt handle an influx of hundreds of homeless people, she said. The community really came together and donated money for bus tickets.

Nicholson said the whole Rajneesh adventure left a sour taste in town for quite some time.

The Rajneeshees wore the colors of a sunset, Nicholson said. Nobody in The Dalles wore those colors for years.

Erik Hilden

Erik Hilden came into the Rajneesh orb in a most unexpected way. Hilden, a South Carolina teacher, grew up in Pendleton and went to summer camp near Rajneeshpuram.

On the last day of camp in 1981 or 1982, he waited for his mom to arrive to pick him up. She was hours late.

Eventually, a car pulled up the camps dusty driveway loaded with a bunch of Rajneeshees dressed in the colors of the setting sun, Hilden recalled. Those guys and my mom.

Hildens mother was bruised and bleeding. She had rolled the familys Ford Escort wagon during a flash flood on a windy road near Fossil. She had climbed out and tried to wave down help.

She said a bunch of ranchers blew by her, he said. But this carload of Rajneeshees, on their way to Rajneeshpuram for some giant Rajneesh festival, stopped to help. They brought her to me.

Hilden also recalled times when he and friends left camp and walked to nearby Antelope.

One year, around 1982, the Antelope General Store had become Zorba the Buddha, a vegan restaurant and hippy zone loaded with followers and other strangeness, Hilden said. That was weird. One summer, locals and ranchers, and the next summer, sunrise hippies wearing molded smiles and distant eyes.

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Remembering the Rajneesh - Local News - East Oregonian

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March 24th, 2018 at 11:44 am