Episode 10 - How to Win an Election
This is the Building Utopia podcast. We’re taking a deep dive into the creation — and implosion — of the communities that formed around the charismatic leader Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.
In 1984, Bhagwan gave his secretary Ma Anand Sheela a new mission. The first three years at the Big Muddy Ranch in eastern Oregon had been all about building a solid base and then expanding the Rajneeshee presence in the local community. But now Bhagwan had a new goal, which he conveyed to Sheela at a private meeting.
Bhagwan instructed Sheela… to take over the Wasco County government. It didn’t matter how she got it done, she just had to do it.
What the Rajneeshees did over the coming months sent shockwaves through the state of Oregon. Their actions prompted the governor, Vic Atiyeh, to start carrying an emergency martial law declaration in his pocket 24-hours a day. Ten thousand state and federal officials coordinated efforts to manage “the Rajneeshee problem.” And the national attention that Bhagwan’s group was already getting… it was nothing compared to what was just over the horizon.
PART 1 - Gathering the Troops
The Big Muddy Ranch spanned two counties in Oregon, but nearly everything the Rajneeshees had built — including the city of Rajneeshpuram — was in Wasco County. On the small part of their ranch that was incorporated, the Rajneeshees had fairly free reign to build what they wanted under their own building codes. The downside, though, was that the city land had to be open to the public, like in any other city. People had to be allowed to drive around freely on the public streets, and enter city buildings. Given all the Rajneeshees’ security concerns, and their need for privacy, this created many problems.
So they continued developing on ranch property beyond the city limits. But any construction outside Rajneeshpuram was under county jursidiction. This opened the door for meddling local bureaucrats, and surprise inspections, and denials on their new construction. When the Rajneeshees tried to expand the size of their city in 1984 by annexing additional ranch land, the Wasco County Commission blocked it. And if that weren’t enough, the commission also voted that year to exclude Rajneeshpuram from the county’s comprehensive plan — essentially pretending that it didn’t exist.
There was a glimmer of hope on the horizon. In November 1984, two of the three seats on the Wasco County Commission would be up for grabs. If the Rajneeshees could snag those seats with their own candidates, their local problems could vanish overnight. They just needed to figure out how to win a county election.
This simple premise sets us on a course for one of the strangest and most outrageous periods in the entire history of the Rajneeshees.
So how does a minority group manipulate the results of a county election? Unless you’re tampering with the ballots themselves, the answer lies in some simple electoral math. Increase votes among your allies, and decrease votes among your opponents. The Rajneeshees estimated that they would need about 5 to 6,000 votes to win a typical Wasco County election. But there were only about 2,000 sannyasins living at the ranch by mid-1984 — not all of whom could vote. If they had any hope of winning, the Rajneeshees would need thousands more voters.
In today’s episode we’ll be talking about how the Rajneeshees tried to drastically increase their voting population in 1984 — and the chaos it created across Oregon. In the next episode, we’ll tackle the very troubling tactics they used to reduce the non-Rajneeshee voting population. As a teaser, let’s just say that you wouldn’t want to eat at a Wasco County salad bar in the months leading up to the election.
Multiple sources inside the ranch report that the directive to take over Wasco County came from Bhagwan himself, in the spring of 1984. He left it to Sheela and her lieutenants to figure out how to make it happen. A quick look at the state election laws showed them that — for once — they were actually fortunate to be living in Oregon, since it had a very permissive voter registration standard. If you registered to vote at least 20 days before the election, and had spent at least one night locally, with an intention to stay — you could vote. Given this relaxed standard, the challenge facing the Rajneeshees was getting thousands of potential voters to the ranch by October, so they could register in time for the November election.
Perhaps the most innocuous solution they came up with was called “The Buddhafield Experience.”
In May 1984, large advertisements began appearing in the weekly Rajneesh Times newspaper, which was distributed to sannyasins around the world. For just $250 a month, sannyasins were invited to live at the commune for three months, from September 10 to December 5 — comfortably falling over the November election. And the only requirements to participate were that you be an American, and that you be 18 years or older. In other words: eligible voters.
But not enough people took them up on this offer, at least not at first. So they found ways to coerce disciples. Sheela reportedly started closing some American Rajneesh Meditation Centers, in an effort to persuade the sannyasins there to move to the ranch. In August 1984, every single American sannyasin living off the ranch received a call imploring them to move there. The message was that Bhagwan was finally ready for all of his followers to live together at the ranch. The time is now. It’s important that you come immediately. It’s what Bhagwan wants.
And the recruitment efforts didn’t stop with sannyasins. A July 1984 press release served as an “open invitation to all Americans” to participate in the Buddhafield Experience. Anybody who had spent any time at the ranch was contacted and asked if they wanted to live there from September to December. Apparently, the thought was they could persaude non-Rajneeshees who were sympathetic to their cause to vote in the election. Lewis Carter was a sociology professor at the University of Washington who had visited the ranch with his graduate students. He received a call in late August asking if he wanted to participate in a “visiting scholars program” for those three months. He declined, but said he might be able to come in December. That would be impossible, he was told.
Despite all these efforts to lure people to the ranch, the Buddhafield Experience was considered a failure. It attracted perhaps 1500 new residents — not even close to enough to tip the county election in their favor. As one sannyasin put it, “We opened up the ranch to all in the United States, and nobody came.”
Throughout the summer, Sheela’s brainstorming sessions with her lieutenants became more urgent. No idea to swing the election was too crazy. According to Shanti Bhadra, a firm Australian sannyasin in the inner circle, Sheela was under intense pressure from Bhagwan to win the county election. He was so certain that Sheela would deliver him a victory that he dictated speeches for the sannyasin write-in candidates to deliver when they won. Shanti Bhadra says the pressure from her Master made Sheela manic. She was so anxious that she couldn’t sleep without medication. She started calling daily meetings with the ranch coordinators to insist on immediate solutions to the election problem.
It was around this time that one of Sheela’s top lieutenants, Mayor Krishna Deva, had a wild idea.
Now, they had come up with a lot of wacky ideas over the summer, none of which had panned out. They considered having ranch residents buy homes elsewhere in the county under assumed names, so they could vote multiple times. They discussed manipulating the absentee ballot system so they could gain extra votes. They tried to encourage non-sannyasins to run for office, which would dilute the voting numbers for any candidate other than the one preferred by the Rajneeshees. But the idea that Mayor Krishna Deva proposed in August 1984 was the boldest of them all.
There were people living in urban areas all over the country. People who might welcome a free bus trip to Oregon, free housing, free meals, free healthcare. In exchange, all they’d have to do… is register to vote. What about… bringing in the homeless?
Sheela latched on to the idea immediately. She had KD call social service agencies around the country to determine how many homeless people they served. Once they were satisfied that there were enough potential recruits, the plan was a go.
Starting in the first week of September 1984, the ranch sent buses to virtually every major city in the United States. They would pull up to homeless shelters, religious missions, unemployment offices and deploy teams of friendly sannyasins. The pitch was simple: a free trip to Oregon, free meals, free housing, you don’t have to work, you can stay as long as you want, and we’ll give you a free bus ticket home if you ever want to leave. They called it the “Share-a-Home Program.”
The pitch worked. They recruited an estimated 4,000 participants to move to the ranch in September and October. Before they were allowed to hop on the bus, an applicant would be asked to fill out some paperwork about their citizenship, their age, whether they were wanted criminals, whether they had any communicable diseases. And they were asked, are you willing to live in a drug-free, violence-free, crime-free commune? If they passed those tests, they were on their way to Rajneeshpuram.
Arrival must have been a very disorienting experience. Buses were unloaded in a fenced-in pen at the ranch, where the “street people,” as they were called, were asked to empty their pockets and allow Rajneeshees to search their bodies and their belongings. Any drugs, weapons, meat, and matches had to be surrendered. After that, the new recruits were photographed, given a white wristband, and issued some coupons for beer and cigarettes.
Then they’d be pointed to a shower facility and handed brand-new red and orange clothing. The Rajneeshees told them to throw their old clothes in a trash bag, and to apply medicines to their under-arms and their genitalia. Soon after arriving they’d be sent to a large orientation session with all the other newcomers.
And that’s where the indoctrination began. A Rajneeshee leader — typically Mayor Krishna Deva, who’d come up with this whole insane idea — would stand before a microphone and rail at outside forces who were hostile to the homeless population. He’d name check the governor, and state senators, and federal politicians, and set them up as the enemies. He might mention veterans in particular, of which there were many amidst the homeless population, and tell them that they deserved more from their country.
In the midst of this rallying call, KD would mention something about an uncoming election, and that maybe it was time to send a message to all these politicians. Voter registration tables were omnipresent — always there at large gatherings, always there at the cafeteria during meals — always available to sign up new voters.
The influx of Share-a-Home participants in September and October nearly tripled the ranch population. The new arrivals were housed in tents and A-frame houses in a remote part of the ranch that had been cleared out before they arrived, called Walt Whitman Grove. A new cafeteria was built there just for them. And for the first couple weeks, they were pretty much stuck at Walt Whitman. One sannyasin described it as an “open air prison.”
Even when the Share-a-Home participants were eventually allowed to go to other parts of the ranch, certain areas were still off-limits, like where the sannyasins lived and the main cafeteria. They were often followed by armed sannyasin guards. Their homes and their personal belongings could be searched at any time.
According to former sannyasins who worked with the Share-a-Home participants — most of the homeless who moved to the ranch had severe medical and mental health issues. One Share-a-Home Program coordinator later told the FBI that more than 75% of the participants reported having a history of epilepsy, mental disorders, and/or being institutionalized. Many arrived addicted to drugs or alcohol, or had serious health issues that the ranch’s medical staff just weren’t equipped to deal with.
While some sannyasins embraced the program and volunteered to help, others were less enthusiastic. Up to that point, most sannyasins living at the ranch were white, middle to upper-middle class, and well-educated. They had chosen to live in a utopian commune with people just like them. And now they claimed that Share-a-Home participants changed the entire atmosphere at the ranch. They were allegedly propositioning sannyasins on the streets of Rajneeshpuram, creating homemade weapons, getting into violent altercations, and stealing food, clothes, and personal belongings. Sheela reportedly closed down the ranch nightclub beause some sannyasin women felt threatened there. She would lay guilt trips on the Share-a-Home participants at large public meetings, reminding them that she had offered them “everything.” Now she was ashamed to walk down the streets of her own city, which for the first time had litter, and people loitering, and public drunkenness.
One Share-a-Home participant was found in Bhagwan’s bedroom at his high-security compound. The man was whisked away, interrogated, and then banished from the ranch. Another day, a participant became enraged and demanded to see Sheela. When she arrived to calm him down, he grabbed her by the neck and choked her while screaming in her face. Sheela’s nurse, a woman that we’ll meet in the next episode named Puja, jabbed a needle in the man’s arm with something to calm him down, and probably saved her boss’s life.
All this chaos was not going to fly at Sheela’s commune. She would not let thousands of homeless people disrupt her Master’s paradise, no matter how much she needed to win the election. By the end of September, just weeks after the program started, there were multiple buses leaving the ranch each day carrying Share-a-Home participants anywhere but Rajneeshpuram.
Many left by their own request. The ranch just wasn’t what had been promised, the conditions were too harsh, they were uncomfortable with the Rajneeshees and their strange Master. But others were removed from the ranch, whether they liked it or not. Sheela would prowl the Share-a-Home cafeteria each morning, pointing at street people and telling them they were out.
Maybe they broke the ranch rules by fighting, eating meat, doing drugs, possessing contraband. But another reason people might get evicted had to do with voting. Those who refused to register to vote were often flagged as “negative” and forced to leave.
Some who left were more than eager to tell journalists exactly what their experience at the ranch had been like:
[Source Audio: Various Share-a-Home Participants Interviews]
“All they’re doing is they’re worshipping satan.”
“They ought to be paying me. They wanted me to work for nothing.”
“They don’t have no TV, no newspaper, no nothing. People are supposed to carry no money. It’s just a concentration camp.”
“They almost had me. They almost had me convinced with their subtle love, their subtle gifts. You come back to your bed and you get all these brand new clothes, you know, laying on your bed, these gifts. If you’re bummed out about something they all hug you and give you all these loves and hugs, but it’s all phony. It’s phony. You know?”
For those who did follow the rules, who stayed positive, who stayed peaceful, who registered to vote - they did get to enjoy some of the bounty that Rajneeshpuram had to offer. Some even took sannyas. Here’s another participant talking about his experience:
[Source Audio: Govin Anarog Interview] “My name used to be Andre. My name’s Govin Anarog now. Sannyasin, got a mala. See? . . . Everybody’s so mellow. Because when we first got on that bus, it was like pandemonium. You had drunks, you had drug fiends, everybody was talking about what they were gonna get when they get here. What they expect. You know, like give this to me, I’m here. I got on the bus which is good enough. I’m not gonna work I’m just gonna sleep and be lazy. And they just changed so much, you know. It’s incredible.”
“Yeah, they changed. I don’t know, it’s like somebody just cracked their shell and out came the real person that was on the inside. The one that just wanted to go around and hug everybody and kiss and dance and celebrate, you know. That’s the person that came out. The happier person.”
This new charitable program gained national media attention as soon as it began. Here’s Sheela describing it to a skeptical press:
[Source Audio: Ma Anand Sheela Interview] “The project was created to provide an environment to unfortunate people where they could come and change their habits, remain here, enjoy themselves, and don’t get into the pressure that exists in the outside world. Therefore, become victims of circumstances. I would say anybody who even made an effort to come and see this place, the seed has been planted in their soul that you too can live a life of individuals who are crime-free, drug-free, violence-free. And I think we have been successful hundred percent.”
The problem with this charitable cover story was that it flew in the face of everything the Rajneeshees stood for. Remember how Bhagwan accused Mahatma Gandhi of being a “poverty worshipper”? Poor people were of no interest to Bhagwan. The path to enlightenment was open only to those who had the resources and mental clarity to pursue it. The poor just had too many worldly problems to focus on their spirituality.
It wasn’t difficult for reporters and politicians to get their hands on Bhagwan’s many prior statements — all published in his books — ridiculing the poor and charity. And Rajneeshees didn’t have a great response when they were called out on this. Even within the ranch, many sannyasins were shocked and then perplexed when Sheela had first announced this new program at a mass gathering. She reportedly told them, We had some money left over from the summer festival, so we decided to share it with people who don’t have anything. One sannyasin was overheard grumbling, “Since when has Sheela become a humanitarian?”
People in Oregon were skeptical as well, and it didn’t take them long to glean the real purpose for the Share-a-Home Program:
[Source Audio: Bill Hulse Interview] “The influx of people out there, I can see no reason other than their desire to take over Wasco County.”
That is Bill Hulse, one of the three Wasco County Commissioners. It became abundantly clear to people like Hulse, and to state law enforcement, and to many in the news media, that the Share-a-Home Program was all about the November election.
The Rajneeshees pretended to be stunned by this suggestion. Here’s Mayor Krishna Deva, and then Sheela:
[Source Audio: Krishna Deva Interview] “I never thought of it.”
“Does it sound like a good idea?”
“It sounds like a hell of an idea.”
[Source Audio: Ma Anand Sheela Statements] “I didn’t even have a thought occur to me that they could vote or anything to do with voting. I have no interest in any elections, and I’m not interested in the county either.”
But as the weeks marched on toward November, the Rajneeshee leaders started batting the idea back at journalists who asked. You know what, this idea about taking over Wasco County… maybe it’s not such a bad idea. Here’s KD and Sheela again:
[Source Audio: Krishna Deva Interview] “If it’s necessary for our peace, for our safety, for our survival to take over the county government of this county, then of course we’ll do it.”
[Source Audio: Ma Anand Sheela Statements] “I got accused of it that because I invited you that was because I wanted to take over the county and the politics. I tell you, the county is so f-ing bigoted, it deserves to be taken over. [Applause]”
So, when you import thousands of vulnerable people to your powder keg of a ranch in eastern Oregon, what could possibly go wrong?
The answer, after the break.
PART 2 - The Response
Many people in Wasco County saw the Share-a-Home buses pouring in and worried about the election. But the law enforcement community had a very different concern.
Remember, the Rajneeshees had been building up an arsenal at the ranch for the past two years. Sheela made it very publicly known that they were training sannyasins how to shoot and they wouldn’t hesitate to protect themselves. So when all these thousands of homeless people — many of whom were Vietnam veterans — flooded into the ranch, state and federal law enforcement agents began reaching out to each other to discuss the potential for violence.
They needed to figure out what the Rajneeshees were really up to. Right after the program began, the Oregon State Police and the governor’s office set up a meeting with a man who they hoped could give them answers.
Mathis was a federal mediator for the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service. You may never have heard of CRS. They style themselves as the “peacemakers” at the DOJ. They don’t investigate crimes. They don’t prosecute. Their sole purpose is to defuse potentially violent situations, particularly tensions with minority communities.
Mathis had been assigned to the Rajneeshee case for more than two years by the time the Share-a-Home Program began. His contact was Mayor Krishna Deva, and they talked regularly over the years by phone and in person. Mathis didn’t know this, but Sheela had given KD a specific instruction: build a relationship with this federal mediator and use him to learn information. What is the government saying about us? What do they plan to do? Is there any talk of subpoenas? Raids? Grand juries? Criminal indictments?
KD was good at carrying out Sheela’s directions. Mathis was supposed to be neutral, but he later admitted that he got too close to the Rajneeshees and gave them confidential information that he probably shouldn’t have. What happened in late September 1984 is a perfect example.
On September 26, nearly every unit of government that had any interest in the Rajneeshees held a clandestine meeting at the office of the Oregon Attorney General. The purpose was to coordinate a response to potential violence at the Big Muddy Ranch. The governor’s chief of staff was there. The Oregon Secretary of State was there. The Attorney General too, along with the Oregon State Police commissioner. And virtually every arm of federal law enforcement attended the meeting as well. The US Attorney’s office. The Immigration and Naturalization Service. The Drug Enforcement Agency. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. The IRS. Customs. The FBI.
Although the meeting was supposed to be secret, lo and behold, there were the Rajneeshees the morning of the meeting, standing outside the conference room door at the Attorney General’s office, demanding to be let in. Reporters from The Rajneesh Times newspaper snapped photos of the government officials as they entered the room. Sheela later said they all snuck in “like they were criminals.”
How did the Rajneeshees know that this secret meeting was taking place? Well… here’s a recorded phone call between Mayor Krishna Deva and federal mediator John Mathis from four days before the meeting:
[Source Audio: Krishna Deva and John Mathis Phone Call, September 1984]
KD: Hello. Good morning.
Mathis: How are you?
KD: Cold. It’s cold out here at this payphone.
Mathis: Let me tell you something. They’re after Sheela.
KD: Who’s they?
Mathis: It’s all the way up. Wednesday there’s gonna be a major meeting involving some senators, US Attorney, prosecutors, FBI, INS, ATF. Bob Smith is pushing the meeting. He got in touch with the attorney general. They gonna to go all out.
KD: Bob Smith?
Mathis: Yeah. Bob Smith.
KD: Representative Bob Smith? He’s pushing the meeting? He’s pushing the meeting? He’s the one that caused the meeting?
Mathis: Yes. He’s the one that got in touch with the Attorney General.”
John Mathis tells Krishna Deva that the US Representative for the district that includes Rajneeshpuram had written a letter to the Oregon Attorney General requesting the meeting. And Mathis believed that the purpose of all their coordination was to bring down Sheela.
[Source Audio: Krishna Deva and John Mathis Phone Call, September 1984]
Mathis: All federal law enforcement will be involved. And one of the things they’re concerned about is weapons. Now they can try to find some angle, I’m sure. But that’s where we are. But I was upset when I found out they was gonna try to nail Sheela, see
KD: Mm hmm.
Mathis: That’s the first time that was ever not indicated but told that.
KD: On what possible grounds? What angle?
Mathis: I don’t know. I don’t know.
KD: It’s off the wall.
Mathis: I don’t have any idea.
KD: They just want to shut her up, John.
Mathis: I know that. Well, you and I both know that. But this is the first time it’s at the whole national level all the way to the top is involved. There’s no question about that now.
KD: You have no idea what the details are?
Mathis: Well, the details are seeing how the hell they can sink the Rajneesh. You’ve got both federal, state and everything else involved. You’ve got top federal people, top state people, and everybody else involved.
KD: Okay. Sounds like a pretty neat little conspiracy to me.
Mathis: Oh yeah. It’s put together nicely. So I wanted to let you know. It’s a terse situation. You take care now.
Now it’s often said that the Rajneeshees were irrationally paranoid about the government. The Rajneesh Times newspaper was filled with articles that seem like conspiracy theories, where everybody in the government at all levels is out to get them, in some coordinated effort.
But can you really call it paranoia when KD gets a call like this from a federal mediator? When he learns that virtually every arm of law enforcement is meeting in secret to share information and come up with a plan to deal with them? And when the mediator says it’s all to bring down the commune’s leader?
If the Rajneeshees seemed paranoid before, you can only imagine the effect this meeting had on the commune leaders. To make matters worse, they didn’t really know what was discussed. They were not allowed into the room. KD repeatedly encouraged Mathis to attend the meeting. His reasons were obvious — he wanted to know what they said. But Mathis did not attend the law enforcement meeting.
KD might not have known what they discussed there, but we do. A memorandum in the files of the Governor of Oregon summarizes the meeting. They covered everything related to the Rajneeshees: land-use issues, immigration issues, tax issues, potential criminal issues. The Secretary of State talked about the upcoming election in Wasco County, and what it would take for the Rajneeshees to win.
But a theme that carries through the memorandum, is the concern for violence at the ranch. The Oregon State Military reported that it was prepared, if and when the governor declared a state of emergency. It had 10,000 troops available if needed. The Oregon State Police had positioned 60 officers in the area around the ranch, who could respond immediately.
And then the state police commissioner dropped a piece of news that didn’t seem to take on a lot of significance at the meeting. Maybe because it was so new. Maybe because law enforcement didn’t yet understand what an explosive issue it would become in just a matter of days.
The day before the law enforcement meeting, the Rajneeshees had made a major revision to the Share-a-Home Program. For any new arrivals, they would no longer provide return bus tickets if they left the ranch. Instead, the Rajneeshees would drive them by the busload to various towns in Oregon and just dump them there, without anything. If they wanted to get back to Los Angeles or New York or wherever they came from, they were their own. For many of the participants, who had no money and no real ability to make money, that could leave them essentially stranded in Oregon forever.
This new policy provoked outrage around Oregon, especially in the small towns that were now host to hundreds of vulnerable people, and that had limited resources to help them. Oregonians, and people from around the country, held protests against the Rajneeshees and this new policy. Here’s a man who called himself a Guardian Angel, protesting outside the Hotel Rajneesh in Portland:
[Source Audio: Guardian Angel Interview] “We’re here to pay back the dividends that we’ve received from all the homeless transients and residents of the Northwest. We feel that they are being unduly put upon, and the Rajneesh for whatever tortured reasons are beginning to take it out on not just the homeless people who can’t speak for themselves, but actually the good citizens of the northwest.”
The pressure wasn’t just being applied to the Rajneeshees. People were demanding that the government take action. Amidst all this fury, the Rajneeshees suddenly got a meeting they had been seeking for years.
Geraldine or “Gerry” Thompson was the first female chief of staff to the governor in Oregon’s history. She was a long-time aide to Governor Vic Atiyeh, who elevated her to this role and assigned her to be the point-person for all things Rajneeshee. As anger raged over the Share-a-Home Program, Thompson asked to meet with Sheela and KD at night at a state office building in Portland. She brought the head of the Oregon State Police with her. He discretely positioned officers around the building — just in case.
The fact that they were suddenly sitting across the table from the governor’s top aide was not lost of Sheela. It was clear that distributing homeless people across the state was giving the Rajneeshees a bargaining chip. She would use the participants as leverage to extract what she wanted from the government. At least, she was gonna try.
As you might imagine, the meeting did not go well. The Rajneeshees recorded the conversation, and I found a transcript in some library archives. After listing all their past grievances with Governor Atiyeh, Sheela finally asked Gerry Thompson, “So what is the governor going to do for us?”
Thompson was clearly taken aback by the question. She explained that the governor wouldn’t be doing anything until the Rajneeshees stopped dropping homeless people in Oregon. Take them back to where they came from. That would be a show of good faith, and would move the Rajneeshees in the right direction to getting some help from the governor.
The rest of the 100-page transcript from the meeting is largely Sheela fuming that the governor would presume to demand anything of the Rajneeshees, given all the persecution they had experienced. Thompson pressed Sheela on why they were no longer giving return tickets. Sheela’s responded that now that the program was so well-publicized in the national news, they didn’t need to promise return tickets anymore. People were coming even without them. Why should the commune incur that expense?
But according to sources within the ranch, there were far more practical reasons that they stopped purchasing return bus tickets for the Share-a-Home participants. Perhaps the main reason they stopped buying return tickets is that so many more people had left than they expected. It seems that Sheela and others who put together the program really thought that they could lift an at-risk community from urban areas and plop them in the middle of the desert, with nothing to do, and that they’d be grateful for it. But the participants were leaving in droves — either because they wanted to, or because they were so unmanageable that Sheela had kicked them out. By the time of Sheela and KD’s meeting with Gerry Thompson, about three weeks after the program started, an estimated 600 Share-a-Home Participants had already left the ranch.
And now the Rajneeshees had one more reason to continue dumping people across the state. It was freaking out their opponents in the government. This sudden invitation to meet with the governor’s office only proved it. This probably explains why Sheela felt entitled to kick off the meeting by saying, What is the government going to do for me?
The meeting went nowhere. Sheela stood up and walked out while Thompson was mid-sentence. Thompson turned to John Mathis, the federal mediator who was also attending, and said, Until they stop making threats, until they stop trampling on people — what’s the point?
In mid-October, the Rajneeshees told the governor’s office that as a show of good faith, they would stop bringing in new homeless people to the ranch. Of course, if you’re doing the math, and you know that voter registration ends 20 days before the November 6 election… you can see why the Rajneeshees wouldn’t need any more people after mid-October.
And really, by this point, it was clear that the Share-a-Home Program would not win the election anyways. By mid-October the Rajneeshees had ejected nearly a thousand Share-a-Home Participants, about half of whom were dropped in Oregon towns. Around the same time, the Wasco County Election Commissioner announced that she was suspending all new voter registration based on suspicions of fraud. The Rajneeshees would never have the votes to win.
But they were far too resourceful to just give up the program and count it as a loss. As long as they were dropping off homeless people across Oregon, they still had leverage. The governor’s office was still taking their calls. It was time to put their demands on the table and see what they got.
The Rajneeshees asked the governor to personally intervene in all of their major legal battles: Bhagwan’s visa status, the ongoing dispute about the incorporation of Rajneeshpuram, litigation brought by the attorney general that we’ll talk about in later episodes, and they even demanded that the county pave fifteen miles of highway between Antelope and the ranch.
The governor’s position on all of this was No. He didn’t feel that he could — or should — interfere in the legal processes carried out by other branches of government. He also refused as a matter of principle to make a trade based on the fates of the homeless population. His position was that the Rajneeshees had to take care of the homeless themselves, no matter what, and that any deal they made would be unrelated to that.
Gerry Thompson conveyed this to Krishna Deva on behalf of the governor — but she kept the door open for future discussions. She continued chatting with KD on the phone almost every day for the week that followed. KD would then update John Mathis on what exactly he had discussed with the governor’s aide. And Mathis… he had his own opinions on Geraldine Thompson:
[Source Audio: Krishna Deva and John Mathis Call, October 1984]
Mathis: Imma be honest with you now. I don’t trust Geraldine. Geraldine works for the governor.
Mathis: Okay? She knows, I’ve expressed that to her already.
KD: I already told you, I told her that I don’t make a move to meet with her until I have your approval. I told her I didn’t trust them but I did trust you. I just told them straight, we have credibility problems with you. Now I told her, I said it’s fine that the governor’s not into a trade. I said, we’re not into trading either, we’re into survival. And if we’re surviving, then of course certain things from our side are going to change of their own accord, because they’re only happening because of survival.
Whatever progress they thought they were making with the governor’s office came to an abrupt halt a few days later. The Rajneeshees dropped off a large number of Share-a-Home Participants in the Wasco County seat, The Dalles. Gerry Thompson saw this as a breach of faith, a violation of the trust she was trying to build with the Rajneeshees as they worked through this issue. She told KD as much on a terse phone call and then hung up, refusing to take any further calls from him.
KD launched an panicked effort to re-establish communications, calling Thompson at home after midnight to beg her to talk, offering to fly to Salem to see her, promising to be honest about all their activities, blaming Sheela for their rash conduct. According to memos she wrote documenting all their interactions, Thompson responded: “I need my sleep. Don’t bother me with mind games.”
Days later, the Rajneeshees officially put up the white flag in the Wasco County elections. The two sannyasins who were running for county commissioner as write-in candidates announced they were out.
[Source Audio: Sannyasin Write-in Candidates]
“I don’t want to be a part of it, I don’t want to be a part of that kind of government.”
“It’s beneath my dignity to run for office and to vote in this election. And I won’t participate in it. [Applause]”
In fact, Sheela encouraged all Rajneeshees to boycott the elections altogether. In early November, Wasco County was prepared for nearly 2000 people to show up for hearings on voter registration disputes. But not a single Rajneeshee showed up. Same with the Wasco County election on November 6. The Rajneeshees indeed boycotted it. Bill Hulse, one of the county commissioners, pieced it all together for the evening news:
[Source Audio: Bill Hulse Interview] “When things started to deteriorate, they saw that they didn’t have the numbers to do it. No one likes to get defeated, and they kind of backed off.”
Even with the Rajneeshee boycott, the county experienced record voting numbers. More than 92% of registered voters cast ballots — a clear effort to overcome the Rajneeshee threat. But it was really moot by that point — the two open county commissioner seats were now uncontested.
The plan to take over Wasco County, that Bhagwan himself had hatched half-a-year earlier, was a complete failure. Sheela held a press conference where she announced that it had all been a joke:
[Source Audio: Ma Anand Sheela Press Conference] “I have no interest in any elections and I’m not interested in the county either. But unfortunately, you don’t understand my sense of humor.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that on October 30, 1984, one week before the election, Bhagwan made an announcement that stunned people at the ranch and across the state. After more than three years of silence, for the first time since he had arrived in America, Bhagwan was going to speak publicly, once again.
Two smalls codas about the Share-a-Home Program.
First, shortly after the election, the Rajneeshees reported they still had about 2,000 Share-a-Home participants living at the ranch. A month later, it was down to 1,000. And in early 1985, only a handful remained, who had taken sannyas and become integrated with the community.
And the second coda has to do with the relationship between KD and the federal mediator from the Community Relations Service, John Mathis. Mathis worked on the Rajneeshee case from 1982 until the commune fell apart in late 1985. His conversations with KD continued that whole time, with KD asking Mathis for information, requesting that he attend certain government meetings, that he talk to certain people, and that he share what he learned. And sometimes Mathis complied.
Their relationship was front-and-center years later, when two Rajneeshees stood trial in federal court. Both KD and Mathis were called as witnesses, and five recordings of their phone conversations were entered as evidence, including those that you’ve heard today.
Both men described their relationship with a similar sense of regret and shame. During Krishna Deva’s testimony, he was asked about some of the phone calls that took place during the Share-a-Home Program debacle. KD testified: “Clearly at this point, Mr. Mathis seemed willing to give us information, and I am not very proud of the way I feel I manipulated him.” When asked whether he respected John Mathis, KD responded: “I feel he was a very good person who I took advantage of to get information.”
For his part, Mathis told the jury that he felt exploited by the Rajneeshees. By the time he testified, Mathis had learned how much KD and others had lied to him over the years to cover up their criminal activities. How they had used him. He testified that he felt embarrassed that he had shared confidential government information with KD. He knew it was wrong. And he testified about his anger at spending thousands of hours working to resolve the Rajneeshees’ problems, trying to be a friend to them, without knowing what was really going on behind the scenes.
In the next episode, we’ll be addressing the biggest secret that the Rajneeshees sat on in 1984. During the exact same period when KD was having urgent phone calls with John Mathis, and Sheela and KD were taking meetings with the governor’s top aide, the Rajneeshees were cooking up something horrible in a secret laboratory in a trailer just steps away from Sheela’s home.
Building Utopia is researched, written, narrated, and produced by me, Rusty King. If you’re enjoying the series and want to support the show — please write a 5-star review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you’re listening to this.
For more insights on Bhagwan and his followers, including photographs and source documents, check out our website, BuildingUtopiaPodcast.com. For today’s episode, among other things, I’ve posted the emergency martial law declaration that Governor Vic Atiyeh carried in his pocket, along with a memo he wrote describing the tensions of the time.
If you have any questions or comments about the show, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me through the website, or find Building Utopia on Twitter and Instagram.
See you next time.