EPISODE 11 - SOMETHING IN THE WATER
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.
This is a story about a box lunch.
Jack Faust was sitting in his office in Portland in November 1982 when the box lunch arrived from Zorba the Buddha Restaurant. Faust hadn’t ordered it, but he knew who sent it. See, Jack Faust was no stranger to the Rajneeshees. During their first year in Oregon, he twice traveled to Antelope to tape his very popular local TV program, “Town Hall.” [Audio: “Town Hall,” May 1982] The public-affairs show brought together people on all sides of an issue — government officials, experts, regular citizens — for a one-hour, live discussion. Faust served as host and moderator — a job perfectly suited to him because he wasn’t just a broadcaster, but he was also a sharp, seasoned attorney.
Although the second Town Hall taping had gotten heated [Audio: “Town Hall,” May 1982] the Rajneeshees agreed to film a third Town Hall program later that year. But as the taping date approached in November 1982, the Rajneeshees seemed to get cold feet. They contacted the Town Hall producers and didn’t exactly cancel, but they made it clear that — for whatever reason — they were not interested in doing the show. The producers pressed on and said they planned to go forward with the taping.
And that brings us to the box lunch. It arrived one day before Jack Faust was to drive out to Antelope and tape the third program. It came with a note from the Rajneeshees apologizing for their recent efforts to weasel out of the show. As she handed the box to her boss, Jack Faust’s receptionist said, “I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.”
“What are they going to do? Poison me?” And he ate it.
The next morning, a Town Hall producer received a phone call from a Rajneeshee spokesperson, who asked a question that struck her as pretty strange. “How’s Jack today?” Rattled by the question, the producer called Faust at his home, and learned that he was not on the road to Antelope for the taping, but instead was in bed, sick with a 103-degree fever — something he hadn’t experienced since he was five years old. Despite the illness, despite the horrible nausea, he got out of bed, cleaned himself up, and asked his wife to drive him out to Antelope. And he was able to make it through the taping, which was louder, angrier, even stranger than the previous two. [Audio: “Town Hall,” November 1982]
The boxed lunch, Jack Faust’s sudden illness — there was no reason to connect the two, even with the strange phone call from the ranch asking “How’s Jack?” It was only years later that anyone even considered the idea that the Rajneeshees would have poisoned a television host to avoid appearing on his program. As you’ll see, that’s a recurring theme of today’s episode — looking back at unusual events and connecting the dots.
The catalyst was the ranch’s collapse in the fall of 1985, when many of its darkest secrets were finally revealed to the public. Among those secrets… the people of Oregon learned that the Rajneeshees used poison as a way to get what they wanted — to try to win an election, to mollify a rowdy crowd, to avoid unwanted scrutiny.
We still don’t know today whether the Rajneeshees put something in that box lunch. If they did, it might make Jack Faust the very first person in America to be poisoned by the Rajneeshees. Over the next three years, there would be thousands more.
PART 1 - PUJA
To understand this story, to understand how it’s even possible that the Rajneeshees poisoned so many people, you need to know Puja.
Ma Anand Puja was born Diane Ivonne Taylor in the Philippines, but she moved to America while she was still young and graduated from Thousand Oaks High School near Los Angeles. She studied nursing at UC Davis and became a licensed nurse practitioner. She loved traveling, and in the late 1970s she ended up in India, where she settled in at Bhagwan’s ashram and became Puja.
According to various people who were there at the time, Puja just, sort of, appeared and quickly attached herself to an enterprising ashram administrator: Ma Anand Sheela. Puja started tending to her as her personal nurse, insisting that Sheela take daily vitamins to help keep up her health and energy. Sheela apparently relished being doted over like this, and as she gained power and status at the ashram, so did her good friend. Puja became a commanding presence in the ashram’s medical clinic.
Around this time, people started to notice an outbreak of inexplicable medical ailments going around the community. The patients often happened to be people who had fallen out-of-favor with Sheela. According to these former disciples, Sheela would use Puja and her medical degree to isolate them and eventually eject them from the ashram altogether. Satya Bharti is a good example. We’ve met her before — she’s the well-known sannyasin writer who had success in publishing by the time she arrived at the ashram. Satya believes that her success became a threat to Sheela, and they often butted heads around the ashram. One day, Puja walked up to Satya and told her that she must report to the ashram medical center for a long-term stay. Satya was baffled. She’d slipped a disc in her neck and was wearing a cervical collar, but otherwise she felt fine. But Puja said Bhagwan had ordered it, so Satya did what she was expected to do: she surrendered.
At the clinic, medical staff pumped Satya with a cocktail of valium, morphine, and quaaludes. She dropped down to 79 pounds and lost her ability to walk or eat. Sheela ultimately sent her back to America, given her serious medical problems. There, doctors said her only problem was her addiction to the drugs they had been feeding her at the ashram clinic. As soon as she was weaned off them, she went back to normal.
Satya Bharti came to believe that Sheela had used Puja to neutralize her power at the ashram — giving her some phony diagnosis, locking her in a medical ward, and pumping her with drugs. This may strike you as sounding a bit paranoid, but this story repeats itself again and again, including at Rajneeshpuram.
Puja certainly proved her loyalty to Sheela while they were in India, and she was there for some of her most intimate moments — including the death of Sheela’s husband, Chinmaya, who you’ll recall was dying of Hodgkin’s Disease. One year after Chinmaya’s death, it was time to move Bhagwan to America — and there was no way that Sheela was going to leave behind her closest confidante. Puja was one of the very select disciples who flew with Bhagwan and Sheela on the Boeing 747 to New York in June 1981.
Once they got to Oregon, Sheela made Puja the director of the Rajneesh Medical Center, or RMC. At the peak of the ranch’s development, the RMC consisted of two clinics that provided basic medical services, diagnostic lab facilities, and round-the-clock care. There were a handful of licensed, Rajneeshee physicians who practiced there and at community clinics in nearby towns, as well as nurses, a chiropractor, and acupuncturists. As the head of the RMC, Puja was effectively in charge of the health and well-being of everybody on the ranch, which eventually numbered in the thousands.
But Puja did not prove to be a very capable administrator. People who worked with her said that she scared them, and the RMC was described as “a very serious and unhappy place to work.” She reportedly ran the clinic like a tyrant, and she would force the doctors to accept her decisions without question — even when it came to medical diagnoses. She put herself in charge of ordering pharmaceuticals for the ranch, and she didn’t suffer questions about what she ordered and why.
Despite her new title and authority, Puja remained extremely close to Sheela — living in her house, often working out of Sheela’s bedroom, which was the de facto power center for the entire commune. Sheela would hold court from her bed, requiring people with business to stand there and address her — and Puja. One disciple described Puja as Sheela’s clone and her shadow — they dressed alike, wore the same haircut. There was even a rumor going around the ranch that they were lovers.
Although she had more power than nearly anyone, Puja kept a fairly low profile and wasn’t known for being as loud and aggressive as some of the other commune leaders. Various disciples have described her as staring at them with a “crocodile smile.” I wish I could play some audio of Puja talking so we get a sense of what she was like, but I can barely find any pictures of her, much less video or audio of her speaking. One sannyasin later wrote: “It’s easy to forget Puja. She’s a quiet lady, she is sort of always there… She was always a background figure.”
That said, she must have had a bit of a flair for the dramatic. When a reporter from the New Yorker magazine visited the ranch in 1985, Puja appeared wearing a sequined cocktail dress. It was the middle of the afternoon.
So that’s Puja. Now let’s talk about poisoning. We can divide it into suspected and known poisonings. Under the suspected column, let’s put Jack Faust and his box lunch in November 1982. There was another suspected poisoning a few months later. The victim was this man. [Audio: “Town Hall,” May 1982]
That’s Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Sullivan. You may recall that the Big Muddy Ranch spanned two counties in Oregon: Wasco and Jefferson. The city of Antelope, and nearly everything the Rajneeshees built on their ranch, was within Wasco County — so most of the Rajneeshees’ local conflicts were there. This allowed Mike Sullivan, as the Jefferson County DA, to act as more of a neutral peacemaker. In the summer of ’82, he negotiated a settlement between the people of Antelope and the Rajneeshees, although it became hotly contested in the months to come.
Commune leaders developed a personal relationship with Mike Sullivan. They would visit him at his office, but also at his home, where they brought food to share with him and his family, and where they gathered to watch the television — something most Rajneeshees didn’t have access to back on the ranch. Regular visitors to the DA’s home included Sheela, her husband Jay, the commune president Vidya, the commune spokesperson Isabel, Mayor Krishna Deva, and… a quiet nurse named Puja.
Although the Rajneeshees seemed to like Mike Sullivan, things started to get tense in Jefferson County in early 1983. Remember that Bhagwan took daily drives in one of his many Rolls Royces on the country roads around the ranch. His preferred path took him straight to Madras — the Jefferson County seat — where he would turn around at a filling station before heading home. The station became ground zero for locals and outsiders who wanted to protest Bhagwan right to his face. His convoy security detail was visibly armed, the protestors were sometimes armed, and people worried that it would soon turn violent. Mike Sullivan, as the district attorney, tried to de-escalate this very tense situation, which really rattled the Rajneeshees who were concerned about their master’s safety above all else.
It was in the midst of this conflict in Madras that something inexplicable happened to Mike Sullivan.
Maybe it was something he ate. When the Rajneeshees would visit the DA’s house, they would sometimes bring lasagna from the ranch, or baked goods. On February 14, 1983, they brought a tray of frosted, heart-shaped cookies for Valentine’s Day. Sullivan’s wife, and his two young children, ate them.
They’re not the ones who were having seizures two days later.
Maybe it was something he drank? Sullivan was known for his open door policy at work, where people could walk in and out of his office at any time, whether he was there or not. He was also known for leaving his coffee cup all over the building, unattended, and wandering around to find it later.
Whatever it was — on February 16, while at work, Mike Sullivan started to feel drowsy and lethargic. He went home for lunch and took a nap — something he never did. By dinnertime he was too weak to sit at the table. He was up all night with vomiting and diarrhea, and in the morning he started shaking so violently that he kept falling out of bed. Finally, he gave up and just stayed on the floor, trembling. His skin was like leather and his fingertips and lips turned blue. Sullivan’s family doctor stopped by to check on him, and he immediately called an ambulance.
At the hospital, none of the doctors could diagnose what was wrong with Mike Sullivan. They asked him and his wife questions like, “Might he have tried to kill himself?” “Did he drink turpentine?” His condition was so dire that his family physician gave him a 1% chance of surviving.
One of the first doctors to examine Mike Sullivan at the hospital was a Rajneeshee physician. Dr. Shunyo had already established a solid reputation in the local medical community, which is why Sullivan’s family doctor called him to consult on the case. Dr. Shunyo was as baffled as anyone when he saw Sullivan’s condition. His best guess was septic shock. Later that day, Dr. Shunyo received a call from Sheela, who somehow knew that Sullivan had fallen ill. She asked Dr. Shunyo if he had considered whether someone had poisoned Sullivan. The doctor hadn’t considered that, and he asked Sheela why she brought it up. “Well, he’s got a lot of enemies,” she responded.
Sheela insisted that Dr. Shunyo provide her with daily updates about Mike Sullivan’s condition. And two days after being admitted to the hospital, while Sullivan was still in a very fragile state, Sheela walked right into his room. He later said it seemed strange to him, because the nurses had been trying to keep people out as much as possible — even doctors. And yet somehow Sheela had talked her way in. She offered to send Rajneeshee nurses to tend to him, both at the hospital and when he eventually got sent home — free of charge. The Sullivan family politely declined.
Mike Sullivan spent more than a week in the hospital, and he went on to make a full recovery. He spent the rest of his career as a circuit court judge, retiring just a couple years ago. While he was still in the hospital, doctors had diagnosed Sullivan with sepsis caused by pneumonia. It was only later, when the Rajneeshees’ widespread poison use came out in the news, that police launched an investigation into Sullivan’s case. They never found enough evidence to charge anyone. But they did send all of Mike Sullivan’s records to the director of the Oregon Poison Center, who was a board-certified toxicologist. Everything he saw indicated that Sullivan had suffered from toxic exposure. He had been poisoned.
Did the Rajneeshees poison Mike Sullivan? Did they poison Jack Faust? Maybe, maybe not. These men had contact with their sannyasin neighbors during tense periods and got sick — it could just be a coincidence. No Rajneeshee has admitted to doing those acts, or helping with them, or witnessing anything to do with them. And especially with Mike Sullivan, it’s sort of a head-scratcher why they would even want to poison a man who they generally considered an ally.
The only reason we’re talking about them is because of what happened over the next two years. The Rajneeshees did use poison to harm and to neutralize their enemies — sometimes on an enormous scale, but sometimes on a very individual basis. Perhaps the most stunning example of this latter category came one year after the Mike Sullivan incident, just months before the Wasco County election of 1984. The ranch received an official inspection visit from the three Wasco County Commissioners. Remember — these are the people that Bhagwan and Sheela saw as their primary antagonists in the region, the people who they were actively working to unseat in the upcoming November election.
In particular, Sheela really loathed commissioners Bill Hulse and Ray Mathews. She saw the third commissioner, Vergil Ellet, as more of a friend. He’s the only one who escaped Rajneeshpuram unscathed on August 29, 1984.
Puja had a very young, very loyal assistant in the medical center named Ava. She was generally willing to do whatever she was told by Puja, by Sheela, by other ranch leaders — without asking too many questions. That’s why Ava became involved in most of the very worst plots that came out of Rajneeshpuram over the next year.
On that August morning, Sheela and Puja summoned Ava into Sheela’s bedroom. They told her that the county commissioners were coming for an inspection, but Sheela wanted them to go away. She didn’t want the scrutiny by these men who she saw as enemies. On previous visits, the commissioners had stopped for lunch at the Zorba the Buddha Cafe in the nearby town of Antelope before driving out the ranch. Go to the cafe, Sheela told Ava, and try to slip something into their food. Puja handed her a vial with a murky brownish liquid in it, but didn’t say what it was.
Ava had great luck at the cafe. Hulse was there at a table with the other two commissioners, and as soon as she walked behind the counter, Hulse asked her for a glass of water. She filled a glass and then added a few drops of the brownish liquid, but the water became dark and she was worried it would be obvious that she had tampered with it. So she dumped some of it out and added more water to dilute it even more. She watched as Hulse drank it, oblivious to what she had done.
But then the men stood up, walked out to their car, and headed to the ranch. So far, the plan hadn’t worked.
The commissioners left their car at the ranch welcome center, and allowed themselves to be chauffeured around Rajneeshpuram in a van driven by the ranch spokesperson, Ma Prem Isabel. During the inspection, Sheela suddenly pulled up next to them and started chatting with Vergil Ellet — the commissioner she liked. She completely ignored Hulse and Mathews, although she did tell Isabel that she should put the “snakes” in the back of the van, and her friend in front. To Hulse, it was obvious that he and Mathews were the snakes. And if that weren’t already clear, as Sheela drove off she turned around and flipped her middle finger at Hulse.
When they returned to the parking lot, the commissioners found that their car had a flat tire. Isabel offered to have the ranch’s garage repair it, and they accepted. While they waited outside, a small figure emerged from the welcome center carrying a tray with three styrofoam cups. She said she worked at the ranch’s medical center, and she wanted them to stay hydrated while they stood in the sun. She individually handed each commissioner a cup of water, and then she disappeared. The men didn’t know Puja.
About twelve hours later, Commissioner Bill Hulse came down with a violent stomach illness. His wife finally forced him to go to the hospital, where doctors told Hulse that he had lost so much fluid that he would have died if he hadn’t come in. They couldn’t diagnose what exactly was wrong with him, but they found toxic poison in his kidneys. Commissioner Ray Mathews also became violently ill, although he recovered without going to the hospital. As for Sheela’s friend, Commissioner Vergil Ellet? He was fine.
It’s another strange medical case that would have just passed by — if it weren’t for the fallout that happened in September 1985, when the ranch was collapsing, when disciples were sharing all their shameful secrets with government investigators. Multiple witnesses testified under oath about their involvement in the efforts to poison Commissioners Bill Hulse and Ray Mathews. The person at the center of it all was Sheela’s nurse and good friend, Ma Anand Puja.
Among the crimes for which Sheela and Puja ultimately pled guilty was the poisoning of these two government officials. The knowledge that Rajneeshees had been willing to poison Wasco County Commissioners just to get them out of their hair certainly caused others to reflect on their own illnesses. People like Jack Faust, and his mysterious boxed lunch. People like Mike Sullivan and his near-death experience because of toxic exposure.
But these individual poisonings paled in comparison to much grander schemes that were later revealed. After the break, we’ll see the breathtaking scope of Sheela’s ambitions, as well as Puja’s ability to make those dark dreams come true.
PART 2 - THE CHINESE LAUNDRY
A small white slat building had been on the Big Muddy Ranch since long before the first Rajneeshee ever set foot in Oregon. Sheela situated her home right next to the little building, which they called the Chinese Laundry. In the commune’s earliest days, they used it as a schoolhouse. But then Sheela moved the kids elsewhere, put a combination lock on the door, and gave control of it to her closest ally, Puja.
Puja quietly filled the Chinese Laundry with things like rat cages, petri dishes, a freeze dryer, an incubator. Now remember, the Rajneesh Medical Center had its own diagnostic lab — but it was in the Pythagoras Clinic, a public, well-trafficked area, accessible to any of the Rajneeshee medical staff. The Chinese Laundry became Puja’s private laboratory. Most people at the ranch had no idea it existed. Dr. Shunyo, who worked closely with Puja for years, learned of it only after Puja and Sheela had fled Oregon.
The Chinese Laundry became home to a strange experiment over the summer of 1984, in the months leading up to the big Wasco County election. During that time, Puja told her lab assistant, a disciple named Parambodhi, that she wanted him to culture salmonella in the Chinese Laundry. He responded that this would be dangerous. Salmonella is a bacteria that’s often transmitted through food. It lives in the intestines, and can cause symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, cramps that can go on for as long as 10 days. People who are vulnerable, like infants, the elderly, pregnant women — can have serious complications if they come in contact with salmonella. Parambodhi asked Puja why she needed it — but, as we’ve seen, she wasn’t the type to answer probing questions from her inferiors.
Parambodhi did as he was told. He asked a local laboratory if it would be willing to provide certain samples that the Rajneesh Medical Center could use for quality-control testing — samples like E. Coli, Strep, and.. Salmonella. The lab provided these samples — it wasn’t an unusual request. As Puja had instructed him, Parambodhi brought them to the Chinese Laundry, put the salmonella sample in the incubator, and voila — he had a limitless ability to culture it.
Three months before the Wasco County election, Puja approached Mayor Krishna Deva and handed him a small container with a brownish liquid in it. She told KD to go to the Wasco County Courthouse, enter the downstairs mens bathroom, and smear the liquid on the door and urinal handles. And then he was to wash his hands thoroughly.
Puja didn’t tell KD what was in the bottle, but he could figure it out. After all, he’d been there when Sheela and Puja had first cooked up their plan months earlier. As we discussed in Episode 10, Sheela’s number-one priority in 1984 was winning the Wasco County election for the Rajneeshees. Bhagwan himself had told her she had to get it done. One part of the strategy was to load up their ranch with new, eligible voters — like the thousands of homeless people who came to the ranch through the Share-a-Home Program.
But the second part of the strategy was reducing the number of non-Rajneeshees showing up to the polls. According to KD, Sheela suggested making people sick in the Wasco County seat, a town of about 10,000 called The Dalles. Sheela asked Puja to come up with something that would sicken — but not kill — a large number of people. The phrase they tossed around was “give them the shits.” To get this done, Puja wanted to find a biological agent she could easily manufacture at the ranch, with a predictable incubation period — and something that wouldn’t be unusual for a lab to order. They considered typhus and hepatitis, but ultimately landed on salmonella.
So when Puja handed KD that small bottle of brown liquid a few months later — of course he knew what it was, and that his mission to the courthouse was really a test of the salmonella’s effectiveness. Puja needed to make sure it worked, so it was ready to go when the November election rolled around. And for his part, despite knowing what it was, and what it could do to people who ingested it — KD went to the courthouse and smeared it around the bathroom.
Now, let’s take a second to put this in perspective: KD wasn’t some young, naive disciple, he wasn’t an experienced criminal or a thug — he was a psychologist from Chicago who had run a group home for teenagers before becoming a Rajneeshee. And he was one of the commune’s primary spokespeople, a very public figure, on the news all the time making their case. During the same period that he was spreading salmonella around the courthouse, KD was meeting with top government officials — including the Governor’s chief of staff. And yet when Sheela’s close aide Puja handed him the bottle, even Krishna Deva — the Mayor of Rajneeshpuram — was willing do Sheela’s dirtiest work.
And KD’s role in the experiments didn’t end there. Puja sent him to a restaurant in The Dalles with a large test tube filled with the brown liquid. He did exactly as she told him — approached the salad bar, and poured the liquid into the dressing. KD was also present for a bizarre salmonella spree involving Sheela. One day in August they were all in The Dalles on business — KD, Sheela, Puja, some other disciples — when they stopped by an Albertson’s grocery store. Sheela turned to Puja and said, “Puji, let’s have some fun.” Inside the grocery store — according to KD’s statement to law enforcement — Sheela concealed a vial of salmonella up the sleeve of her red robe and sprinkled it all over the lettuce in the produce section. Puja came up to KD and said she was thinking about injecting salmonella from a syringe directly into milk cartons. KD tried to talk her out of it — because the puncture wounds would be too obvious. When they left the store, KD says Puja was giggling and saying she had a good time.
One problem with all these experiments in August 1984: none of them worked. As far as they could tell, people weren’t getting sick, or at least not in any significant numbers. Perhaps Puja’s salmonella wasn’t strong enough. Maybe she didn’t have the concentration right. Maybe the grocery store spray jets had cleaned the lettuce, or people had washed it after they brought it home. Maybe the salad dressing got tossed out before anyone used it.
Whatever it was — Sheela became ANGRY, and she made it clear to Puja that she had to figure it out, and quick. There was additional frantic experimenting around this time. They continued testing out salmonella at local restaurant salad bars. Puja allegedly did it herself on one occasion, and the disciple who was with her got flustered because Puja barely tried to conceal what she was doing. A cryptic message was passed around the commune — nobody should eat at restaurants outside the ranch. A disciple named Yogini admitted in court that she attended a political rally in The Dalles with salmonella smeared on her palms, shaking hands and touching everybody she could to try to spread it around. She even reportedly went to a retirement home to scout out a way to put it in their food, but she denies that she ever went through with it.
Lucky for Puja — all these efforts finally paid off. There was the Hulse and Mathews poisoning at the ranch in late August 1984, where Puja slipped them something in their water. And then the coup de grace: in September 1984 there were two major salmonella outbreaks in The Dalles. They were traced to people who ate at salad bars at local restaurants. About 750 people were infected, with 45 hospitalized — including a pregnant woman whose baby was born two days after she ate at a restaurant and became sick. The baby was given a 5% chance of living, and doctors saved its life only through specialized, emergency intervention. Health officials blamed the outbreak on poor hygiene among restaurant workers, although some suspected the Rajneeshees were involved.
750 people… that’s nearly 10% of the population of The Dalles. But you know by now that Sheela’s ambitions were huge. She was reportedly happy about the September 1984 outbreaks — she “flaunted the situation,” as KD put it — but she also chided Puja for not making even more people sick. 750 people would not be enough to sway the election. And not everybody ate at local restaurants. Not everybody had the salad bar. If they were to make a big impact on the number of voters, the Rajneeshees needed a way to hit the general population in The Dalles.
As you might expect by now, the Rajneeshees had been working on a Plan B all summer long.
If you had popped open the closet in Mayor Krishna Deva’s bedroom in the summer of 1984, you would have found something quite unusual stashed in there: maps for the water system in The Dalles. Sheela had proposed that they poison the entire water supply. Sheela had asked KD to get the schematics in July or August, but he kept putting it off and she finally dispatched another disciple who did as she was told. KD later saw one of Sheela’s henchmen carrying the blueprints around, and eventually they stored them in KD’s room, which was next to Sheela’s own bedroom in Jesus Grove.
There’s no evidence that the Rajneeshees actually poisoned the water system for The Dalles. No Rajneeshee has ever come forward and admitted to pouring anything into the water supply. But there was lots of planning, and lots of overheard conversations about it.
Around September, KD heard Sheela, Puja, and a couple other sannyasins discuss their visit to The Dalles to inspect the water system. Puja expressed concern that she wouldn’t be able to grow enough salmonella to make people sick. One disciple says that Puja asked a ranch waste-management coordinator for raw sewage, which may have been intended for the water supply. KD says that early on, Puja had suggested putting dead rodents, like beavers, in the water system because they naturally contain bacteria in their bodies. One person joked about putting the beavers in blenders, since the water tanks had metal screens over them and they could just.. pour it in. Another noticed that the rat cages in the Chinese Laundry were suddenly empty in the fall of ’84, and speculated that the rats had been dumped in the water.
When police later investigated this allegation about water poisoning, they found that part of The Dalles water system had been tampered with. A large storage tank, holding 3 million gallons of water, had its vent screen cut and pushed open. There were two sets of shoe prints on top of the tank. But beyond that, investigators found no other signs of tampering. A water department employee told them that there were many safeguards in place that would have neutralized most contaminants — even salmonella — like a purification system and the use of chlorine. If the Rajneeshees had dumped something in the water, it most likely would have been sanitized before reaching the people of The Dalles.
We may never know whether the Rajneeshees tried to poison the Dalles water system in the fall of 1984. I’ll just say that given what we know about how eager Sheela was to sway the November election, and her dissatisfaction with Puja’s efforts to poison food in The Dalles, and all the efforts to acquire information about the Dalles water system… personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had tried.
Even with all the schemes playing out in The Dalles, Puja still had her hands full back at the ranch. Remember, in September 1984 thousands of homeless people started arriving by the busloads as part of the Share a Home program, intended to become registered, pro-Rajneeshee voters by November. But as we’ve discussed, they could be an unruly bunch, which did not fly in Sheela’s tightly-controlled community.
By late September, Puja was stockpiling large quantities of a drug known as Haldol from suppliers across the country. Haldol is an antipsychotic, typically used to treat things like schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome, and hyperactivity. It helps to calm the mind, reducing anxiety and aggressive behaviors.
According to witnesses, Sheela and Puja decided to start putting haldol in the beer that was distributed each night to Share a Home participants. Puja and one of her assistants would inject it from a syringe into an opening at the top of the beer keg, putting one or one-and-a-half bottles of haldol into each keg. Commune members were told not to drink any beer at the cafeteria used by the homeless population, but they weren’t told why.
Only a handful of Rajneeshees knew that this antipsychotic drug was being pumped into the beer supply. If they raised concerns, they were generally told to mind their own business. Puja told one disciple that it was reasonable to put haldol in the beer, since so many of the homeless people were already taking it before arriving at the ranch. She described it as an efficient distribution method.
Within just a couple weeks, the Oregon State Board of Pharmacy opened an investigation into the abnormal amount of haldol that the Rajneeshees had purchased over the past month. The State Board of Medical Examiners opened a similar investigation. When asked for comment, Puja told the Oregonian newspaper, “I find this spread of malicious gossip absolutely unethical.”
According to ranch insiders, after the investigations were launched, Puja stayed up all night creating false medical records to justify the large haldol orders, which were then sent to the investigating agencies. The director of the pharmacy board felt intimidated by a series of threatening letters Puja sent to her that fall. These investigations didn’t really go anywhere, and the mass drugging of the homeless population at Rajneeshpuram — with its unmistakable shades of Jonestown — wouldn’t be revealed for another year.
All these schemes… and to what end?
As we discussed in the last episode, by October it had become obvious that the Rajneeshees wouldn’t have enough people on their side to win the Wasco County election. So they dropped all these mass poisoning efforts — there was no point anymore.
But Puja kept working in the Chinese Laundry. At some point in ’85 she had a crew quietly relocate all her equipment to a locked A-frame house, elsewhere on the ranch. And despite giving up the dream of mass contamination, she put her salmonella experiments to good use over the next year, as enemies swarmed around the ranch and threatened to bring them down with inspections and litigation and public scrutiny. There are plenty of stories to come about tainted cups of tea, phony medical diagnoses, and the use of Puja’s medical skills to harm and to punish.
But as we close out this story of the Wasco County election… I can’t help but imagine what would have happened if the Rajneeshees had thought they had a shot at winning. What if Puja had continued on with her mass poisoning schemes? What new misfortunes would have fallen upon the people of The Dalles in that first week of November 1984? From the accounts of people who were inside the ranch, it doesn’t seem like there was much to limit the dark imaginations of Sheela and her lieutenants — perhaps nothing more than their ability to execute on the most depraved ideas. And Puja proved herself with the September salmonella outbreaks — she was on the path to success. She had cultured a powerful bacteria, and now she knew how to distribute it.
So if Sheela had thought it would make a difference in the election, and had asked Puja in November 1984 to poison all the restaurants in The Dalles, to poison every senior center and school, to spread salmonella around grocery stores and churches and public buildings… what would have stopped her?
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