Episode 9 - Reign of Terror
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.
1983 was a seminal year for the Rajneeshee experiment in America. They had withstood extreme opposition to their presence in Eastern Oregon. They scored some big legal victories, like winning the right to incorporate their city, Rajneeshpuram. They had built the foundations for the new commune on the ranch and had installed a functioning municipal government with its own police force. By 1983, it’s estimated they had more than one thousand sannyasins living at the ranch.
Now Sheela and the other Rajneeshee leaders could finally plan for the commune’s future, without having to function purely in survival mode. To take the commune to the next level, the Rajneeshees adopted a two-prong strategy: one, invite more people onto the ranch so they could see all the fantastic work they were doing out there. And two, expand their presence beyond the ranch by opening Rajneeshee-owned businesses around the world.
But opening themselves up to outsiders made Bhagwan’s followers sitting targets for people who hated them. And there were plenty. Hostilities against the strange red-wearing people and their cult-like guru still ran high, bubbling just under the surface, looking for an outlet to explode. And then, in July 1983 — they did explode.
This sent Bhagwan’s commune on a dark path toward violence.
PART 1 - The Visitors
You can’t just drive into Rajneeshpuram without somebody noticing. The Rajneeshees spotted you from miles away, as your yellow Volkswagen trundled down the county road toward the ranch. There are guard posts along the way — the first obvious signs that this place is hung up on security. Red-clothed guards sit in these little huts, armed with radios and telephones. When investigators later piece together your movements, they learn that a warning had been called ahead to the ranch as soon as a guard spotted your car. Three men approaching. Identities unknown.
The ranch entrance is about nine miles from the closest town, Antelope. There, you pass two marble pillars, engraved with lines from Buddha’s first sermon. I go to the feet of the Awakened One. I go to the feet of the Commune of the Awakened One. I go to the feet of the Ultimate Truth of the Awakened One.
Things get even stranger as you dip into the valley and approach the Rajneesh settlement. The final few miles are lined with electrified fencing. All the side roads are barred with locked gates. As you reach Rajneeshpuram proper, one of the first buildings you see is the Mirdad Welcome Center. It’s a single-story frame building with a pitched roof, brown trim, and a marble fountain near the entrance. There, you meet your first-ever Twinkie. That’s what Rajneeshees call their hostesses. (You figure out the joke later.)
The Twinkie looks you and your companions up and down. Three men -- two white, one black -- in your 20s or 30s, obviously not sannyasins by the clothes you’re wearing. It’s odd for visitors to arrive so late at night. At 7:30 pm, there’s nothing for guests to do at the ranch. No more public tours, no meditation groups, dinner’s been served. You tell her, We called ahead, from Eugene, and said we wanted to take a one-day meditation course.
The Twinkie calls over to the Rajneesh Meditation University. This is a new addition to the ranch as of 1983: a place where visiting sannyasins — and curious civilians — can pay to stay at the ranch and take multi-day spiritual courses. The University staffer says, Yeah, they called earlier. I told them we didn’t have a one-day course… But since they’re here, just send them over.
Now it’s the moment of truth. The security measures begin. You fill out some paperwork identifying who you are and what you’re doing at the ranch. The name you choose is… Stephen Walker. They don’t ask to see IDs. That changes later.
You agree to hand over your car keys, and agree that they can move your car to an undisclosed parking area. You won’t have access to it until it’s time for you to leave.
A Rajneeshpuram police officer — or “peace officer” as they call them — arrives to help the Twinkie search the three of you. He has a dog. You don’t know this at the time, but the dog only knows how to identify illegal drugs. Not other forms of contraband. You and your car pass the test. The officer glances at your luggage, but doesn’t dig into it or anything.
When federal investigators ask him about it a few days later, the peace officer notes how odd it was that you and your friends didn’t have much luggage, since you told him that you drove all the way up from Los Angeles. Just a couple duffel bags.
Once you’ve surrendered your car keys, they put you all in a taxi that takes you the short distance to the university. That’s where you make your sleeping arrangements and register for your courses. They give you a choice between a tent and a room at the on-site hotel. You opt for the tent, at 30 bucks a night per person.
It’s been a long day on the road. Nobody would blame you if you just wanted to go crash in your tent. But that doesn’t happen. You’re up, you and your two friends. Moving around the ranch. Exploring. Until really late at night. You’re seen at 10 pm in the Rajneesh Tea Room drinking coffee. You ask a sannyasin there about this thing you’ve signed up for at 6 am tomorrow morning, called Dynamic Meditation. What is it? What does it accomplish?
An hour later, you’re spotted using the payphones at the ranch. And just before midnight, a peace officer sees you and your friends walking the barren roads that connect the distant buildings from each other. A few minutes later, the same taxi driver who took you to the university pulls alongside you. There’s nothing to do at this hour, he says. Go to bed.
Nobody sees you again that night. Nobody really knows how long you wandered the dusty roads of Rajneeshpuram. Where you went. What you did. Only you, and your two companions.
You’re there at Dynamic Meditation the next morning at the massive Rajneesh Mandir assembly hall, jumping around like a mad man and shouting “HOO HOO HOO.” They tell you that their leader, Bhagwan, invented this form of meditation and that all the physical exertion helps to calm the mind.
Afterward, you and your friends walk all the way back to the meditation university. Sannyasins who notice think it’s bizarre. Most people are exhausted after Dynamic… and they gladly take the free buses that roam the ranch. But you and your friends — you walk, for miles. There’s not much out there by the assembly hall… nothing to see, really. Just the cafeteria… and Bhagwan’s private compound, up in the hills.
When you finally reach the university, you ask to go back to your car. You… forgot something. The staffer makes a big to-do about it. It’s not easy to get to your car — but if you really need to, you have to go back to the welcome center and somebody there should be able to take you. But, the staffer adds, you’ll be accompanied by Rajneesh security.
You don’t go back to your car. At least, not with any sannyasin.
Next you’re spotted on a mid-day bus tour of the ranch. The three of you don’t sit together, for whatever reason, but you chat with other tourists on the bus. One later remembers that you held a brown bag during the tour.
You and one of the men with you takes a horse ride. Something about you puts the sannyasin tour guide on edge. When the investigators ask her about it later, she can’t really describe it, just a feeling. She cuts down the 90 minute tour to one hour — without telling you.
Early that evening, you and your companions and your duffel bags are on a bus back to the Mirdad Welcome Center. You tell the driver that you’ve run out of money and it’s time to get back to L.A. He mentions the Hotel Rajneesh in Portland, where you could spend a night on your way back down south. Yeah, you tell him. We’ll check it out.
At the welcome center you demand your keys. You’re in a hurry and need to get off the ranch fast. And then you and your two friends, and your bags, are off Rajneeshee property.
The members of Bhagwan’s community don’t know it, but the deadly threat you posed to them has passed.
Until later that night.
The three men visiting the ranch in July 1983 were among the many people who visited Rajneeshpuram that year for a tour and spiritual coursework. We’ll return to their story later in this episode. But they’re emblematic of a new approach the Rajneeshees adopted in 1983. They took concrete steps to make themselves more visible, more useful, and more accessible to non-sannyasins in Oregon and around the world.
The main purpose was public relations. The Rajneeshees’ first couple years in America had been rocky, to say the least. The popular image of Bhagwan’s followers, at least in Oregon, was an isolated cult with radical and dangerous beliefs. Many Oregonians were suspicious of their motives and angry at their aggressive and deceptive tactics. If Sheela wanted to turn that image around, she’d be wise to use their best marketing tool: the commune itself. Their accomplishments out in the desert really were something to behold. Building a community for more than 1,000 people from scratch, by themselves, in two years is no small feat. You can see why they’d want people to experience it.
Not only did they invite long-term visitors to stay at the ranch, but they extended themselves right into the community by opening hotels, restaurants, discos, and bakeries. This helped to spread Bhagwan’s message and put a positive face on the Rajneeshees — and it also brought in money. It was… a spiritual matter. Bhagwan taught his disciples that capitalism was good. Greed was good. Why not make money while showing off our superior farming methods, our delicious baked goods, our impeccable hospitality.
1983 was all about mass-marketing Rajneeshism.
The commercial expansion really started close to home, in Antelope, where eight months after arriving, the Rajneeshees bought the only cafe in town and renamed it Zorba the Buddha Restaurant. This name is worth some explanation, since they slapped it on most of their outside businesses. It’s adopted from a regular theme in Bhagwan’s lectures. He wanted his followers to have the spirituality of Buddha, and the joy of Zorba the Greek — combined in one. The “new man” he was creating out in the desert, this spiritually-advanced being — that man was to be a Zorba the Buddha.
So Zorba the Buddha Cafe opened in Antelope, serving vegetarian food to people passing through town — and adventurous locals. Inside you’d find little handmade wooden tables, shelves of herbal teas and organic preserves, and lots of pictures of Bhagwan. You could order an avocado and sprout sandwich while thumbing through one of the many spiritual books there.
The next business the Rajneeshees opened outside their immediate area was a bakery in Portland — a four-hour drive from the ranch. This was an outgrowth from the First Annual World Celebration at the commune in July 1982. They hosted thousands of sannyasins at the festival, and the on-site bakery had cranked out breads, cakes, cookies, and other pastries. The baked goods were considered high-enough quality to sell outside the ranch for a profit. The Portland bakery was open seven days a week, selling goods delivered from the ranch kitchens each morning. Soon, other Rajneeshee bakery outlets popped up around Oregon.
In December 1982, Zorba the Buddha Rajneesh Restaurant and Nightclub opened in Portland, just blocks from the bakery. It served up disco music, live bands, vegetarian food, and drinks. The opening night party was hosted by Sheela and her husband Jay, and guests included an aide to the governor. According to the Rajneesh Times newspaper, within a month of opening, the club had “taken off as one of the city’s most popular entertainment spots,” packing in 250 people on the dance floor on a typical Friday night.
One month later, the Rajneeshees showed how truly serious they were about establishing a foothold in Portland, when they bought the Martha Washington Hotel for $1.4 million. It had 127 rooms, a beautiful lobby, a lounge, library, rec room, kitchen, and full dining facilities. The Rajneeshees’ main purpose for buying it was to accommodate sannyasins who were often in Portland on business, and also to provide a stop-over for people visiting Rajneeshpuram from overseas. By August 1983, the hotel’s operations expanded to include a bakery, coffee shop, medical clinic, and Mexican restaurant.
The Rajneeshees’ imagination stretched far beyond the borders of Oregon. There were Rajneesh Meditation Centers around the world — places where sannyasins who didn’t live at the ranch could gather and worship. But now Sheela ordered them to become profitable — and to send those profits to her. This demand came at a time that she really needed cash. Fast. Construction at the ranch was costing millions of dollars. So were Bhagwan’s Rolls Royces. Donations from wealthy sannyasins helped fund much of this, as did sales of Bhagwan’s books and tapes. And the First Annual World Festival had been a cash cow.
But it still wasn’t enough. Sheela and the other ranch officials turned to the international membership and started to put on the squeeze.
Rajneesh Meditation Centers had been popping up around the world since the early 70s, when Bhagwan sent forth some of his non-Indian disciples to spread his message and bring in new recruits. By 1980, the Rajneesh Foundation claimed 200 meditation centers in India, and 250 abroad. Throughout the 70s, most of these centers were independently-run, without centralized control from the ashram in Poona. But when Sheela took the reins of Bhagwan’s empire in the early 80s, that model changed.
When Bhagwan left for America in 1981, Sheela told the thousands of sannyasins left behind in Poona to go home and report to their local Rajneesh Meditation Center while waiting for the new commune to be established. She also told them to adopt something called “prosperity consciousness.” In practical terms, that meant shaving their beards, trimming their hair, putting on Western-style clothing, and getting jobs.
The next directive from Oregon to the satellite centers was to consolidate into larger centralized communes. This required many sannyasins to move to big cities and live communally with a bunch of strangers. Sheela’s spin on this was it allowed more synergy between the various centers. In reality, it allowed for easier control from Rajneeshpuram.
Next, as part of the commercialization of Rajneeshism, these new super-communes were encouraged to open businesses modeled after the successful Oregon enterprises. Zorba the Buddha Restaurants and discos appeared all over the globe, in places like Australia, Japan, and Europe. A chain of Hotel Rajneesh-es was planned for Europe, although it never got off the ground. There were also specialized businesses opened by Rajneeshees, like construction companies and computer-consulting firms. For all of these businesses, the expectation was that the sannyasins would send their profits to the ranch.
Sheela’s staff kept a close eye on what the foreign centers and businesses were up to. Sheela herself frequently traveled to Europe to ensure Rajneesh Meditation Centers were in compliance. If a center wasn’t toeing the line — like not sticking to the Oregon model, not sending enough sannyasins to the world festivals, not bringing in enough new members — its leader might be replaced by somebody selected by ranch officials. But at the same time, if a center was too successful, Sheela might consider it competition for Rajneeshpuram and shut it down.
Let’s look at an example.
The Sangam Rajneesh Sannyasin Ashram in Southern France was run by an American named Anand Pragett. After Poona was abandoned, it became very popular among Europeans who didn’t want to, or who weren’t invited to, live at Rajneeshpuram. The ashram started marketing itself aggressively in Europe, pitching itself as the new Poona. In other words, it was a relaxed, lush place without all the bizarre hierarchy and security controls you found in Oregon. They even served meat every now and then. Sannyasins at Rajneeshpuram were reported as saying, “That commune sounds like the way the new commune should be.”
This did not fly with Sheela. First, a ranch representative demanded that Pragett send more money than he already did to Rajneeshpuram. He refused. Then he was told that Bhagwan himself had ordered that the ashram be dissolved and that Pragett had to move to the ranch. Pragett said it didn’t feel right… although he knew that Bhagwan was a disruptor, and making drastic changes was just part of his game. Later that year, however, he had a private audience with Bhagwan in Oregon, who told him that he knew nothing about the order to dissolve the Sangam ashram.
When Pragett confronted Sheela’s lieutenants about this, they gave him an ultimatum: shut down the ashram, or hand us your mala necklace. In other words, he’d be excommunicated. He went back to France and shut down his very successful ashram.
And then he was excommunicated.
At the same time Rajneeshism was expanding its presence outside the ranch, it was also inviting non-sannyasins to visit in meaningful ways for the first time. Tourism had always been a thing there, with curious visitors eager to see what these red-wearing people were building out in the desert. Remember the city planner, the Harvard-educated Deva Wadud, describing this during a television program:
[Wadud Audio] “…the city’s going to become a major tourist center. We didn’t anticipate the amount of interest that we’ve had in the last year. But we have as many as 100 people a day visiting. And we feel like the destination resort possibilities for the city is very great. So we’re really looking to expand the economy instead of just centering it on agriculture…”
You may also remember that some Oregonians were angered by all this talk of tourism, on property that was supposed to be a simple communal farm:
[Paul Gearhardt Audio] “Well, lo and behold, now they want to have a multi-faceted urban center, of a city with a 500-unit hotel. That’s the size of the downtown Portland Hilton…”
Not only did the ranch offer a basic tour and shopping facilities for day tourists, but by 1983, it featured the Rajneesh Institute for Therapy, and the Rajneesh Institute for Meditation and Inner Growth. They started offering an introductory course, called “A Weekend Away from It All.” For just $75, you could spend three days, two nights, at the ranch, doing Dynamic Meditation in the morning, touring the facilities, learning Rajneeshee humming, singing, and dancing, witnessing Bhagwan drive by in one of his Rolls Royces, and watching a taped discourse. They later offered longer meditation courses, lasting from three days to three months. And, in an example of classic Rajneeshee trolling, they offered a deprogramming course for people who had been in cults.
The university’s course catalog, and its real estate, expanded throughout 1983. They built a sprawling campus they nicknamed Spacestation Rajneesh, because it was seven long buildings connected by a central network of corridors. This is where our three men who visited the ranch in July 1983 registered and received their tent assignment.
But coming to Rajneeshpuram as a visitor became much more challenging after the early hours of July 29, 1983. Coming up after the break, we’ll pick up the story of our ranch visitors, and see what happened that night after they left Rajneeshpuram. And then we’ll see how their actions set the commune on a downward spiral of paranoia and militarization.
Stick with us.
PART 2 - Room 405
He showed up after midnight, asking if they had any rooms available. To the night clerk at the Hotel Rajneesh in Portland, the man looked sort of sloppy: in his mid-30s with stubble across his face, wearing a wrinkled red T-shirt and blue jeans. He was carrying a single blue bag, like a gym bag. On the registry, he signed his name as Stephen Walker. The same phony name he had used at Rajneeshpuram the previous night.
After registering, the man said he had to grab something from his car, and he came back a few minutes later with a brown bag. He told the clerk, I’ll be leaving in a little bit to grab something to eat. Don’t mind me.
With that, he took his two bags and rode the elevator up to Room 405.
About half an hour later, the night clerk heard the blast.
He thought it came from outside, so he told another sannyasin to mind the desk while he ran out the front doors. Around the corner, he came across two young men standing near a mess of broken glass on the street and sidewalk.
The night clerk followed their gazes up. Smoke billowed out through shattered windows on the fourth floor… of the Hotel Rajneesh.
In Room 411, a hotel guest had been awakened by the sound. He heard somebody shouting, “Help, please help me!” In the hallway, he was overwhelmed by the smell of burning flesh. He and another guest found the room where the man was screaming. Together they kicked in the door. To their immediate left was a bathroom with the door blasted off its hinges. A man lay on the floor covered in blood. The room reeked like gunpowder and was filled with dark grey smoke. They each grabbed one side of the victim and hurried him out to the elevator and down to the lobby. Along the way, they noticed the man’s wounds. His left hand was attached only by skin. And his right hand was partially amputated. He had wounds all over his face and his chest, but everything below his torso seemed fine. His hair was melted and he had blood in his eye sockets.
In the lobby, they laid him down and covered his wounds with a sheet while they waited for the ambulance to arrive. The night clerk recognized him as the man with the two duffel bags, who had just checked in to Room 405. The man kept screaming, “Get me out of here! Get me out of this building!”
He didn’t tell anyone why he was so eager to be moved. He didn’t warn them about what was still to come.
Medical personnel arrived and transported the victim to the hospital. By that point, there were police officers, firefighters, guests, and hotel workers swarming the lobby. Many of them went up to the fourth floor to check out the damage to Room 405. The night clerk peered through the door and saw the guest’s brown bag sitting on the floor of his room. A police officer finally instructed everyone except emergency personnel to wait downstairs in the lobby. And then a detective sealed off the room and the hallway, even from emergency workers. There was no fire anymore, just the smoke which they were clearing out using fans. No need to have people traipsing in and out of the crime scene.
The three officers who remained on the fourth floor found a quiet spot around the corner to smoke and drink some coffee. And then, one hour after the explosion… there was another blast from Room 405.
And then another.
Agents from the Portland bomb squad and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms visited the victim at Emanuel Hospital shortly after he arrived. The man seemed rattled, but stable. He was having problems hearing their questions and asked them to speak slowly. He didn’t tell them much before he clammed up and demanded a lawyer. But he did tell them something interesting… he had been a guest at Rajneeshpuram for the past two days.
The officers seized his wallet at the hospital and found his California driver’s license.
Stephen Paul Paster.
Detectives interviewed anybody at the ranch who saw Paster and his two companions while they were guests there. In the midst of their investigation, they received an urgent call from the Rajneeshpuram chief of police. We know you’re investigating this guy, but could you ask him a simple question? Did he plant any bombs at our ranch while he was here? We’ve been searching and haven’t found anything, but… who knows?
The bomb squad detective returned to the hospital. Paster had invoked his right to an attorney, but the detective explained that human life was at stake. If you planted any bombs at the ranch, now is the time to tell me. We won’t charge you if you did, we just want to deactivate them.
Paster… agreed to cooperate. You have my word, he said. There’s nothing planted at the ranch.
Turns out… he was telling the truth.
The bomb squad combed through the remains of Room 405. Based on their reconstruction of events, Paster was carrying the three pipe bombs in his two duffel bags. Upon arriving in his room that night, he placed the first bomb underneath one of the beds, closest to the window. He surrounded it with a sludgy incendiary material, referred to as fire fudge. He placed the second bomb inside the closet, right next to the door. And then he placed the third bomb in the medicine cabinet in his bathroom.
Each bomb was filled with a low-explosive material, like black powder, and armed with a quartz timer. The bomb under the bed and the one in the closet were apparently set up the way Paster intended. But he was in the process of arming the third bomb when it blew up in his face. He hadn’t yet packed the fire fudge around it. When detectives examined the remains of Paster’s brown bag, it was covered with a paste that smelled of gasoline.
Police found the remains of the first pipe bomb — the one that had been placed under the bed — in Room 305, one story down. The bomb had blasted a hole in the floor. Fortunately, the entire third floor was vacant. It’s also fortunate that nobody was in Paster’s room when the second and third blasts occurred. The many people who walked in and around the area in the hour since the first blast had no idea the danger Paster had put them in.
The two men who accompanied Stephen Paul Paster to Rajneeshpuram were never found. Paster himself recovered, although his hands were permanently injured. State prosecutors charged him with three counts of first-degree arson. His wife flew up from California and posted his bond, just $2000. They disappeared before he stood trial. A year and a half later, they found him hiding in Colorado and extradited him back to Oregon. He said he fled the state because he and his wife were “constantly being followed by unidentified people” after he was released on bail.
Paster never spoke during his 1985 trial, where a jury convicted him, or at the sentencing hearing. The prosecutor didn’t offer a motive. He did note that Paster was a member of a violent fundamentalist Muslim sect, and that he was wanted for questioning on the bombing of a Hindu center in Seattle, which took place during the time he was a fugitive. At Paster’s apartment in Colorado, investigators found manuals for urban guerilla warfare and instructions and materials for making improvised explosive devices. They had found similar things at his Los Angeles apartment.
In Paster’s defense, a clinical psychologist testified that he had been raised in a traditional Jewish family, but he had a falling out with his stepfather, and he used religious violence to act out his anger. She also testified that Paster had read Bhagwan’s writings and was disgusted by the thought of free sex in the name of religion.
Paster ended up serving just four years out of his 20-year sentence. Intelligence officials report that he now lives in Pakistan where he’s suspected of providing explosives training to members of a radical Islamist group.
The hotel bombing on July 29, 1983, had a profound impact on Bhagwan’s community in Oregon. Sheela held it up as proof of the dangerous animosity that existed toward the Rajneeshees. They’d been receiving death threats in the mail, which led to an FBI investigation; politicians had been using hostile language in the media; locals had shot guns in their direction near the ranch and had flashed their guns at Sheela — but now these threats were having real consequences.
The front page of the Rajneesh Times called the bombing “the product of a pervasive atmosphere of prejudice that has been steadily increasing in Oregon and spreading out beyond the state’s borders.” They published a series of hostile statements made about them in the press. As Sheela and other Rajneeshee leaders framed it, the bombing wasn’t an isolated act of violence by one man — it was a symptom of all the anti-Rajneesh bigotry.
After the bombing, security at the ranch was drastically tightened. All visitors were now subjected to rigorous searches of their persons, their property, and their vehicles. They signed waivers agreeing that they could be searched at any time during their stay.
Additional guard posts were put up near downtown Rajneeshpuram and along the John Day River, to watch for trespassers. A new administrative center was created, the “security temple,” dedicated to protecting the commune and its members. And suddenly guns were everywhere at the ranch.
Before 1983, there had been just a couple guns on the property — a shotgun in Sheela’s house, and a concealed pistol that her husband Jay carried. Even before the hotel bombing, the Rajneeshpuram “peace force” had started to acquire a few more weapons, given the public and private threats they were receiving. But the hotel bombing escalated the growth of their arsenal. The peace force acquired Uzis, assault rifles, tear-gas grenades, and riot guns. They made at least three efforts to buy fully-automatic weapons, but the ATF stepped in and squashed the orders. There were as many as 150 volunteers in the commune’s security force, trained to fight to the death if needed.
In addition to all this general security, Sheela created a special unit to protect Bhagwan’s life. Originally called “the 24,” and then upped to the “38,” this group was made up of sannyasins who Sheela deemed the strongest, and most loyal, people at the ranch. In addition to advanced weapons training, they took turns manning a guard station behind Bhagwan’s house. They had instructions to shoot anything that approached — including government helicopters.
They also made changes to Bhagwan’s daily drive-by, when fawning sannyasins and perplexed tourists lined up along the private road in the center of Rajneeshpuram to greet him. In the first year or two, a security car followed Bhagwan’s Rolls Royce with a concealed rifle for protection. But as threats to the ranch escalated, Bhagwan reportedly instructed his security force to start visibly showing their weapons.
There’s an iconic photograph of Sheela marching alongside Bhagwan’s car at Rajneeshpuram, glaring through sunglasses directly into the camera. If looks could kill, we’d all be dead.
The Rajneeshees’ efforts to extend themselves into the community was a mixed bag. By making themselves more accessible to the public, they also created many more targets for people who intended to do them harm. All the hostility, the fear, the aggression that had been directed at those far-away Rajneeshees in eastern Oregon — could now be directed closer to home. Commune members already had a sense of paranoia about outsiders, and now Sheela used the hotel bombing and the general atmosphere of hostility to amplify that feeling: Fear others. Protect ourselves.
By extending themselves to outsiders, Bhagwan’s followers ended up closing themselves off even more.
So I want to end today’s episode by returning to the story of Stephen Paul Paster. We don’t know the entire thread that takes Paster from Los Angeles to Rajneeshpuram to Portland. From the investigative files that are available, we know that Paster purchased some of his bomb-making materials, like the quartz timers, in Los Angeles during the week before he left for Oregon. So he left California with at least the beginnings of his bombs, if not the completed specimens.
So why did he go to Rajneeshpuram for two days and not plant any bombs there? One possibility is that Paster and his companions showed up at the ranch empty-handed, with no bombs. Maybe they had heard about security at the ranch. Maybe they were just doing reconnaissance. Maybe they just wanted to know more about this organization that they already hated and planned to hurt?
The other possibility — which I think is the most likely — is that they arrived at the ranch carrying three pipe bombs. If you’re going to drive all the way up from Los Angeles to inflict harm on the Rajneeshees, to terrorize them, to disrupt their sense of security — why would you plan to bomb a hotel room hundreds of miles from their headquarters? Wouldn’t you want to strike them in their nerve center? Maybe lash out directly at Bhagwan or Sheela?
If that was their intent, the plan probably changed as soon as they were confronted with Rajneeshee security. You couldn’t just park outside your hotel room like at a normal place and throw your luggage in your room. First you were searched, and then you were separated from your vehicle. And everybody there was watching you, always. This is clear in the investigative report, where there are pages and pages of different sannyasins describing their observations of the three visitors.
If Paster did arrive with his bombs, I suspect he left them hidden in his car. It’s not clear from the reports whether his bags were searched in any detail, but he must have seen that risk coming. Also, witnesses who noticed them with their bags at the ranch didn’t say anything about the overwhelming smell of gasoline. Remember, the remnants of the brown bag reeked like incendiary material. I can’t imagine people wouldn’t have smelled that.
And recall that on their second day at Rajneeshpuram, the men asked how to get back to their car to get something they forgot. And they were told the only way they could do so would be if a security guard accompanied them.
Piecing this all together, I think the most likely scenario is that they arrived at the ranch planning to plant the bombs, but they were forced to leave them in the car and couldn’t surreptitiously retrieve them. They roamed all over the ranch that night, and the following day — perhaps looking for targets. Perhaps, looking for their car, which security had parked somewhere, but they didn’t know where.
And when they finally realized that planting bombs at Rajneeshpuram would be no easy feat — given the security, given all the eyes on them — they decided to go with another plan. The three men left the ranch by 6 pm that night, drove four hours to Portland, and deposited Stephen Paul Paster and his three pipe bombs at the Hotel Rajneesh after midnight.
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. The website has additional content for this episode that you might find interesting, including an alternative explanation for Stephen Paster’s activities.
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, Instagram, and Facebook.
See you next time.