1 Years Later, Bitterness Endures At Rancho Rajneesh
Seattle Times Staff Reporter
TEN YEARS AGO THIS MONTH, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, self-made guru of enlightenment, sensuality and wealth, suddenly abandoned the isolated little hamlet of Antelope in north-central Oregon. Washed away by a sea of criminal investigations of murder plots, poisoning, wiretapping and arranged marriages, the guru and his rosy-garbed disciples left behind a 64,000-acre ranch with a dubious and disputed future, and a legacy of bitterness and suspicion.
ANTELOPE, Ore. - For the residents of this central Oregon valley, the memories are painful and powerful, even 10 years later. When Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh and his followers took over their little town, their school and, some say, their lives, it changed them forever.
In Antelope, a duck family waddles down the middle of the road without fear of traffic. In a town of 40-something, there isn't much. And there's even less on the twisting little road out to Rosemary McGreer's ranch along the John Day River, next to the former Rancho Rajneesh.
Looking out on a spread that's been in her husband's family for five generations, McGreer says she has lost her innocence about lawsuits and depositions and subpoenas - the weapons the Rajneeshees used against those who disagreed with them.
"When they first came, people out here were very trusting," she says. "You didn't worry about the legality of things - your word was your bond. What people learned was that life would never be that simple again."
McGreer and others also say they have a new-found distrust of the government which, at the time, they thought was slow, ineffective and frightened off by money and the Rajneeshees' claim to be a religious group.
"This was a terrible, terrible time," says McGreer. ". . . I will always be bitter about it, because so many people let so much happen that didn't need to happen."
The memories are so strong they have become visceral, almost a reflex. Like McGreer and many others, Frances Dickson says she still has an involuntary aversion to the red and maroon colors the Rajneesh disciples, known as sannyasins, used to wear. "It does something to my stomach," Dickson says.
These days, Rancho Rajneesh or Rajneeshpuram, as it was often called, has resumed its former name: Big Muddy Ranch. But Montana multimillionaire Dennis Washington, its current owner, who is trying to give the ranch to the state, has discovered that he bought more than just a piece of ground.
The suspicion of strangers lingers even though the guru is long gone. Convicted of immigration fraud and deported, he died in India in 1990. Some of his most prominent disciples, including Ma Anand Sheela, have been convicted of crimes ranging from wiretapping to immigration fraud to conspiracy to murder Charles Turner, then Oregon's U.S. attorney.
Back then, though, the Antelope residents didn't know anything about most of those crimes. They knew they were at war, they say, even though it seemed that the outside world considered them a bunch of rednecks who were persecuting a group of highly educated, articulate people who only wanted to follow their "new religious movement."
They remember how Rajneeshees armed with assault weapons monitored and patrolled their city 24 hours a day - for the townspeople's own protection, the Rajneeshees told them. Visitors' license plates were recorded and photos were taken of anyone coming or going. Those who opposed the Rajneeshees were sued - for everything from alleged civil-rights violations to slander.
By this time, the townspeople had noticed, there were thousands of "reds," and only a handful of them.
"It was like being surrounded," says Alice Hensley, who had come to Antelope to retire with her husband, who has since died. "I felt they were more to be feared than to be protected by."
At the base of the flagpole outside the Antelope Post Office, there is now a commemorative plaque that sums up some folks' feelings and hints at the bitterness between neighbors that took root in the dust of distrust left behind when the Rajneesh and his people left.
"Dedicated to those of this community who throughout the Rajneesh invasion and occupation of 1981-1985 remained, resisted, and remembered. . ." the plaque reads. At the bottom, a final word of wisdom from Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
Evil? Or was it just a colossal misunderstanding, or a clash of cultures?
Either way, it didn't start out so badly in the summer of 1981.
Sure, the Rajneesh people were a little strange-looking, wearing maroon and red and pink and sporting pictures of the Bhagwan hung from beaded necklaces they called malas. They had funny names, like Ma Anand this-and-that, or Swami So-and-So. But in other ways, they sounded a lot like other religious groups who fled persecution to establish their own utopias.
What they wanted, the Rajneeshees told the residents of their new community, was simply to be able to follow their religion, farm their ground and be good neighbors.
Then, to show they were not above a little drinking and dancing, the Rajneeshees threw a huge party at the Grange out beyond McGreer's ranch, with free beer and Chinese food for all.
Their neighbors came and drank and danced - and waited to see what the Rajneeshees did next. Some didn't like what they saw.
"If they'd come in and done exactly what they said they wanted to do, they'd probably still be there," says Jon Bowerman, who, with his wife Candy, runs a horse-training ranch across the John Day River from the Rajneeshees' former ranch.
He points to a hill across the river.
It was there that the Rajneeshees set up a spotlight so they could watch his house day and night, he says, so frightening his 2-year-old daughter it made him consider using violence to solve his problem. He decided against it.
For the people of Antelope, the first clue of trouble was early on, when Ma Anand Sheela brought a lawyer to a City Council meeting.
"I don't think we had ever had a lawyer at a council meeting before," says Margaret Hill, a former schoolteacher who had been mayor for six months when the Rajneeshees arrived.
Sitting in the tidy living room of her perfectly maintained yellow house nestled between the Catholic church and the community church, she explains how she quickly became a lightning rod.
Antelope wouldn't give the Rajneeshees the commercial permits they said they needed, and Oregon land-use laws seemed to preclude building a city in the midst of an arid high desert, which was zoned for agriculture. But the Rajneeshees were expecting 5,000 people or more and were getting desperate.
"They said they needed an incorporated town to carry on their business. That's when they started taking over the town," recalls Hill.
Eventually, enough Rajneeshees moved into town to vote themselves onto the City Council, and the town was theirs. They changed the name to the City of Rajneesh and took control of the curriculum at the town's only school. They would have taken control of the community church, since its deed was held by the city, but, as it turned out, an ancestor of the Episcopal bishop had helped start the church and the Episcopalians turned out to be too tough even for the Rajneeshees.
The town takeover was ugly. Hill remembers being called "stupid, ignorant, a hypocrite and a liar" by a top Rajneeshee.
"Before then, I was a pretty meek little gal," she says. "You either had to become rather strident or fade out of existence."
Nobody had ever called her those sorts of things. "Even if you know who's doing it, for someone to call you stupid and dishonest and a redneck doesn't do much for your self-esteem," says Hill, who first came to Antelope almost 30 years ago as a single mother with three children. A college graduate, she says she resented what she felt was the Rajneeshees' arrogant, "better-educated-than-thou" attitude.
But the ranchers and townspeople weren't angels, either.
Jon Bowerman tells about how some of them took to wearing imitation malas, pictures of an Oregon pioneer hung from a necklace of spent rifle shells. It was part of a spoof Bowerman invented called "the Church of the Descendants of Oregon Pioneers."
Others produced a "Wanted - Dead or Alive" poster with a picture of the Bhagwan, and someone pinned it up over the portrait of Bhagwan hanging from the Antelope schoolhouse.
If these were meant as pranks, the guru's gang didn't see them as lighthearted, despite Bhagwan's constant admonition that "life is a joke."
As alien and threatening as the townspeople and ranchers found the lawsuits and depositions, the urban refugee Rajneeshees found the "gun motif," so natural to these ranchers and farmers, to be equally hostile and frightening. Or at least they said so at the time.
Bad went to worse, and the lawsuits flew. The Rajneeshees had come supplied with what appeared to be endless legal expertise.
It seemed to Hill she couldn't turn around without being sued. And instead of the trips she and her husband had planned for their retirement, they found themselves spending most of their time in the courthouse and in depositions.
"What I resent the most is that they came and took five years out of our lives - at a time when we couldn't really spare five years," says Hill.
Some people left. The Dicksons, who had been living in a double-wide mobile home in town while he served as postmaster, retreated to their ranch outside Antelope. But they couldn't leave completely, says Bill Dickson, who now lives in Madras while his son manages the ranch.
"We couldn't afford to leave because everything we had in the world was in that community."
John Silvertooth, a lawyer who practices in Madras, went to Western Oregon for several years. "I picked up and got out," he recalls. "It got too weird. I thought they were after me - because they were."
Some people did sell and leave but, since the only buyers were the Rajneeshees, others viewed them as traitors. Now, that view has softened. "They'd come to retire," Hill says. "They hadn't come to fight a battle with a cult."
At one point, Antelope was down to only 17 people. But then, the commune began unraveling.
When the commune fell apart, the disciples blamed Sheela, saying she had acted on her own. But almost two dozen followers have been convicted of various crimes, both state and federal.
For the townspeople, it was a relief just to get their town back, although many say they should have seen a grief counselor or a psychiatrist.
And it seemed as if the Rajneeshees always had the last word - or maybe the last laugh.
At the final council meeting, when the Rajneeshees were giving the town back, a local stood up and demanded that they apologize to the people of the town for what they'd done.
But one of the Rajneeshees didn't see it that way, remembers McGreer.
"He said, `You still don't get it, even after all this time! It's just a joke. It's all just been a big joke.' "
In the end, it seemed that the Rajneeshees almost accomplished by leaving what they hadn't been able to do in staying, says Alice Hensley. Some Antelope residents felt they should disincorporate the town so such a takeover couldn't happen again. Others felt dissolving the town would mean the end of Antelope as a community. Harsh words were said; long friendships were damaged.
Now Washington, a Montana multimillionaire who bought the ranch in 1991 for $3.6 million, wants to give it to the state for a youth work camp and a state park. Washington, who made his money in construction, mining and dambuilding, is willing to throw in some work to get the buildings back in shape, says Mike Marsh, facilities administrator for the state.
But Marsh says he was surprised by the depth of the negative reactions and fears expressed by the neighbors, who testified in a number of public hearings.
Most of those nearby say they don't want the state to have the ranch. They say it's because the government has too much land, or that they think it'll be expensive to run, or that a youth facility will require housing for guards and workers that the area can't support, since water is scarce and the nearest grocery store is 35 miles away. They say the ranch has illegal buildings, and they don't think the state should be able to do what a private citizen can't. They say it shouldn't be taken off the tax rolls.
They talk about persistent rumors that there is poison buried there, although a state search found nothing. They worry that Washington will make some kind of deal with another guru, the woman they call Guru Ma or Elizabeth Claire Prophet, in Livingston, Mont., and that she'll be moving to the ranch. They whisper that Washington wants a huge tax write-off for donating the ranch.
Washington's spokesman, Russ Ritter, won't talk much about his boss's plans. But Washington's well-known "sharp pencil" may have missed calculating the effect of the ghosts that linger out there on the Big Muddy.
"We're not as friendly as we were before," says McGreer. "Dennis Washington found that out - that there's a bunch of sentiment that comes along with that ranch, and there always will be."
Where are the leaders of Rajneeshpuram now?
-- Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh: Deported after being convicted of immigration fraud. Changed his name to Osho before he died in 1990 of heart failure at his commune in Poona, India.
-- Ma Anand Sheela (Sheela Ambalal Patel): Served two years in federal prison for trying to kill two county officials, setting fire to a county office, arranging sham marriages, poisoning salad bars and creating a wiretapping system. Now a fugitive on charges of conspiracy to murder Charles Turner, then Oregon's U.S. attorney.
-- Ma Prem Savita (Sally-Anne Croft): One of those in charge of the commune's finances, she was sentenced earlier this month to a five-year prison term for conspiracy to murder Turner.
-- Ma Anand Su (Susan Hagan): One of the top leaders, she was also sentenced earlier this month to five years for conspiracy to murder Turner.
-- Ma Voga Vidya (Ann Phyllis McCarthy): The second president of the Rajneesh Neo-Sannyas International Commune (the ranch), she is now a fugitive on charges in the Turner conspiracy.
-- Swami Krishna Deva (David Knapp): The former mayor of the Rajneesh's city, he pleaded guilty and served as a government witness. He served two years in prison for racketeering and is now in hiding. "He's concerned for his safety," says Barry Sheldahl, an assistant U.S. attorney in Portland.
-- Swami Devaraj (George Alexander Stowell Wynne-Aubrey Meredith): Rajneesh's personal physician who almost died after a commune member attacked him with a poison syringe. As Swami Prem Amrito, he now heads Osho International in London.
-- Ma Yoga Vivek: Rajneesh's longtime companion, she returned to India with him and was found dead from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills in 1989.
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