Wild Wild Country, a docuseries from producers Mark and Jay Duplass, tells a story of a "New Age sex cult" that attempted to take over an Oregon town with poison, fire, and manipulation. (At least, according to one perspective on the community at the centre of this doc series.) The true story of the community of Rajneeshpuram is one little discussed in American history — but fascinating all the same.
This piece of American history actually begins in India. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh was an Indian guru who preached open sexuality. He spent the '70s recruiting followers, called "neo-sannyasins," into his spiritual teachings. In 1981, following conflict with the ruling party in India and traditional religious groups (and one assassination attempt by a Hindu fundamentalist), Rajneesh relocated to Oregon, where he planned to open his own commune with 2,000 of his followers. He named the 100-square-mile ranch, which was just outside the town of Antelope, Oregon, Rancho Rajneesh. Their commune was known as Rajneeshpuram — a supposedly "utopian" society.
Rajneesh's followers lived on the ranch and worked for free. They worshipped Rajneesh. They dressed in bright, orange-red robes. To say that they stood out amongst the conservative Oregonians was an understatement. However, the real problems arose when Rajneesh's second-in-command, Ma Anand Sheela, began to expand the ranch, despite Oregon laws that restricted what could be built — and how many could be housed — on the property.
An extensive 2011 article series from The Oregonian's Les Zaitz detailed the more destructive behaviours of the members of the commune. Per Zaitz' report, Sheela attempted to turn Rancho Rajneesh into its very own city, but was met with intense pushback from the local government, environmental group, and even citizens intolerant of this new organisation. In 1983, a hotel owned by the Rajneesh was bombed. Sheela and Rajneesh concluded that the only way to secure their new home's expansion, and the safety of their followers, was to control the government.
Though Sheela and Rajneesh were not always on the same page (he warned his followers that she was "jealous" and could hurt those close to him), she was given a great deal of power within the ranch.
A small group, headed by Sheela, went to poison grocery stores in The Dalles — a city with an open county seat — with salmonella in order to help sway a local election in the commune's favour. (The commune made their own food, thus would not be susceptible to the salmonella poisoning, which could keep residents of The Dalles from the voting booths.) Ultimately, the plan failed.
The group also bussed in homeless people from around the country, promising alcohol, food, and shelter, in order to rig local elections.
In a more aggressive measure, the group allegedly poisoned Wasco County commissioner Bill Hulse by offering him contaminated water on a hot day. He was taken to the hospital, where he stayed for four days. Afterwards, he publicly stated that the sannyasins poisoned him.
The sannyasins, on the orders of Sheela and Rajneesh, took the poisoning one step further by contaminating restaurants in The Dalles. Many fell ill. When the group was fined for illegally wiring tents in preparation for a festival, they poisoned city officials as well.
Sheela, meanwhile, became extra paranoid, and made sure that any members who protested her leadership choices were forced out of the ranch.
Those choices included burning down the office of Dan Durow, the Wasco County planner who halted the ranch's expansion, per Zaitz' Oregonian series. Ultimately, the office suffered only minor fire and water damage.
According to Zaitz' account, the last big move by Sheela and her small faction within Rajneeshpuram involved straight-up assassination plans. While multiple people were targeted outside of Rajneeshpuram, only Rajneesh's doctor, Swami Devaraj, came close to death. Sheela had told her followers that Devaraj was a threat to the guru, and thus must be killed. He nearly died after one of Sheela's followers injected him with a dose of adrenaline.
Not long after the attempted murder of Devaraj, Sheela quit her post at the ranch following pushback from the other sannyasins. It opened the floodgates for other members of the commune to come forward and admit their own criminal activities. Rajneesh told them to be honest with authorities. Rajneesh himself was eventually deported from the United States. He died in India in 1990. Sheela served prison time, then moved to Switzerland.
The gritty details, of course, are all available for viewing in Wild, Wild Country. It's certainly a tale that needs to be seen to be believed.