The Largest Bioterror Attack in U.S. History Began at a Salsa Bar

By | April 7, 2017

One fateful day in September, 1984, a woman stood in front of the Taco Time salsa bar in The Dalles, Oregon, holding a small plastic bag filled with a brownish slurry. Quickly and furtively, she poured the liquid into the salsa bucket and squirted a bit into the salad dressing. The largest bioterrorist attack in American history had begun.

The origins of this attack go back to 1970, when Indian mystic Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, known as Osho, began a new spiritual movement in Mumbai. His teachings were an odd mix of meditation, capitalism, ethnic and dirty jokes, and open sexuality. People began calling him the "sex guru." By the early 1980s the movement had grown to tens of thousands, and about 30,000 people visit Osho's commune in India each year.

But pressures from Indian authorities were increasing, and Osho wanted to establish a utopia. With the help of Ma Anand Sheela, his right-hand woman, and her wealthy husband Marc Harris Silverman, the group acquired a 64,000-acre ranch in Oregon. They renamed it Rajneeshpuram and set about building their utopia.

Around 7,000 followers moved onto the ranch. They all wore red, worked on the farms and helped build their very own community. Over the years, Rajneeshpuram grew to include a fire department, restaurants, public transport system using buses, a sewage reclamation plant, and a 4,200-foot airstrip. It even had its own zip code: 97741.

Naturally, the influx of the red-wearing cultists made the locals nervous. Their uneasiness grew even more when the Rajneeshees set up a "Peace Force" that roamed around the commune carrying Uzis. The Peace Corps also drove a Jeep around town with a .30-calibre machine gun mounted on it. Fights began to break out between the Rajneeshees and locals. The Rajneeshees meanwhile began to slowly take over entire Oregon towns, including Antelope, Oregon, which they quickly renamed Rajneesh.

When the Rajneeshees were denied permits to build their city on a mountain, the tension between the locals and the Rajneeshees began to take form into something more sinister. The fight got very dirty indeed. The Rajneeshees, led by Ma Anand Sheela who called herself Queen and carried a 357 magnum, attempted to take over the Wasco county government. When their plan to gather and convince 2000 homeless people to vote the Rajneeshee members into state government positions failed, a new plan was hatched.

Over the course of two months, the Rajneeshees used salmonella to contaminate 10 salad bars in the area in an attempt to suppress the vote against them. Using a plastic bag filled with light brown liquid they nicknamed "salsa," they poured the salmonella-filled concoction directly into salad dressings, put it in water, splashed it on produce and generally got it everywhere they could. 751 people got sick, and 45 were hospitalized due to Salmonella poisoning. No one died, but had the group gone with their original plan of using Salmonella typhi, or typhoid fever, it would have resulted in numerous fatalities.

Despite causing widespread sickness, the plot didn't work. Locals suspected who was behind it all and turned out in force to vote against the Rajneeshee candidates. But at the time, there was no concrete evidence of deliberate poisoning. The contamination was originally blamed to poor worker hygiene.

It wasn't until one year later, when Rajneesh himself had fled the community and blamed Sheela and her "gang of fascists" for the salmonella attacks. What the police found in the commune was a full-fledged bioterrorism lab containing salmonella cultures and literature on the manufacture and usage of explosives and military biowarfare. Also found was one of the largest illegal wire-tapping operations and an assassination plan on the life of Charles Turner, then United States Attorney for the District of Oregon.

As Rajneesh, Ma Anand Sheela, and the various top members of the group fled the country, the Rajneeshpuram quickly collapsed. Ma Anand Sheela and her co-conspirators were eventually caught. Sheela was sentenced to 20 years in prison but released after just two years. She claims all her actions were under the command of Rajneesh. Rajneesh himself died in 1990 and claimed to his death that Sheela was behind it all. Sheela now lives in Switzerland and the Rajneeshee movement still exists today in small pockets around the world.

The attack on The Dalles Taco Time salsa bar and nine other restaurants remains the largest, and worst bioterrorism attack in the U.S.

H/T Slate