Ma Anand Sheela exhorts a crowd of sannyasins at Rancho Rajneesh in the mid-1980s. She talked to film directors recently about those days. (Photo courtesy The Oregonian/OregonLive)
Hollywood came calling at my ranch last fall.
Chapman and Maclain Way found their way to my remote place from Los Angeles, determined to quiz me about one of the most amazing episodes in my long career – and in Oregon history.
In my guest cabin, the film directors set up lights, mounted their cameras, arranged the furniture and went at it, filming for more than two hours.
Tell us about this Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. What about Ma Ananda Sheela? The names were as familiar as looking at a high school yearbook during a reunion.
As a reporter for The Oregonian, I was part of a team that spent the better part of two years investigating this international outfit that had moved to Oregon in the mid-1980s.
The two brothers were at my ranch to probe those days, and now the result of their work is out. They are the directors of “Wild Wild Country,” a six-part documentary. The big release came last week, streaming on Netflix. The documentary has gotten attention from coast to coast, and has been reviewed by publications ranging from the Hollywood Reporter to The New York Times.
One reviewer called it an “invigorating historical documentary.” Another described the story as “flat-out crazy and fascinating.”
Friends alerted me pretty quick that I had made it into the documentary. I’ll find out soon when my personal copy of the documentary arrives from Los Angeles.
Curiosity, of course, will get me to sit still to watch six hours. The series, though, won’t produce any surprises for me. This is a story I know intimately.
I was an investigative reporter with The Oregonian at the time, partnered with the estimable Jim Long. We were assigned to dig into what was happening on the Big Muddy Ranch outside Madras. Scotta Callister, an editor then who later became my wife, joined the team.
We criss-crossed the country and the globe in our assignment. Rancho Rajneesh – the new name for the Big Muddy – had become a national and international media sensation – the guru who collected Rolls-Royces, doctors and lawyers who fled careers to plant vegetables and live in hues of red, a fortune in construction – buildings, dams, roads and more.
Who was Rajneesh? Where was the money coming from? What was happening among the sannyasins – the faithful followers – when the media shows ended?
Those who ran what can loosely be termed a commune were none too happy. The smiles from our early days with them, from the beaming Sheela to the overly polite Isabel, turned to scorn, harassment and worse.
By worse, I mean this bunch grew so concerned about our work they tried to infiltrate the newsroom. The goal was to destroy computer equipment and files we were using. Two followers dressed in the uniform of the company’s contract cleaners tried to sneak in, but a tough night supervisor caught them.
By worse, I mean they wire tapped our guest rooms when we stayed at the commune. By worse, I mean they targeted me for assassination. I was not their top target. Charles Turner, then U.S. Attorney for Oregon, was at the top. Dave Frohnmayer, then attorney general, was next in line. Then their sights were set on me, according to what insiders later said before a grand jury.
The whole operation collapsed before they could get away with any of that. They had already done plenty, including poisoning salad bars in The Dalles, and trying to murder the guru’s personal doctor.
The story was incredible and remains incredible. Back in 2011, I went to Switzerland to spend time with Sheela for a series 25 years after the sect’s collapse. She was polite, but she kept the truth locked away. We had a pleasant dinner, though.
For those of you who know little about this episode, I strongly recommend you catch the series. The Oregonian’s original series and my subsequent report in 2011 are available online as well. You will be astonished, I promise.
As for me, I’ll set up a few movie nights at home, grab the popcorn and give it a watch. Stay tuned, though. The whole story has yet to come out – not until I get my book done.
Les Zaitz: [email protected], 541-473-3377, @leszaitz
For the background:
The Oregonian's 20-part series: CLICK HERE
The Oregonian's 5-part series 25 years later: CLICK HERE