In early 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 light brown liquid.
This particular woman had brought some “salsa” of her own into the Taco Time. In a quick, furtive motion, she squirted the solution into the salsa bucket and poured a little into the salad dressing area. The largest bioterrorist attack in United States history had begun.
In 1970, Baghwan Shree Ranjnees, known as Osho, began a new spiritual movement in India. Rajneeshee’s teachings were an odd mix of capitalism, meditation, ethnic and dirty jokes, and open sexuality, earning him the title of “sex guru.” By the early 1980s, the movement had swelled to tens of thousands, with 30,000 people visiting Osho’s commune in India each year; however, pressures from Indian authorities were mounting, and Rajneeshee wanted to establish a utopia. With the help of his aid, Ma Anand Sheela, and her wealthy American husband, Marc Harris Silverman, the group purchased Big Muddy Ranch, a 64,000-acre property in Oregon. They renamed the ranch Rajneeshpuram and set about building their utopia.
Some 7000 followers moved onto the ranch. All of the followers wore red, worked on the communal farms, and helped build the community. The town grew to include a 4,200-foot airstrip, a fire department, restaurants, a public transport system using buses, and a sewage reclamation plant. Rajneeshpuram even had its own zip code: 97741.
The influx of the red clad cultists didn’t sit well with the local small town communities. It didn’t help that the Rajneeshees set up a “Peace Force” consisting of members who patrolled the commune carrying Uzi submachine guns and drove a Jeep with .30-calibre machine gun mounted on it into town. Fights began to break out between the Rajneeshees and locals on a regular basis. A local hunting magazine declared “an open season on the central eastern Rajneesh, known locally as the Red Rats or Red Vermin.” The Rajneeshees meanwhile began to take over entire Oregon towns, including Antelope, Oregon, where they overwhelmed the community board, outvoting them to rename the community Rajneesh.
With tensions high, the local governments fought back, denying the Rajneeshees permits to build their city on a mountain. This is where the fight got dirty. Led by Ma Anand Sheela, who called herself Queen and carried a .357 magnum, the Rajneeshees attempted to take over the Wasco county government by force. When busing in 2000 homeless people to help vote the Rajneeshee members into state government positions failed (the local government wouldn’t let the homeless vote), a new plan was hatched.
Over the course of two months, the group contaminated 10 salad bars in the area with salmonella poisoning in an attempt to suppress the local vote. Using a plastic bag filled with a brown liquid they nicknamed “salsa”, they poured the salmonella-filled slurry directly into salad dressings, splashed it on produce, put it in water (which they used to directly poison two Oregon officials), and generally got it everywhere they could. 751 people fell ill, and 45 were hospitalized with Salmonella poisoning, though no one was killed. Had the Rajneeshees gone with the original plan of using Salmonella Typhi, or typhoid fever, it would have resulted in numerous deaths.
Despite causing widespread sickness, the plot didn’t work. Locals suspected it was an attack of some sort and turned out in force to vote against the Rajneeshee candidates. However, the locals had no concrete proof, and for a year the poisoning plot went undiscovered.
Originally blamed on poor worker hygiene, it wasn’t until one year later that the plot was discovered. Osho himself fled the commune and blamed Sheela and her “gang of fascists” for the attacks. When the government investigated the commune, they found a full-fledged bioterrorism lab containing salmonella “bactrol disks”, as well as literature on the manufacture and usage of explosives and military biowarfare. Also discovered was one of the largest illegal wire-tapping operations ever found and an assassination plot on the life of Charles Turner, United States Attorney for the District of Oregon.
As Osho, Ma Anand Sheela, and the various top members fled the country, the Rajneeshpuram quickly collapsed. Ma Anand Sheela and her co-conspirators were eventually caught and sentenced. Sheela was sentenced to 20 years in prison, though she was released after just two years. She now lives in Switzerland and claims all her actions were at the behest of Osho. Osho himself died in 1990 and claimed to his death that Sheela was behind it all. 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 first, largest, and worst bioterrorism attack in the US.
Taco Time in The Dalles, Oregon, is still open. We suggest you skip the salsa bar.